Why the United States needs a new public diplomacy program directed at Russia.

Photo: Corbis/Foto SA

“Drink the Pepsi-Cola made in Moscow! It’s better than the Pepsi made in the United States," Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev told Donald Kendall, ex-CEO of Pepsi Cola, then a young Pepsi rep who served the premier a cup of the soda during Khruschev’s visit to the stand at the U.S. Exhibition in Sokolniki Park in Moscow. The year was 1959.

Khrushchev was touring the Glass Pavilion, a steel and glass structure, the center of the sprawling American Exhibition Fair organized by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Fifty-four years have passed since this first U.S. public diplomacy venture in Russia, the hugely successful, splashy American National Exhibition set on a 10-acre sprawling complex known as Sokolniki Park, the land donated by the government for the project.

Although it was only three years since Khrushchev’s Destalinization began and rivalry between the two countries was intense, an estimated 2.7 million visitors converged on Exhibition Park, where Russians of all ages had their first chance to see “a corner of America” – an RCA color studio, a GE and Westinghouse modern kitchen, a model apartment, an art gallery with a George Washington portrait and abstract modernist works by Jackson Pollock.

As Premier Khrushchev, a young Leonid Brezhnev at his side, and Vice President Richard Nixon toured the exhibition, they engaged in their famous “Kitchen Debate,” first in the supermarket in the Glass Pavilion then in the American model kitchen, about the pros and cons of communism. The Soviet premier declared unequivocally: “We will bury you!”

I revisited this historic event recently, when I happened upon the title “Six Weeks in Sokolniki Park. Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the American National Exhibition in Moscow 1959,” with parallel English and Russian texts.

Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra GeorgeMy father, then posted with the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, had been the project manager for the construction site, including the famous Glass Pavilion. He had given me the 2009 anniversary publication, produced jointly by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and Pepsi Cola, since I too am enthusiastically involved in matters Russian on several fronts.

Public diplomacy is all about discovering another “landscape” and influencing its inhabitants  – through cultural and educational exchanges like the Fulbright Program. John Beyrle, U.S.  Ambassador to the Russian Federation in 2009, wrote: “The National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959 ushered in an era of cultural exchange between the two countries that helped sustain our relationship during the difficult decades that followed.”

Today, the United States once again needs to re-imagine and reinvigorate its public diplomacy toward Russia.

The U.S. public diplomacy program toward the Middle East is more robust. Yet there is much that should compel us to move forward in this endeavor.

Our relationship goes back 200 years. Russia spans two continents, which makes it a global player. Thousands of Russians live and work in the United States, including a large contingent of information technology professionals, computer programmers and designers in the Silicon Valley.

Many Americans are employed in the industrial, finance and energy sectors in Russia. The Russian elite and the young, educated classes strive for Western lifestyles, values and institutions. Their aspirations are similar to our own. An active public diplomacy program, using the latest communication tools, can help build partnerships and help us in our foreign policy goals.

President Barack Obama himself took an important step to improve U.S.-Russian relations in May 2011 during his meeting with then-President Dmitry Medvedev. Both leaders agreed to establish the U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission, a public initiative whose mission is to explore new avenues of bilateral cooperation – including such key spheres of common interest as business development, innovation, health, counter terrorism, rule of law, agriculture, education, energy, military affairs, science and technology, arms control, space, environment, among others.

A year later, in July 2012, at the joint Putin-Obama meeting, pledges were also made on bilateral cooperation in many areas, as the two countries face common issues of considerable import: this includes managing the rise of China, dealing with Islamic terrorism, an increasingly volatile Middle East, ensuring the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, a nuclear Iran, the war in Afghanistan.

If the United States wants to make progress in these areas, we need to erect many glass pavilions, to build bridges between our various communities – our publics, students, the media, business forums, academia, the government. Because far more unites us than separates us, and in forging links it is easier to attain common goals.