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We Need More Citizen-to-Citizen Oriented Diplomacy

We would all benefit from a return to a more citizen-to-citizen oriented diplomacy.

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The rhetorical fallout from the summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki suggests that good US-Russian relations are a zero-sum game: when the leaders of the two countries get along, relations are good. But when they don’t, relations are bad. Recent history suggests that successful summits rely not on one-on-one interactions, but rather on collective efforts.

We need mutually beneficial relations between nations and their populations, not only their leaders. 

Contrary to Trump’s insistence, current US-Russian relations are not the “worst ever.” One need only recall events of the last 60 years – Cuban missile crisis, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics – to comprehend the harsh realities of Cold War politics. These crises were resolved not by two individual leaders, but by collective wisdom and expertise.

Despite the severity of those times (1960-1980), we witnessed some of the most enduring and impactful advances: nuclear disarmament, treaties such as the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and SALT I and II were negotiated and signed. 

Such developments occurred not because the leaders of our countries enjoyed close, friendly relations, but often in spite of it. Both governments and, more importantly, their people fully understood – and continue to understand – that maintaining positive, productive bilateral relations between our two nuclear superpowers, both possessing robust and diverse spheres of political, social, and cultural influence, was not merely desirable, but essential. Even during the height of the Cold War, when both the US and the Soviet Union had amassed nuclear stockpiles, substantive talks between the two countries continued. 

These conversations slowly, but steadily, increased the numbers of individuals from both the private and public sectors interacting with each other in an environment of cooperation and collaboration. Summits, after all, can occur in the classroom and at the kitchen table.

The Helsinki summit, in this regard, was less of a step forward in further developing US-Russian relations in the global sense than it was a single private conversation. It 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.

My own 40-year relationship with Russia began as a student, and a beneficiary of several of the agreements and organizations that emerged as a result of the more meaningful engagement of US-Russian delegations, both of the Cold War and the post-Soviet periods. My first entry into the then-Soviet Union in 1979 was, coincidentally, through Helsinki, as participant of a program.

It was through this eight-week encounter with the Russian language, culture, society, and people that I was moved to become a scholar of Russian and Russia. Since that time, I have logged more than five years in the country, and have been transformed as a person through my contact with Russian scholars, writers, politicians, students, filmmakers, and so many others who have had a profound impact on me and my way of seeing the world.

Perhaps, in some small way, I and the thousands of other US citizens that have travelled to, visited, and worked in Russia have affected their lives, as well. 

None of my Russian colleagues were surprised by the format or negligible impact of the Helsinki summit. Putin’s penchant for unilateral negotiation without the benefit of consensus is well known to them. Most Russians that I know say they would like to see increased contact with the U.S.

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. Putin and Trump should seek tangible agreements for increased cooperation at all levels in a transparent and well-informed manner. Such an approach to diplomacy would benefit not only the leaders of our countries, but their constituencies, as well.

Thomas J. Garza is a University Distinguished Teaching Associate Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in The Hill

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