Open Letter in Support of Free Inquiry and Discussion - War on the Rocks

We, the undersigned, watched with worry the recent flurry of media and social-media speculation about a possible appointment to the National Security Council. This concerned Matthew Rojansky, the Director of the Woodrow Wilson’s Kennan Institute, a leading national center dedicated to the study of Russia and Eurasia. The personal attacks on Mr. Rojansky were intended simultaneously to damage Mr. Rojansky’s reputation and to shut down policy debate. We see all of this as very dangerous.

The media coverage and the social-media activity on this topic failed to meet the criteria of real journalism and of reasoned public debate. Baseless accusations were levied, some outlandish (of Mr. Rojansky as a “Kremlin asset”) and some deceptively moderate, the claim, for example, that Mr. Rojansky is “controversial,” as if his analyses and opinions are commonly considered beyond the pale. This is not the case. Mr. Rojansky is a respected member of the expert community in Washington, D.C. His ideas are well within the scope of serious debate about U.S. Russia policy. Those who should know better have unjustly sullied Mr. Rojansky’s reputation.

The attacks on Mr. Rojansky suggested that his views are unacceptable and therefore that they should bar him from government service, suggestions that are as untrue as they are injurious. Scholars, experts, and policymakers must carefully assimilate new evidence and regularly challenge old assumptions: the only guarantee of doing so is a range of perspectives expressed through vigorous debate. At issue is not just the intellectual health of a given expert community. At issue is nothing less than the process by which U.S. policy is made, and to succeed the process must be open. Many of the greatest disasters in the history of American foreign policy followed from the stovepiping of information or from the silencing or sidelining of one or another school of expert opinion. The histories of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars stand as cautionary examples.

The Biden administration is navigating an exceptionally complicated period of conflict and engagement with Russia. It deserves access to an expert community dedicated to the ideal of free inquiry and discussion and not to social-media insinuation, smear campaigns, and ad hominem invective. The experience of these past weeks shows that this ideal cannot be taken for granted. We the undersigned wish with this letter to defend the ideal of free inquiry and discussion. We encourage others as well to defend and uphold it. The consequences of doing otherwise will be dire for experts and non-experts alike.

Source: War on the rocks, 12 May 2021