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A glimpse of US-Russia goodwill, through citizen dialogue

As the United States and Russia teeter toward a new cold war, an old forum for informal diplomacy – the Dartmouth Conference – is back in business.

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    Participants in the Dartmouth Conference, including Monitor correspondent Linda Feldmann (2nd l.), meet in Suzdal, Russia. To her right is Russian academic Irina Zvyagelskaya.
    Jill Dougherty
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Are the United States and Russia locked in a new cold war?

Not exactly, but there’s little doubt that relations between the two great powers have descended dramatically in recent years – see Edward Snowden, Crimea, and Ukraine – and that the level of animosity has alarmed actors on both sides.

Still, as the saying goes, out of crisis comes opportunity. Thus has been revived a cold-war-era institution known as the Dartmouth Conference, a dialogue of Russian and American citizens aimed at finding areas of common ground between the two countries and then taking action.

That is how I found myself in Suzdal, Russia, in the last week of March – a member of the United States delegation to the first plenary session of the Dartmouth Conference since 1990. The Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio, which funds the American side, was looking for a journalist to participate, and my name came up. I had taken part in a US-Soviet exchange of young journalists in 1987, and suddenly, all these years later, I was back in the business of US-Russian relations.

But the late-1980s Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, when glasnost and perestroika were in full bloom, is not 2015 Russia under Vladimir Putin. Before I departed for Moscow, Russian friends in the US had warned me: Brace yourself for intense anti-American feeling, pumped up by President Putin. Russia is reeling from the dramatic drop in oil prices, but Western sanctions over Crimea and Ukraine have given the Russians an easy excuse to blame the US for their economic troubles.

At a Dartmouth preparatory session in Dayton last November, some Russians came loaded with the same talking points that blanket Russian television: The US backs “fascist” forces in Ukraine, and is using sanctions to incite the overthrow of Putin.

Indeed, in Suzdal, the Russians made clear that they blame the US for the deterioration in bilateral relations. But having laid down that marker, they could then move on to more constructive dialogue. Charges that the US is trying to foment “regime change” in Moscow were kept to a minimum.

Part of the largely friendly atmosphere at Suzdal owes to the leadership on both sides. The Americans were led by two retired diplomats, former Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders and former US Ambassador to Russia James Collins. The Russians were led by former Energy Minister Yuri Shafranik and Vitaly Naumkin, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies.

Discussions took place under the so-called Chatham House Rule: Comments may be referenced publicly, but not connected to any individuals. The delegates, about 20 on each side, hailed from the worlds of business, academia, defense, politics, medicine, and religion.

The key to dialogue was to focus on areas of potential agreement. Thus the inclusion of top medical professionals – including, on the American side, former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin – and members of the clergy. The American delegation included a Jesuit priest and an Evangelical Christian preacher, and on the Russian side, a Russian Orthodox priest.

One agreement, to hold joint medical conferences, fell into place easily. The clerical participants agreed to encourage a deepening of dialogue among religious leaders from both countries.

To be sure, disagreements flared up in many spheres – even the seemingly nonpolitical. When an American cited a health statistic unflattering to Russia, a Russian delegate took offense and lashed out.

“Where did you get that number?” he snapped.

“From the World Health Organization,” the American responded.

“Well, it’s still wrong,” the Russian replied.

That’s small beans compared with the profound differences over Ukraine, where Russia has stoked a separatist rebellion with major military and intelligence assistance, which the Russians deny.

But setting Ukraine aside (if that’s possible), the Russians made two points clear, both in Suzdal and in meetings the American delegation had later in Moscow at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Council of Federations (upper chamber of parliament), and Ministry of Defense.

First, the Russians still see themselves as part of the broader Euro-Atlantic community – perhaps a glimmer of hope that Russia has an incentive to cooperate on Ukraine. And they yearn for a revival of the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, set up in 2009 during the “reset” in relations to facilitate collaboration in some 20 areas. The US has suspended the commission’s activities.

Despite the freeze in formal relations, the Americans in Suzdal still saw potential for heightened US-Russian collaboration in areas of mutual interest, such as counterterrorism, health, education, and culture.  

“The number of things this group agreed need to happen that aren’t happening because governments don’t want to do business-as-usual is impressive,” Mr. Saunders told me later.

Perhaps the greatest value of Dartmouth is that it just gets Russians and American citizens talking, both at the conference table and informally, and building human connections. Meeting in the small, ancient town of Suzdal – a four-hour drive from Moscow – kept the pace relaxed and focused. Together we toured historic sites, shared many meals and a few stem-winding toasts, and listened to musical performances.

On more than one occasion, I found myself answering questions over lunch – in rusty Russian – about US politics. If Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election, one Russian predicted, relations between our two countries will get even worse. His prognosis for the large field of Republicans wasn’t any better.

With another Russian, the lunch discussion turned to gay rights, a fraught topic in a country that sees growing acceptance of gay marriage in the West as a sign of encroaching “decadence.”

“Why can’t these people just stay quiet?” this person said.

The history of the Dartmouth Conference is long and storied. Founded in 1960 by Saturday Review editor and peace activist Norman Cousins, it is named for the site of its inaugural session, Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Two years later, literally as the conferees met, the Cuban missile crisis burst into the headlines. Each delegation contacted its government and asked what to do. Each got the same answer: Keep talking.

That was “the crucible in which the value and role of the Dartmouth Conference was demonstrated,” the group’s history says.

Past participants include former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, banker David Rockefeller, and inventor Buckminster Fuller. At times, governments used Dartmouth as a back channel to test ideas. After 1990, when the Soviet Union dissolved and the cold war ended, the plenary meetings of Dartmouth stopped, but smaller working groups continued, focused on regional conflicts and arms control.

Now the big meetings are back. And even if no one is predicting an easing of US-Russian tensions anytime soon, Dartmouth at least “keeps the sinew healthy,” as Saunders puts it.

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