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Making the most of US-Soviet exchanges

By Yale Richmond / December 21, 1987

RONALD REAGAN and Mikhail Gorbachev have endorsed people-to-people exchanges. In the joint statement of their Washington summit, the two leaders also took note of the progress made in carrying out the exchange agreement signed at their 1985 Geneva summit and agreed to ``continued efforts to eliminate obstacles to further progress in these areas.'' United States-Soviet exchanges have entered a new era of expansion. As more Americans and Soviets establish contact, it is prudent to consider why each government has endorsed these exchanges and what each expects from them.

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When US-Soviet exchanges began in 1958, enthusiasm for people-to-people exchanges was not shared by the Soviets. Their main objective, then and now, was to acquire Western technology to help develop their backward economy. Stalin's successors have recognized that it is cheaper and faster to buy or barter advanced technology abroad than to develop it at home.

The US, however, wanted exchanges of people, information, and ideas to help bring about changes in Soviet society and to moderate Soviet behavior abroad and at home.

In signing the first cultural agreement, the Soviets accepted a package that included the people, information, and ideas sought by the US, as well as the science and technology they wanted.

Nikita Khrushchev, in his memoirs, summarized US objectives:

``The Americans wanted a much broader exchange of tourists, scientists, and students ... to make us open our borders, to increase the flow of people back and forth.''

Thirty years later the Soviets have endorsed people-to-people exchanges, albeit under controlled conditions, and are pursuing them with traditional Russian enthusiasm. Why the change?

Politics has a primacy in all Soviet thought and action, and cultural exchange is no exception. When US-Soviet exchanges began, the Soviets preferred to conduct them on a government-to-government basis. In the 1970s, during d'etente, they discovered the American private sector, the main US player in cultural exchanges, and began to work with it directly. As they gained confidence in their ability to manage these exchanges, the Soviets increased their cooperation with US citizen groups, particularly those involved with the peace movement.

Citizen exchanges are one aspect of the public relations campaign Mr. Gorbachev is waging to support his programs of cooperation with the West, restructuring at home, and peace and friendship everywhere. Americans are responding with enthusiasm.

Citizen exchanges fall into two categories. Among the older and more established are the Dartmouth Conferences and the Parallel Studies Program of the United Nations Association of the United States, which conduct high-level meetings on such issues as arms control, international politics and economics, and regional conflicts. Both sides find these unofficial meetings useful, because they are able to speak more freely about current issues than in official talks. Moreover, these meetings serve as sounding boards for future actions by each government. The Soviets also appreciate the insight these meetings afford into the thinking of Americans who may fill high posts in the next administration.