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Lion Profiles: Kimberly Marten

Meet Kimberly Marten. Originally from Minnesota, Professor Marten is currently an Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science at Barnard College whose research is currently focused on Russia. Besides being a Professor, Professor Marten is also the Director of the Program on U.S.-Russia Relations at the Harriman Institute at Columbia. In this position, she has the opportunity to “create and plan a new set of activities and opportunities that build on the Harriman Institute’s long tradition of being a premier locale for the study of Russia.” Interested to learn more about her, I sat down with her to learn a little bit about her background and ask for her perspective on current Russian affairs.

What do your current positions  entail?
We have a new Student Forum in the works, where any student in a degree-granting program (undergrad, masters/professional school, or Ph.D. level) with an interest in Russia can join a group that will meet regularly, choosing their own speakers to invite in with Harriman Institute support.  We also have a number of speaker series and conferences for a broader academic and professional audience underway. So far these include a speaker series on Russian business; a speaker series on the situation in Russian regions outside of Moscow; and a November conference with historians and political scientists from the U.S. and Russia, on detente and its collapse in the 1970s and whether it has any significance for understanding today’s situation. We are also starting to think about a February policy conference on U.S.-Russian relations in the Arctic.

Most of our events in this Program are not open to the public, but anyone who has deep interest or expertise in Russia is welcome to send me an email describing their interests and background, and request to be added to our mailing list.

What made you decide to go into Political Science, specifically the study of Soviet politics and foreign relations?
I got interested in the Soviet Union when I was about 10 years old, because my dad (who is a retired agronomist and research leader with the U.S. Department of Agriculture) presented a scientific paper at a major international conference in Moscow.  Afterwards he took a conference-related bus tour around agricultural areas in Georgia, Armenia and the North Caucasus. He came back with fabulous stories and photographs, and I wanted to go!  I finally got to Moscow for the first of many times when I was a Ph.D. candidate in 1989, and to Georgia when I was a professor here at Barnard in 2009–but I have never been to Armenia or the North Caucasus. (I have traveled and done research in some other post-Soviet countries, though, including Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.)

I got interested in the world of politics and policy because I joined the debate and speech teams in high school, and discovered that I loved doing research and building arguments about current events.  When I got to graduate school at Stanford in 1985, I realized that political science wasn’t really about current events, but instead about trying to explain patterns of human political behavior. I like trying to solve those puzzles, especially as they relate to concerns about international security.  That’s what I’ve been doing ever since–not just in regard to Russia and the post-Soviet space, but in research I’ve done all over the world, including Afghanistan, Australia, Canada, Israel and Palestine, Japan, Kosovo, NATO headquarters in Belgium, and South Korea, in addition to Washington.

What would you say to the critics of international relations and political science as a major/career choice?
I can’t imagine why anyone would criticize either the major or career, so the question doesn’t make much sense to me! But I would say that the political science major helps hone your critical reasoning, research, analysis, and writing skills. Those are skills you can use in a wide variety of career paths, including the obvious ones like journalism, law, government service, think tank analysis, and work for international humanitarian and advocacy NGOs–and also in ones that people don’t always think about, like political risk analysis for insurance and investment companies.

I see that you have spent a good majority of your career here, why did you decide to teach/research at Barnard and Columbia?
My base is actually Barnard College! The reason I love Barnard is that my Barnard AND Columbia students are terrific, my Barnard AND Columbia colleagues are fabulous, the research-related resources here are incredibly rich, and New York is a wonderful place to live. One special benefit of living in New York is my ability to participate in the events and work of the Council on Foreign Relations.

For your undergraduate honors theses at Harvard you researched the Soviet reaction to the Iranian Revolution. This seems all the more important in current day. Is there any link between the Soviet position towards the Iranian revolution and Russian-Iranian relations on the wake of the Iran deal?
An awful lot has changed. The Soviet reaction to Iran was heavily influenced by Communist ideology, and the current Russian regime has no ideology. The current regime is much more focused on the economic benefits that accrue to President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle of cronies–people from his days in the KGB and St. Petersburg–whom he has placed at the top of state-supported conglomerates, including in defense industry and civilian nuclear power plant design and construction.  What has not changed is Russia’s geographical location and sense that the West is its competitor for influence in the region.

I would also ask, as director of the U.S.-Russia relations program in the Harriman Institute, How would an American rejection of the Iran deal affect U.S.-Russian relations?

The U.S. and Russia have had a remarkable ability to cooperate in putting together this deal. It looks like it’s going to be approved by the U.S. Senate, so this is likely to go down in history as a major accomplishment of U.S.-Russia relations in a very tense era.Other than for economic reasons, why would it be beneficial for Russia to support the Iran deal. Is it because of domestic benefits or to signal its place in the international community?
Russia will actually face growing Western competition for economic influence in Iran if Western sanctions against Iran are lifted, and Putin has shown that he doesn’t give a hoot about sanctions anyway, so I don’t think Russian support for the deal is due to domestic economic considerations.The reason there has been such cooperation against Iran violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is that Russia has absolutely no interest in having Iran develop nuclear weapons–or in having Iran’s Middle Eastern competitors like Saudi Arabia decide to develop them in response to what Iran does.  Russia is in Iran’s backyard, with a restive Islamic population in the North Caucasus and in some of its Central Asian neighbors. And it isn’t just in Iran that Russia has consistently stood against nuclear proliferation; there has also been a lot of cooperation on that issue in regard to North Korea.
Have a recommendation for who we should interview next? Send all tips to submissions@columbialion.com
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