Guest Post: Fine Public Diplomacy from a Surprising Quarter

Guest post by Mitchell Polman

When I was invited to a videoconference at the Washington offices of the Russian Information Agency/Novosti on "What President Obama Signifies to Russia" I was somewhat skeptical of whether the event would be a good use of my time. I was skeptical because I expected that the discussion from the Russian end was going to consist of all the predictable lines of discussion that I had heard so many times before. I was, however, intrigued by one of the scheduled topics for the conference -- how is the Obama administration going to use public diplomacy?

As it turned-out I was in for a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, two of the four American panelists were unable to participate due to illness. However, Don Jensen, formerly of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and currently a Resident Fellow at Johns Hopkins SAIS and Sherwood "Woody" Demitz, formerly of USIA and most recently of the Obama Transition Team on public diplomacy, did an admirable job of responding to the Russian participants' arguments. The Russian panelists were: Irina Yasina, Director, Regional Journalism Club, Economist, Valery Fedorov General Director, Russian Public Opinion Research Center (WCIOM), Kirill Tanayev, Chairman of the Board, Effective Politics Foundation (FEP), and Valery Levchenko, Deputy Director General, Russian News & Information Agency. One of the more intriguing aspects of the event was that the Russian panelists did not all readily agree with each other. Indeed, there was probably more debate amongst the Russian panelists than between the American and Russian side. Ms. Yasina has lived and studied in the U.S. and she showed a depth of knowledge of the issues that American audiences seldom hear from Russian speakers. This was especially true when the discussion turned to the economic crisis and Russia's dependence on oil. RIA/Novosti's Nargiz Asadova who moderated the discussion asked hard-nosed serious questions of all the participants and kept the discussion on an even keel.

Participants in both Washington and Moscow were allowed to ask questions. Unfortunately, the number of participants in Moscow seemed to be significantly higher than in Washington. It seemed as if the Moscow side had more time for questions, although I believe this was not deliberate and probably due more to the greater numbers in Moscow and probably greater eagerness as well. In Washington one questioner did ask the Russians how the Kremlin was going to line up its new external message of cooperation and bilateral relations with what it tell its domestic audience on foreign policy.  The Russian panelists seemed caught off guard by such a frank question and did not give an impressive response. It may seem like a low standard to be setting, but to me it was a mark of progress that an American was being afforded the opportunity to ask such a question of a group of Russian journalists and pundits at a live event.

Most surprising of all was the large amount of time devoted to the topic of public diplomacy and what it is all about. Mr. Demitz pointedly said that public diplomacy and public relations are not one and the same thing. Ms. Asadova specifically mentioned Kristen Lord and the Brookings Institute proposal to establish a USA-World Trust and asked the Russian panelists about it. The Russian panelists were unfamiliar with the report and the proposal. Some of the Russian panelists took the opportunity to fall back on the well worn clichés on the supposed need for Americans to "stop lecturing the world on what to do" and the need for a multi-polar world. The situation was not helped by a bit of confusion on Ms. Asadova's part over whether the proposed Trust would be a U.S. government institution. Unfortunately, no Americans present rebutted any of those well worn clichés and there was not much opportunity for us to do so. Part of the public diplomacy discussion also centered on the use of blogging as a tool of public diplomacy. Ms. Yasina seemed a little behind the times as she commented that in the U.S. most bloggers are teenagers (her comment went uncorrected). All in all, I heard more serious discussion on public diplomacy and what it is all about at this event than I hear at some events that are billed as discussions of public diplomacy.

As for what exactly President Obama signifies to Russia, it seems that Russia is still trying to figure that out. The Russian panelists all welcomed the opportunity to make a fresh start in U.S.-Russian relations. It was also interesting that the Russian panelists agreed that Russia will not be at the top of President Obama's agenda and all seemed to believe that it is understandable that it wouldn't be. There was also largely praise for President Obama's choice of Michael McFaul as his National Security Council advisor on Russia. It seemed from the responses of at least some of the Russian panelists that the need for Russia to shift gears in thinking about America and on Russia's domestic policies is still lost on some Russians. On the other hand, the mere fact that this event was being held is certainly a sign of some movement towards greater open dialogue. To put it in parlance that is usually being ascribed to America these days -- Russia seems to be listening. It was a fine example of real public diplomacy on the part of the Russian organizers.

-- Mitchell Polman

Mitchell Polman works as a producer on media programs on a contract basis for the Department of State.  He has also been involved in professional, student, and arts exchange programs.  He has a background in Russian and East European relations.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MountainRunner.