Doldrums for Soviet-American cultural contacts

The Reagan administration has renewed sales of wheat to the Soviet Union, American longshoremen have agreed to load the grain shipments, and the United States has moved to negotiate a mutual reduction of armaments in Europe. All of this has been done because it suited American interests, not because of any "improvement" in Soviet international conduct.

These small steps testify to a recognition that the US relationship with the Soviet Union has many sides. The administration has not, however, developed positive policies in one of the most fruitful areas of Soviet-Americans relations, though it presents no strategic risks and has enriched the lives of thousands of ordinary citizens in both countries. Cultural exchange programs are languishing. Educational, scientific, humanitarian, and artistic contacts were nurtured apart from political conflicts for two and a half decades by every government on both sides, in spite of the American war in Vietnam and the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

After the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, in a series of reactions of which the Olympic boycott was only the most noticed, the US signalled a new "tough" attitude on cultural contacts. The impact was felt not only on governmental exchanges and semi-official programs like IREX, the exchange for young scholars, but also on private efforts like the US-Soviet parallel studies project of the United Nations Association.In the early days of cultural exchange the Soviet Union often seemed suspicious and uncooperative; now the US appears to be obstructing contacts.

This reversal of roles made itself felt when I visited Moscow and Leningrad last March. I was one member of a delegation representing Citizen Exchange Council, a private, non- profit organization established in New York in 1962 for the purpose of broadening contacts between American and Soviet citizens. We visited a dozen different Soviet agencies and nongovernmental organizations to discuss future exchanges. Every one expressed the desire for more contacts with American organizations and welcomed our proposals for professional meetings, student exchanges, and encounters for art lovers, amateur photographers, war veterans, and many others. But, with the Olympic boycott in mind, the Soviets wondered what the US government's attitude would be.

We responded time after time that the US government did not have the power to forbid its citizens to travel abroad or to interfere with private educational and cultural exchanges, except in time of war or something close to it. American public opinion had made the Olympic boycott effective, we said, and we added that Soviet military intervention in Poland would have a profound and lasting negative effect on cultural contacts. Our Soviet hosts seemed somewhat comforted by this information, but their attitude remained expectant: it is up to Americans to make the next move, to reconfirm their commitment to unpoliticized cultural exchange.

It has become fashionable -- again -- to ask how the US benefits from cultural contacts with the Soviet Union. Those who advance this question are often looking for an immediate payoff: major changes in the communist system and in the USSR's role in the world.

The actual aims and achievements of Soviet-American cultural exchanges have been at once more modest and more far-reaching. They derive from the notion that the best communication between peoples can be achieved through direct contact. Face-to-face meetings of young people, health-care professionals, teachers, environmentalists, amateur musicians, and chess players do more than summit conferences to promote the exchange of ideas, mutual learning and understanding. Cultural exchange ranks with the Marshall Plan as one of the great American ideas of the century.

No one who visits the USSR today after an absence of 10 years, as I did, can doubt that it has changed or that Western contacts helped to shape the changes. American society, too, has changed through contacts with other countries, though Americans are still notoriously indifferent to the rest of the world.A combination of foreign challenges and involvements abroad has made painfully evident Americans' lack of expertise in foreign languages and area studies. Even expertise is not really the issue: many Americans lack a basic knowledge of the world they live in.

If the Reagan administration is not inclined to sponsor the renewal of Soviet-American cultural contacts, that is probably just as well. To be as free as possible of partisan motives, cultural exchange belongs in the private sector. American exchange programs gain respect in the Soviet Union when they are genuinely private initiatives.

What is needed from Washington is a simple declaration that the US doe not intend to obstruct mutually beneficial educational, artistic, and humanitarian relationships with any country. Furthermore, it should be stated clearly that the American government favors private efforts to resume building programs that have support in the US and in the USSR.

To avoid losing more of what was created with great effort b etween 1953 and 1979, such a statement must be made now.

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