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Citizen diplomacy: one-sided but rewarding

By Kurt M. Campbell / August 28, 1985



HEIGHTENED concern in the United States about the deterioration in superpower relations and the specter of nuclear war has prompted Americans in ever greater numbers to travel to the Soviet Union on unofficial visits of goodwill. On my last visit to Moscow, I was surprised to meet members from no fewer than three other delegations who were touring the country and meeting with various Soviet organizations to express their concern over the failure of arms control. More and more Americans, at the same time fascinated to see Russia firsthand and discouraged by the lack of dialogue between the US and the USSR, are making the pilgrimage to the Soviet Union. Given the chill in relations between Moscow and Washington, the increase in ``citizen diplomacy'' is dramatic, but not without historical precedent.

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Even before the US accorded diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933, some Americans were actively involved in trying to improve relations between the two countries. Armand Hammer journeyed to Russia shortly after the successful conclusion of the Bolshevik Revolution and, in addition to receiving a business concession from Lenin himself, counseled the Soviet leaders that trade was the key to better relations with the West. Later, writers like John Gunther traveled around the Soviet Union and d epicted in their works secrets of a country Stalin had succeeded in hiding from the world's view. Recent contacts between private citizens of the US and USSR differ in several important respects from those instances:

Earlier visitors were brought into contact with Russia largely as a result of their professions. Today's pilgrims have little or nothing to do with the Soviet Union professionally; their experience with Russia and Russians has been limited for the most part to what they have learned from the American news media.

The propaganda value of these grass-roots visitors is often fully exploited by the Soviet government. The 1983 journey to the USSR of Maine schoolgirl Samantha Smith, killed this week in a plane crash, was carefully orchestrated by the Soviet propaganda apparatus to show Russia and Russians in the best possible light.

Increased citizen diplomacy has served to raise hopes about again improving relations with Moscow. A recent visit by John Denver to Russia, which culminated in a ``live'' satellite television hookup between Moscow and San Francisco, was accorded unwarranted significance by some Western commentators. Perhaps the only meaningful ``dialogue'' resulting from this encounter was a zealous Russian interpreter's translation of John Denver's uplifting song ``Rocky Mountain High,'' as ``Drunk in the

Mountains.''

Critics of these civilian encounters with the Soviet Union have attacked them as being naive, counterproductive, and even dangerous to diplomacy carried out through official channels. The detractors argue that while Western public opinion has helped to shape the arms-control agenda in the United States, there is no such thing as ``public opinion'' in the USSR. The elite who make Soviet foreign policy confer privately in the seclusion of the Kremlin, speed around Moscow in sleek black limousines, and sho p in exclusive stores, isolated from their fellow Soviet citizens.

To date, there has been little reciprocity in these projects designed to bring Soviet and American people together. Americans have traveled to the USSR by the score, but Soviet delegations to the US continue to be composed primarily of senior officials. Indeed, the Soviet government has established, managed, and wholly controlled its ``popular'' peace movement from the start.

While there is merit in these criticisms, the process of citizens diplomacy should not be rejected out of hand. Instead, greater attention should be given to defining the objectives of unofficial contacts with the USSR. Present and past attempts at civilian involvement in the complex affairs of state have suffered from a lack of appreciation of the differences between Soviet and American societies. Although we share a mutual interest in the avoidance of nuclear war, there are important cultural and poli tical factors that serve to divide rather than unite us. A clear understanding of these differences should be foremost in the minds of those who seek to bridge the gap between our countries. In this respect, the educational value of such exchanges could be beneficial. Perhaps the greatest contribution citizen diplomacy can make is in helping Americans understand both aspects of the dilemma. ``Citizen diplomats'' will come to see the ways the Soviets try to manipulate the situation for their own advantage. T hey will also discover that the Russian people, like Americans, have genuine aspirations for security and for a better life. Coming to realize both truths would probably be the most useful outcome of a trip to the USSR.

Kurt M. Campbell is a fellow at the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.