Introduced: Fiona Hill

March 2023

Fiona Hill is a senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the foreign policy program at Brookings. She has researched and published extensively on issues related to Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, regional conflicts, energy, and strategic issues.

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What do you work on as a Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy?

I will continue my comparative work on the decline of large-scale heavy manufacturing industry in the US and Europe at the end of the 20th century, and the role deindustrialization has played in fueling populist politics in the 2000s. My goal is to explore different redevelopment efforts, assess their impacts on reducing political polarization, and determine what lessons can be applied during this current period of rapid technological and demographic change, socio-economic transition, and mounting climate crisis.

Overcoming the effects of deindustrialization and political polarization are the central themes of my recent book, There’s Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century, which will be released in paperback on May 16, 2023. In the book, I examined the causes and confluence of democratic crises in the US, the UK, and Russia. I had initially hoped to come to Berlin before I wrote the book to look at the same set of issues from the German vantage point but had to postpone because of the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions.

In the book, I trace linkages in the UK and the US between political fragmentation — including loss of public trust in government, national, and civic institutions — and geographic polarization. The book highlights the stark contrasts that developed in both the UK and the US over several decades between hubs of innovation and economic prosperity, and “forgotten” or “left-behind places” blighted by postindustrial decline. In the case of Russia, I reflect on how industrial collapse and economic crisis weakened the country’s reform efforts in the 1980s and 1990s. As a cautionary tale of how deindustrialization can fuel not only populism but eventually authoritarianism, I discuss how Russian president Vladimir Putin played on individual and national grievances to roll back Russia’s democratic gains after he came to power in 1999/2000.

What are the most relevant issues in your field?

The most significant change in my overall field is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The invasion demonstrates how fast domestic and global events can deteriorate; and it has overturned all prior assumptions about Russia’s long-term trajectory, European security, and consequently the longer-term development of both the US and Europe. The costs of the war and the prospects for Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction and European integration are now major preoccupations, overshadowing Western debates about domestic inequality.

Over the past year, Russia has deliberately targeted Ukraine’s civilian and commercial infrastructure, as well as its agricultural and industrial sectors for destruction. US and European support for Ukraine’s efforts to repulse Russia on the battlefield has depleted military stockpiles and sent planners scrambling to devise new strategies and boost spending. The war in Ukraine has put US, UK, and European initiatives to create opportunity in “forgotten places” at risk. Western sanctions, Russian blockades, and other consequences of the war have exacerbated pandemic-related supply and economic disruptions. Rising heating, electricity, fuel, and food prices across Europe have hurt the most vulnerable populations and heightened political grievances. All of this raises the stakes for finding creative solutions for the US and Europe’s ongoing socio-economic dilemmas ahead of the monumental challenges that Ukraine’s reconstruction will bring.

When it comes to socio-economic and spatial inequality, and the rise of populist politics, how will these developments shape societies and what are possible solutions?

Parts of the UK and the US face their own reconstruction challenge. Thanks to rapid deindustrialization, poor-quality education, and other indices of poverty and inequality, regions of both countries are in the same need of regeneration and redevelopment as low- and middle-income countries were in the former Easteren bloc at the end of the Cold War. It will take time — certainly a generation or more — to achieve measurable outcomes and have a notable impact on reducing political polarization through expanding opportunity.

On the national level, this will require a major policy effort to create comprehensive antipoverty, education reform, and place-based regeneration and jobs-creation programs. But, as I describe in the book, opportunity — in the form of access to education and employment, and thus socio-economic mobility — can be blocked by personal circumstances as well as structural barriers.  The national or federal government, states or regions, local communities, schools, colleges, companies, skills training schemes, families, and personal and professional networks all form the infrastructure of opportunity. When inequality increases, it is because parts of this infrastructure have eroded or even failed.

In the final sections of the book, I examined how individual, group, grassroots, philanthropic, and private-sector actions could play a role in the UK and US in facilitating socio-economic mobility and putting left behind communities on a new path alongside top-down government interventions and large-scale transfers of funds. I would now like to look at how these actors work alongside and in conjunction with the regional and federal governments in Germany and how they shape socio-economic outcomes.

What insights for your work are you expecting to gain during your fellowship?

In Berlin, I am looking for additional points of comparison with the UK and the US as well as practical approaches for restoring the infrastructure of opportunity for individuals and regions. Germany is a frequent reference point for the US and UK because of its industrial history, federal structure, emphasis on regional and local development, and long tradition of expanding access to education in all forms—including high quality vocational and apprenticeship programs. Of course, Germany’s experience of re-integration after 1990 is also particularly relevant given the monumental effort to redevelop the regions of the former East Germany, and the upsurge of populist politics in the past decade. I would specifically like to assess the range of German policies over past decades and their outcomes.

Since I completed the book in 2021/2022, the US — under the Biden administration’s rubric of “Build Back Better” — has introduced a series of legislative acts to augment the American welfare system and reduce spatial inequality. The American Rescue Plan Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act represent the largest infusion of US federal funding for redevelopment in American history. They are specifically designed to benefit America’s most disadvantaged, marginalized, and politically polarized communities, including by providing funding for rebuilding transportation routes, expanding high speed internet access, and promoting the development of new “green” technologies and industries in old manufacturing areas. Similarly, in 2022, the UK government produced a “Levelling Up White Paper”— the first comprehensive analysis of the country’s socio-economic and geographic divides, which frames an ambitious ten-year plan to boost investment and employment outside London and the south of England.

I am particularly interested in seeing how the UK’s effort compares to Germany’s in former East Germany and the Ruhr region. My home region of County Durham, which was once one of the world’s most important centers for coal mining, has longstanding ties with the Ruhr, but the latter began its diversification away from coal and its industrial transformation decades ago. In contrast, County Durham and the North East of England lag far behind the rest of England economically. The UK Levelling Up report acknowledges this and, in addition to proposing the improvement of public infrastructure, it emphasizes the importance of enhancing high-quality skills training along the lines of Germany. The UK report further highlights the importance of improving people’s perceptions of wellbeing, lifting their sense of “pride in place” and increasing local community satisfaction, which has been a feature of German local development projects in the Ruhr. I am hoping that Germany’s policies in the Ruhr and elsewhere will hold other ideas and lessons for the UK as well as the US.

What makes Berlin and Germany relevant for your work?

Berlin’s Cold War history as both an “island” cut off from the West and a divided city is especially important for my work. In many respects Berlin was the ultimate “left behind place” for 40 years. The Cold War experience distorted the city’s economy and its politics, people and businesses fled, and the West German political capital was established in Bonn rather than in the western half of Berlin. The West German government heavily subsidized the western half of the city to keep it afloat, while the eastern half of the city was absorbed into East Germany’s planned economy and retained as the capital city.  Berlin offers a microcosm of the colossal task of reintegrating East and West, overcoming economic and political distortions, and knitting Germany back together as a society after fall of the wall in 1989. We now have more than 30 years of data and analysis on what has worked in terms of reintegration and redevelopment – and what has not. Given the trajectory of the war in Ukraine and the threat of territorial division if Russia succeeds in consolidating its grip on the Ukrainian territories it has illegally annexed, there may also be lessons from Berlin for the future recovery and reconstruction of Ukraine.

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