So I was at World Russia Forum 2018 today:
International Center for Public Diplomacy presents
“Towards US – Russia Rapprochement”
Discussion of the Trump – Putin Helsinki summit results and of the role of pubic diplomacy in improving US – Russia relations.
July 18, 2018; 6.00 PM; Golden Ring Hotel, Smolenskaya 5
Helsinki Summit Results Panel
Mikhail Strikhanov – President, National Research Nuclear University
Valery Garbuzov – Director, Institute of USA and Canada. Russian Academy of Sciences
Petr Fedorov – Head, Department of International Relations, VGTRK
Andrei Shitov – International Correspondent, TASS
Public diplomacy panel
Thomas Leary, Minister Counsellor Public Affairs, US Embassy in Moscow
Alexander Burganov – Burganov Museum
Sergei Afanasiev – US – Russia Friendship Society
Mikhail Neborsky – International Union of Russian Compatriots
Edward Lozansky – Moderator
I was a panelist at WRF 2012 and WRF 2013 in Washington D.C. It is a semi-annual event, alternately hosted in Washington D.C. and Moscow, meant to bring together Russian and American experts, academics, journalists, and policy-makers in an effort to improve relations between these two nations. It is organized by Eduard Lozansky, a Soviet dissident who emigrated from the USSR and became well-off in the US through his Russia House restaurant in Washington D.C. (incidentally, feel free to visit it if you’re in the area; it is a genuinely good and authentic upper-tier Russian restaurant, if somewhat pricey; and no, I have not been paid for this endorsement).
I won’t sugarcoat the truth… with all due respect to Lozansky, whose mission I very much respect and sympathize with, it struck me as sort of pointless. The highlight involved a statue commemorating the famous meeting on the Elbe in April 25, 1945 between American GIs and Red Army soldiers. Awesome, but ancient history, these days. Pretty irrelevant. One of the Russian speakers shared his Cold War anecdotes, another talked about scientific meetings between Russian and American nuclear researchers, another waxed lyrical about UNESCO events where Russians and Americans both happened to be involved. Everyone mouthed off nice platitudes about the necessity of student exchanges, person to person contacts, soft power, and all that jazz. Which is all very nice to be sure, but a marked decline from the far more concrete discussions on media strategy and effective lobbying that dominated 2013. In the event, none of the plans and suggestions from that period ended up getting realized. We Russians are just not that good at lobbying, even when we have a rich, high verbal IQ Jew like Lozansky leading the effort. But at least the WRF 2012 and WRF 2013 involved something relevant.
Of course, the real problem in this age of Russiagate and weaponized FARA was encapsulated by one of the distinguished guests at this forum: Thomas Leary, the Consul General at the US Embassy in Moscow.
In his speech, which was delivered in English, he complained about how work for him had gotten much harder because Russia shut down a bunch of US Consulates. Who initiated this severing of diplomatic ties was left unsaid. In response to some Russian journalists – not from state media such as RT or Sputnik, though this shouldn’t matter – complaining about how the US made it hard for them to work there, he dismissed them by saying that American journalists faced great challenges in Russia as well. (Isn’t this what the Blue Checkmarks call “whataboutism”?). In general, he disagreed with all of the Russian gripes about US conduct, such as the expansion of NATO – the only overlap with the Russians’ positions was that he agreed there should be more person to person ties and public diplomacy.
Problem? Well, that’s sort of ruled out in the present environment. No sane American politician would talk with a representative of Russia these days. And if you do it under the radar, you end up like Maria Butina: A proponent of American values such as free speech and the 2nd Amendment, who has just been arrested and faces up to 5 years in prison for practicing said “person-to-person” contacts. This is the question that I directed to the American diplomat: Given that practicing “public diplomacy” now carries the very real risk of imprisonment and jail, at least for Russians in the US, how exactly does he expect for it to work?
Leary replied that he does not comment on current criminal cases, but did emphasize that Russians should follow American laws when they are in the United States.
Perfectly “officialese” answer. Very understandable. He was, after all, probably the only person getting paid for his responses in that room.
Another Russian attendee asking him about his thoughts about setting up a commission to protect journalists’ rights in Russia and the US was the trigger that prompted him to say he had to leave.
I suppose this was discouraging and encouraging at the same time. Discouraging in the sense that for all intents and purposes, Russians and Americans live in two totally different worlds. Apart from the emptiest of platitudes, the Russians and the American were just talking past each other. Discouraging also in the sense that Trumpism is still a very much delineated phenomenon, that hasn’t even worked its way down to the diplomatic corps, who are supposed to be a direct extension of the executive branch. But also encouraging in the sense that Russian opinion was pretty much united on this matter. Even though the people at this event were primarily moderate liberals, the questions to Leary were polite but critical, and my own question seemed to be well received.
Ultimately, as I pointed out in 2013 – well before the complete breakdown of US-Russia relations – this is a values chasm that cannot be bridged anytime soon. Public diplomacy in particular is a waste of time. I was skeptical about its potential impact even back then, and considering the fate of people who courageously begged to differ – George Papadopoulos and Maria Butina immediately come to mind – I am retrospectively glad not to have stepped into that snakepit.
Ultimately, it is the United States that needs Russia, not the other way round. Russia does not have the demographic or economic strength to be a 21st century global superpower in its own right; it foreclosed on that future in 1917. So the only choice it faces is whom to sidle up to: The US, or China. Given America’s “agreement-incapability” (недоговороспособность), fully evidenced and embodied in the haughty and maximalist attitudes of its diplomatic staff, China has as good as won this struggle “by default.” I do realize that it is ironic in the extreme that a hardcore anti-Bolshevik and fan of American institutions such as free speech and gun rights such as myself would favor a Communist power over the (self-proclaimed) “shining city upon a hill”, but then again, politics and history is chock full of ironies. And I think I’m hardly atypical amongst Russians on this point.