Beyond Trump & Putin: Increasing Exchanges Between the American and Russian People

Dr Thomas Garza, Associate Professor of Slavic & Eurasian Studies at University of Texas, wrote an excellent op-ed in The Hill about the Helsinki summit, in which he advocated an increase in exchange diplomacy between the two countries.

He pointed to key events in the history of US-Soviet/Russian relations, emphasising that even in the tensest moments of the Cold War, there was an emphasis on bilateral talks and keeping a conversation going, including between the American and Russian people.

He explained that the summit between Trump and Putin was “a staged opportunity to provide the optics of stronger relations between the two countries without providing any of the necessary substance. The absence of immediate records of the substance of the talks and, consequently, of any evidence of progress in forwarding a new era of bilateral exchange and collaboration, leaves one wanting some tangible results that relations between the two countries – not just between the two presidents – were stronger.”

Dr Garza recommended a renewal of the type of exchange diplomacy that was used towards the end of the Cold War, and in its aftermath, to create a transparent, open relationship between the people of each country. “Moving forward, we would all benefit from a return to a more citizen-to-citizen oriented diplomacy much like that of the Gorbachev era that increased contact between our countries, not only in a summit setting, but also in bilateral exchanges and initiatives.”

Would it help? Can we treat Trump and Putin as a sideshow and get on with the important work of improving relations at the micro-level of citizen-to-citizen exchanges? Is it really possible to conduct transparent, bilateral talks while there’s so much confusion, chaos, distrust, etc. going on? I suppose that’s what they managed to do during the Cold War, though. Soviet-American cultural exchanges increased during the detente period, with thousands of students, scholars, leaders, musicians and other artists travelling in both directions. Ordinary citizens could interact with other ordinary citizens, see everyday life first hand–or experience foreign cultures without leaving home. Russians could see Duke Ellington perform in Moscow, and Americans could see the Bolshoi Ballet in New York.

While I accept the argument that exchange diplomacy worked well during the Cold War, I’m slightly more skeptical of its possibilities in today’s context. I don’t think the current problems between the US and Russia can be repaired through more contact between the American and Russian people. I have the impression that we don’t really have a problem with each other–I think it’s more about concrete actions than mutual understanding. The Americans are critical of human rights violations, journalists ‘disappearing’, the invasion of neighboring countries, etc. Trump supporters have adopted his vague language of it being “a good thing” to get along with Russia, because they don’t know/don’t care about these issues. And we don’t know for sure why Trump insists on criticising America’s European allies while praising Putin, Kim Jong-Un, etc. but hopefully we’ll know more about his motivations before the midterms in November. (Press on, Robert Mueller!)

For more on US-Soviet exchanges during the Cold War, see Yale Richmond’s 2003 book Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain. Like many authors who’ve written about US State Department exchanges, Richmond offers an insider’s perspective, as he was Director of Soviet & East European exchanges in the department’s Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs during the 1970s. The book is fascinating, filled with great anecdotes of lives changed and perspectives altered through exchange diplomacy. It’s somewhat overly positive–a good example of what Ludovic Tournes and Giles Scott-Smith recently described as a “hagiographic” tendency in the literature on exchanges–but certainly offers a compelling account of activities between the two key players in this vitally important period of exchange diplomacy history.

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