The establishment of a new American-Russian Youth Leadership Summit would go a long way towards changing the outcomes of policy debates currently taking place in Moscow and Washington. It might even lead to real-world solutions to problems in fields ranging from economics to the environment.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, professor of political science at Stanford University, talking to students from Stanford during the meeting at the Russian Foreign Ministry, 2011. Photo: RIA Novosti
Over the past several months, Western sanctions and Russian military posturing near the Ukrainian border have led to the increased deterioration of political and economic relations between Russia and the United States. The two sides are still far apart in coming to any consensus on what to do next in Ukraine, as reflected in how differently they viewed the recent Nov. 2 elections in separatist-held regions of the country.
Without an end to Western-backed economic sanctions and what many in the West view as continued provocations by President Putin’s aggressive foreign policy, people are beginning to wonder how the conflict will not degenerate into what former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev recently called “the new Cold War.”
However, despite what would appear to be a bleak future for U.S.-Russian relations, there are several organizations and groups that emphasize public diplomacy as the route to reversing the decline of relations. According to the U.S. Embassy in Russia, “Public diplomacy complements and reinforces traditional diplomacy by communicating U.S. interests directly to the Russian public and by fostering mutual understanding and building trust between America and Russia.”
This method of soft power diplomacy focuses purely on the cooperative mechanisms of relations between two countries, in contrast to threats and force, thus diminishing the fears and dangers inherent to U.S.-Russian relations. The former Undersecretary of State in the U.S., Karen Hughes, once described educational programs as ‘the heart of public diplomacy,’ while her successor Tara Sonenshine has continued to emphasize the need for educational exchanges between Russia and the U.S.
Therefore, perhaps an entirely new organization might be appropriate for the purpose of integrating education and study with cooperation and diplomacy between the U.S. and Russia. Such a program might be called the “American-Russian Youth Leadership Summit” and would incorporate the best qualities of complementary diplomatic and educational programs that already exist, such as Fulbright and the Model United Nations.
The A.R.Y.L.S. program would take place every summer between academic school years for the three-month gap that students in undergraduate institutions have in both countries. This Summit would allow students from a consortium of global and international affairs-oriented colleges and universities in both Russia and the U.S. to send students to one-and-a-half month sessions over the summer, making two sessions every summer.
The session terms would need to be long enough for participants from across academic fields of study to experience their host countries’ cultural and educational highlights, while also having time to discuss and “solve” real-world issues across a broad range of topics (including those related to environmental, economic, political and scientific endeavors) in a collaborative, discussion-based setting with native students. Host institutions that participate in the consortium would host sessions based on rotational order.
During the concluding week, a final conference would be held to review the materials and issues covered in a convention-like setting, and to enable connections with an even broader range of peers from the host country. By the conclusion of the Summit, students would come away with ideas for potential research projects they wish to pursue in the future.
The foundation of this program is that cultural experiences abroad make participants want to know more about another country, as well as develop an understanding for another group of people and how and why they think the way they do. Over the session period, cultural excursions and dialogue would cement this goal. This aspect, combined with debate necessary to reach conclusions on problems both Russia and the U.S. face with peers from the host country intensifies the immersion process and creates a human connection. Diplomacy would also be stressed for these future experts and leaders as the first and foremost method of reaching solutions to any number of issues. This is the key to the program’s future success.
Logistically, the Summit would require funding from multiple sources for necessities, cultural excursions and staff. Due to the program’s nature, the educational, cultural, or diplomatic bureaus of Russia and the U.S. would contribute grants and scholarships for the participating students, in addition to the consortium schools that would be sending students.
Alumni of the Summit would be a source of financing and could also help staff the event alongside professors of each hosting university or college. Since institutions of higher education generally do not use their student living space over this period of time, the consortium schools would be able to house the student participants for the two sessions each summer. The number of participants would depend on the resources and capabilities of the hosts and the breadth of funding.The goal here is that as many potential future leaders will be included as possible for the widest-reaching impact.
Given the successes of the current programs that exist for the furthering of U.S.-Russian relations at large, the creation and support of another seems like an investment well-worth making. Colleges and universities that have already invested in international programs would have the honor of hosting such a significant and prestigious summit. The goals of the program would be seen almost immediately as alumni enter into their respective fields as experts and leaders with a mindset not of the fear and misunderstanding that feeds a new Cold War, but one of hope and wisdom of cultured individuals who seek peaceful, diplomatic resolutions to issues that our world will face in the future.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.