How to improve US-Russian relations? Let’s enlist Millennials

American and Russian 'citizen diplomats,' meeting near Washington, concluded it was time for a Millennial dialogue. A top US foreign policy official is all for it. 

When a group of distinguished Americans and Russians met outside Moscow this past March to address the alarming decline in their nations’ relationship, talk of a new cold war was in the air.

The sting of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea still burned hot. The Minsk II cease-fire in Ukraine, where war raged between government troops and Russian-backed separatists, was a few weeks old. Western sanctions against Russia had deepened animosity toward the United States.

The meeting of the Dartmouth Conference, a revival of cold-war-era “citizens’ diplomacy,” aimed to find common ground and build trust between two great peoples. Collaboration in the realm of civil society seemed most promising, particularly in medicine and religion. 

Fast-forward seven months, and the Russians were now in the US for another round of Dartmouth dialogue, underwritten by the Ohio-based Kettering Foundation. Today, the situation in Ukraine has improved in that fighting has subsided, but add Russia’s military intervention in Syria’s civil war to the list of flashpoints in US-Russian ties.

“Relations are now worse than at any time since the end of the cold war,” a leader of the American delegation observed. “Are we OK with that?”

Of course not. And on that, both groups agreed last week at the Airlie retreat center outside Washington. Among the assembled: retired diplomats and military leaders, former legislators, leading academics and physicians, religious leaders, businesspeople, and journalists (including yours truly) from both countries.

Again, there was consensus that civil society held the most promise for immediate US-Russian collaboration. The heart surgeons and religious figures in the group are now moving to create their own dialogues. Retired military leaders and legislators from each country may do the same.

But a glance around the conference table revealed a hole in the proceedings – or to put it positively, a demographic opportunity. Among the 40 participants, maybe one could be considered a Millennial (and even he, an American in his mid-30s, wasn’t sure he qualified). The heavy tilt toward those who had grown up in the bipolar, cold-war world of US-Soviet antagonism was evident.

Thus emerged the conceptual breakthrough of the conference: It’s time for the Dartmouth process to expand into the Millennial generation, generally defined as those born since the early 1980s. It is they, after all, who will produce the leaders of the future and determine the shape of US-Russian relations in a multipolar world. They are digital natives, and to the educated of the generation, at least, the world has never been smaller.

Back in Washington, members of the US and Russian delegations met with a senior American foreign policy official, and above all else, it was the proposal for a “sustained US-Russian Millennial dialogue” that grabbed her attention.

“Let’s start with that,” said the senior official, who was not to be quoted by name or department. “We worry that a whole generation of Russians and Americans don’t know each other – those aged 20 to 35 – the way we know each other in this room.”

“If you build it, we will consider funding it,” she added.

If such a dialogue launches, the two delegations may have a lot to learn. Since the end of the cold war, young Americans’ study of Russian language and culture has declined, as the study of Chinese and Arabic has risen. In addition, few Russians study in American universities, compared with the flood of Asian foreign students in the US. 

Youth exchanges are also on the ropes. Last year, the Russian government pulled out of a long-running American high school exchange program after a gay Russian teenager sought asylum in the US. And in 2013, the US halted its participation in a Russian government program that brought young Americans to Russia for cultural visits. According to news reports, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was concerned the Russians were using the program to recruit spies.

Research into American and Russian Millennials presents contrasting portraits. Among young Americans, experts see a decline of confidence in US government institutions, and a belief that the US superpower image was diminished by the 9/11 attacks and the 2007-08 financial crisis.

US Millennials are critical of Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, but less so than their parents and grandparents. Among Americans aged 18 to 29, 56 percent see Russia and Mr. Putin negatively, versus 78 percent of Americans aged 50 and older, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

Among Russian Millennials, there are less data. But the portrait in US media of young Russians, dubbed “Generation Putin,” can be unflattering: A recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine painted this cohort as unquestioningly pro-Putin, xenophobic, homophobic, and suspicious of American government motives. 

After last week’s Dartmouth meeting, one Russian delegate, Nikolai Soukhov, said that “a generation of low-class people are easy to influence with propaganda” against the US, but they aren’t typical.

“If young Americans and Russians knew each other better, they would find mutual interests in the cultural field and in everyday life,” says Mr. Soukhov, a research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. “They wouldn’t think of each other as the enemy.”

The one Millennial in the Russian delegation, Aslan Guchetl, missed the conference, but made it to the final dinner. Asked what young Russians and Americans need to understand about each other, he too sounded a hopeful note.

“That God made us different so we could learn from each other,” said Mr. Guchetl, a 20-something filmmaker from Moscow. “Having this motto in our minds, we are all looking for a peaceful, truthful, meaningful life.”

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