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How the U.S. Surprises Russians

By Craig K. Comstock

Article published in World Monitor, the magazine of The Christian Science Monitor

As the Soviet leadership class ventures outside out of the enigma inside which it has long and famously been wrapped, the Western public is entranced primarily by Mikhail Gorbachev’s magic touch. However, basic improvements between countries are made not by single leaders acting alone, but with the help of social networks and professional contacts that develop largely away from TV cameras. In the case of American-Soviet relations, the low-key phenomenon called citizen diplomacy has helped to prepare the way for summits and then made good use of openings formalized there.


 Larger and larger numbers of Soviets are visiting the United States as individuals rather than as officials. In unofficial settings they are talking more freely and constructively while expanding the fragile network of informal contacts. And in a surprising number of cases, Soviets are now able to explore, at least briefly, the contours of ordinary American life…. As compared with the pre-Gorbachev era, Soviets visits are like a busy confluence of footprints where there had been acres of largely untrod snow.


This field is rich with surprises.

Traveling in Dallas and St. Louis with a small group of Soviets, this reporter found them astonished, indeed almost overwhelmed, by the warmth of their welcome….


 Western commentators keep wondering, “Does Gorbachev mean what he says, and if so, can he possibly last?” What we ought to be asking is, “If so, what opportunities do we have for improving global security?” It appears that Gorbachev’s ideas for reasonable sufficiency and non-provocative defense come, in part, from private Western thinkers outside the national security elite.  Yet Western governments have so far treated these ideas as if they were no more than wily propaganda.


Americans can find out what they are only by engaging with the Soviets, not by speculating endlessly. Meanwhile, the automatic official reaction brings to mind Williams James, who said that every revolutionary idea is greeted first by ridicule (“It’s the silliest thing I ever heard of”), second by fear (“We have to stop this before it causes terrible harm”), and third by claims of precedence (“I thought of this myself years ago”). In any case, to the extent that Gorbachev’s foreign policy initiatives are genuine, we urgently need models of cooperation, which citizen diplomacy has begun to provide....

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