Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Overcoming Cold War Stereotypes"

The Initiative for Russian Culture (IRC) at American University, held a very interesting event on Saturday, April 28: a symposium on "Overcoming Cold War Stereotypes". Given my interest in the subject and the impressive line-up of speakers, it was an event not to be missed.

The title already speaks for itself, but here are some of my observations and thoughts on what was said during the symposium (I really hope that the proceedings will be put online for further access).

Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak delivered the opening remarks, focusing on the transforming relationship between Russia and the U.S., the "Reset" and the much-praised U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission.  Although, he said, the relations are indeed improving and warming up, the negative media coverage of Russia in the West still persists, primarily due to negative stereotypes. To quote him directly: "Good news about Russia doesn't sell." So, there is a bigger problem.

The first panel - "Overcoming Cold War Mentality" - comprised well-seasoned Cold Warriors and analysts, including Jack Matlock (1987-1991 Ambassador to the Soviet Union), SIS Dean Dr. James Goldgeier, Director of the Department of European Cooperation at the Russian MFA Ivan Soltanovsky, and Kent Logsdon, the Director of the Office of Russian Affairs at the State Department.

Highlights: They all lamented the persistence of negative stereotypes, suggested reasons for it, as well as welcomed the new, and not so new, approaches and attempts at overcoming them. Ambassador Matlock encouraged a better understanding of the Soviet history and clarification of "misconceptions" regarding the end of the Cold War. He suggested that the U.S. did not "win the Cold War", as is usually said on this side of the Atlantic, but that the Soviet Union broke up because of the built-in pressures and contradictions within its own system. Soltanovsky gave a speech on the lack of trust and suspicions on both sides, focusing particularly on NATO and its negative perception in Russia. Dr. Goldgeier did not shy away from bringing up the issue of Russian leadership and the election-related protests, expressing hope that the historical legacy of the Cold War will soon be overcome in every sense. Logsdon closed the panel with quite an impressive set of statistics, various opinion polls and engagement initiatives, focusing on what he called the "people-to-people front" and painting perhaps an over-enthusiastic picture of the state of affairs in this regard.

The Q&A was very telling in itself. Firstly, Ambassador Kislyak asked to respond to some of the issues that were brought up during the panel, providing a long policy statement on Russian Federation's view of NATO (please note: very interesting contrast to Logsdon's presentation). Taking up most of the discussion time, however, the Ambassador effectively undermined the principle of "exchange", which he, himself, had praised earlier.

Another thing that struck me was the complete absence of the term "public diplomacy" from the entire first half of the symposium. When I got the chance to ask about it, I was hoping to hear more about actual policies and "public diplomacy of deed". The response was certainly "diplomatic" (to put it mildly), with a complete re-interpretation of the original question. Oh well...

The second panel - "Beyond Cold War Stereotypes" - featured young renowned experts on Russia and Russian-American relationship, including Anton Fedyashin (professor at the American University and Executive Director of the IRC), Andrei Sushentsov from MGIMO, Jeff Mankoff from CSIS and Carnegie's Matt Rojansky.

Dr. Fedyashin presenting on Samantha Smith and her trip to the USSR.

Highlights: Dr. Fedyashin opened the panel briefly recounting the Samantha Smith story, noting its importance in increasing curiosity about "the other" and opening up the public on both sides to greater communication and links (which, he said, would be important now, too). Dr. Sushentsov presented some of his research on the Russians' attitudes towards America, suggesting that while the Russians generally respect and recognize the U.S. as a major power, their attitude is overshadowed by doubts and distrust. Dr. Mankoff discussed some of the stereotypes, especially as seen on Hollywood, explaining that while the specific stereotypes and their nature has changed, they are still there. He said that Hollywood is not to blame for it, since it is a mere reflection of existing attitudes. He suggested that it is a broader American issue (regarding foreign languages, cultures, and people in general) and a function of Russia's declining salience in U.S. foreign policy. Mankoff called for more educational/exchange programs and cultural diplomacy - especially by non-governmental actors - suggesting that culture can be a particularly good way to get Americans interested in Russia. And Dr. Rojansky closed the session, suggesting that the best way to overcome the hardships in the relationship is through closer economic cooperation and better institutionalization of the connections and improvements already achieved. He suggested that the Americans "rethink [their] approach on values", calling on the American government to reconsider investing in democracy-promotion and broadcasting programs aimed at changing Russians' behavior. Nevertheless, he seemed to share the outrage over RT's (Russia Today) attempts to do the same (in their own way), implying that such an approach by Russians doesn't help much either.

The SIS Atrium, transformed..

The event was followed by a lavish and beautifully set up reception at the SIS (School of International Affairs) Atrium. The reception celebrated the appointment of an endowed chair in Russian history and culture at the College of Arts and Sciences at AU and the donation of the Richard Stites Library to the IRC. It also marked the end of the first year of IRC, which involved a grand opening ceremony at the Library of Congress last October and a series of movie screenings at the Embassy. They promised many more of those next year, so if you're in the area and are interested, stay tuned.

Ambassador Kislyak giving his remarks at the reception.

Overall, I think it was a very interesting and certainly useful event. I, personally, am very happy to see the issue discussed at such a level by practitioners and academics alike. The IRC itself is an impressive initiative, co-founded by AU and the Russian Embassy, in an attempt to engage all students in the greater DC area (finally!), and seems to be very promising after a successful first year (yes, apparently you can easily get in to the Embassy, now). But, what of other public diplomacy issues, such as RT and popular culture? Or, what about an even broader and much more important question of public diplomacy of the deed?

Looking forward to the next symposium...


  1. Had I been in the area, I would have definitely attended the event. Thanks for summing up the presentations. I, too, hope they will post the proceedings online. Obviously, stereotypes on both sides are counterproductive. While rooted (probably) in the Cold War era, the stereotypes are reinforced by new realities, which are, at least to some extent, shaped by policies, i.e. by consciously made choices and preferences...

  2. Well, "public diplomacy as/of deed" is meant to address that very issue. Not that they don't know it. It's just that action - beyond the mere statements of PD - requires some fundamental change/shift, and I doubt that either of the sides is really ready to make it happen.