Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Cold Shoulder War

You might remember when Putin annexed Crimea sometime at the beginning of the year. You know, back in those days when the Putin backlash was strong. The Russian president's club of western haters has subsided a bit because we've moved on to bigger animals of foreign policy like Iraq and Israel, but he'll do something to make it come back, I guarantee it. He'll make another statement about how being gay is wrong, or ban Facebook. And when the American media discourse falls back into the Putin-bashing mode, politicians will feel the need to chisel out some new vehemently anti-Russian policy. Like when, for example, some aldermen in Chicago in late March felt the need to suspend the 17-year “Sister City” relationship between Chicago and Moscow. 

That’ll teach Putin a lesson for annexing Crimea, they said. It was supposed to be an “important step” toward expressing “outrage” to Putin, but the mayor declined to sign it. That might have had something to do with the fact that there are approximately 15,000 Russian immigrants living in Chicago, according to 2009 American Community Survey data. Chicago Sister Cities International has thrown fashion shows, meals, concerts and events of all kinds promoting Russian culture since 1997.

Between the time of Putin's anti-gay law and his royal mess of Sochi, at least 40 of 76 U.S. cities with Russian Sister cities formed similar online petitions to suspend their Sister City relationships. So much time and energy went into garnering support for the anti-gay “propaganda” and anti-annexation petitions. What would happen if cities spent that energy trying to improve their already existing foreign exchange programs, many of which have persisted even through the Cold War?

"Citizen diplomacy" is the fancy reason for Sister Cities International. The organization was founded in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the interest of using average citizens as political ambassadors for their country, whether purposefully or as a result of some other motivation. “I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it,” the former president smirked in 1959.

Here's citizen diplomacy in action: no one from Chicago knows anything about Moscow, and vice versa. I asked many of my friends living in Chicago what they knew about Moscow. They said it was dreary, the Kremlin was there and the KGB used to exist. When I was in Moscow and mentioned I was from Chicago, I received one of two gestures in return from the people living there: either, “Oh, Da Bulls!” or “Boom boom! Al Capone.” Maybe it's just me because I love Russian history and culture, but I think we should mutually learn more about each other.

A friend I studied with in St. Petersburg in 2009 said she often struggled with the rough misunderstandings between Americans and Russians. My friend, who asked to remain anonymous because she works for the U.S. government, said if Russians and Americans do not actively try to understand one another, they're at risk of becoming completely disconnected, rotting in “echo chambers of their own rhetoric.” Real diplomacy, she said, only starts once the “conversation juices start flowing.” 

Ask anyone who's been to Russia, even those fluent in Russian, and they'll say they've had enough awkward moments and misunderstandings to last a lifetime. Just existing in the same place and doing the same menial task can work wonders for ironing out the folds of misconceptions between people.

Everyday commonalities are essential in even the most high profile international policy conversations. We saw this when Obama tried to relate to Putin over sports during their press conference about Syria. He announced to the press that the two had bonded over complaints that they were getting older, which made it harder for both of them to play their sport of choice. “We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball,” Obama said, to laughter from the press. “And we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.” Putin did not take Obama’s statement as a joke, but rather he thought Obama was trying to make him feel more comfortable by painting himself as weak. "The President is trying to put me at ease with the fact that he’s becoming weaker,” Putin said. It was a moment lost in translation, and it underscored the value of communicating via the language of hobbies and culture. 

For those politicians who want to tell Putin off and spread democracy, Sister Cities could be the way to do that. A Sister City relationship is arguably an important means through which a country with more institutionalized freedoms (America) can influence a less democratic country (Russia). Exchanges like Sister City events are “the only way that Russians will have access to real information,” Ukrainian-American Luba Yurchyk said. Yurchyk, who was born in Ukraine, lives in Chicago and keeps in consistent contact with many Russians, said several of her friends living in Russia are frightened that whatever freedom of the press they had before is being squandered. Many told her their dismay at Putin closing them off from most independent channels of journalism and world news. “So what would it hurt for a couple of people from Chicago to talk to a couple of people from Moscow?”

Moscow and Chicago are cities with exhaustively different expectations of their languages, their governments (local and national), and their lives. What they share is a desire to appear vibrant and heterogeneous to the other. Many Americans don’t agree with Obama or Bush's policies. And many Russians don’t agree with Putin's. Sister City events reveal opportunities for people to bond over their dissent.

There will always be Americans and Russians who fundamentally disagree about urgent and far-reaching issues. But if a friendship is formed in some way or another on the ground, international policies could slowly patch conflict with mutual understanding of these divisions. We need to stop creating policies out of alienated antagonism and pause to appreciate our sisters. 

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