The same model used by Mexico and Colombia to improve diplomatic relations – bringing the two sides closer through the involvement of subnational governments and NGOs – could also be used to improve relations between the U.S. and Russia.
More cultural interaction between American and Russian students might help to improve the overall state of U.S.-Russia relationship. Photo: TASS / Valery Sharifulin
Currently, amidst the deteriorating state of relations between Russia and the so-called Western bloc, specifically the United States, there’s a new urgency to develop a solution or a bridge between these two powers. That is where the Latin American paradiplomacy model comes to save the day as a face saving option for both sides.
A direct arrangement between heads of state, for example, is very unlikely to happen now when all the efforts of the high commands of Russia and the U.S. are focused on topics like the Ukrainian crisis and the instability in the Middle East. Direct coordination of people-to-people exchanges at the highest level would be very unlikely even if the U.S. and Russia had the political will to get closer together in their relations.
When we say that paradiplomacy could be an option, it is because there are ways to get the two sides closer through the involvement of subnational governments, institutions and non-governmental organizations. For instance, consider the creation of a program where high-performing students not only from universities but also high schools could participate. This program should be for exchanges for summer or one-semester periods and involve language and cultural learning in both Russian and English.
The highlight of this program would involve learning about the other culture. It is this “otherness,” after all, that is most of the time being demonized by the media. However, just learning about culture is not enough due to the state of the relationship between Russia and the U.S. This is true even if we take the first step to soften any tensions through the involvement of young people or young citizens who later would have another, more open mindset.
There is still the problem of finding a bonding element that would truly engage the students. Such an exchange program should be based on something more than just getting something like the knowledge of a different language. Students should also give something back, something important like their participation in social impact projects, helping others while in Russia or in the U.S.
These projects would be about community development and volunteer service in areas like literacy (teaching others your native language), exposing your own culture to young people in the other country, conservation of the environment, business development or entrepreneurship in communities in need of innovation, or even projects of restoration of public places. With these types of exchanges that go beyond receiving something like knowledge of a language, the Russians and the Americans that receive this international experience would obtain a life-changing growth and development phase for themselves and others.
In order to get the governments of both countries more involved, the program should be sponsored and also validated for credits on courses in several universities throughout the entire country, whether to satisfy minor, elective, major and university requirements.
The subsidies should be about giving housing in both states and financial aid through scholarships to get more students involved, so they could live a real language and cultural immersion in Russia or the U.S. Also, the program should be managed or controlled at some point by some state governments and their universities programs. Or, even better, the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Education and Science or the Ministry of Culture could manage the program.
This program doesn’t propose that the students engage in excursions to “sensitize” them about the other culture in addition to learning a language. Those programs already exist and they are not the right way to get people to acquire real awareness. What would be a good idea is for governments of the states or their sub-entities to work with partnerships and alliances with international NGOs that offer this type of exchange program. The government gets the scholarships and the NGO does the logistics.
One example of this is the summer program that the government of Mexico specifically through the Ministry of Social Development and the Mexican Institute of Youth launched through one international NGO called AIESEC this past July. The program was about Mexican young people going to Colombia to participate in workshops that treated topics like Prevention of Pregnancy during Adolescence and Promotion of the Respect of Human Rights. The Mexican government granted the selected students flight tickets, insurance and some money for minor expenses, while the NGO was in charge of the housing given by a host Colombian family and the food.
In this way, the students got the chance to really understand what the problems of Colombians were that they might not see in the news or in TV. They got to know a whole new reality of what it is to live in another culture, to help people in social matters and to live with a Colombian family. They also got the immersion that everybody aims to get when abroad.
The case of paradiplomacy between Mexico and Colombia, coordinated through their respective state institutions and NGOs, is just an example that could work for Russia and the U.S. In short, they wouldn’t have to deal with each other directly, they could use intermediaries like NGOs and their ministries in order to make a real impact in their territories and in their citizens. They could soften their sharp relations in one shot.
The volunteer service program would work as a modern day version of détente. It would be possible because the two powers would be indirectly united via their young people interacting with each other. In this sense, governments could save face and members of the youth population that don’t identify with the typical rivalry of the Cold War would more willingly accept the initiatives of their countries if they see the good that could come from understanding the eternal “enemy.”
The goal would be to broaden the mindset of American and Russian students by mastering languages and building relationships between the people in both countries. After all, times are changing and you cannot keep promoting misperceptions when there are so many sources of information nowadays thanks to modern digital technology.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.