Russia’s Election and its Political Life
I’ve been thinking a lot about Russia these days and not just because Russian meddling and its elections are all over the news . The facts about last weekend’s election are widely known, and there is a growing consensus about its interference in American and other elections if not its collaboration with the Trump and various European campaigns. If you want to see my take on all that, visit my update site that accompanies my textbook, Comparative Politics.
If I have anything useful to add to the broader discussion of things Russian, it comes from my reflections on my first experiences in dealing with the then Soviet Union as a teacher, scholar, and activist in the 1980s.
Although I spoke some Russian and had done some Soviet studies work in college and graduate school, Colby College hired me to teach Western European politics. When the cold war heated back up again in the early 1980s and we didn’t have a Soviet specialist on the faculty, I began teaching courses on Soviet politics. I also took a group of students to visit the Soviet Union shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev became Secretary General of the Communist Party.
At about the same time, I became an activist again and spent most of the decade working with the Beyond War movement that—among other things—did a fair amount of Track II work with the Soviets. While we had our greatest impact elsewhere, it seems like a good idea to reflect back on what I learned then and how it might be useful now.
In those years, I was forced to confront a lot of my preconceptions about political life both in the Soviet Union and the United States and in both of my roles as academic and activist. During those years, my colleagues and I stumbled toward four conclusions. Each is worth reconsidering today:
- Demonizing the other side rarely helps. We watched as American and Soviet leaders dealt with each other as enemies and drive ever deeper wedges between their governments and citizens. I particularly remember watching television the first night my group landed in Moscow and realizing that its news stories were at least as propagandistic as ours. So, we decided to treat our Soviet counterparts with dignity and respect, especially when we disagreed with them, which we invariably did.
- We had a hard time finding points of leverage. Even those of us who had had some exposure to systems dynamics never drew a “map” of conflict from which we could identify “loops” in both countries and elsewhere that could change the dynamics of
- Despite the fact that we were playing a lot it by ear and hadn’t heard of this particular term yet, we focused on the bright spots or promising initiatives that could be taken to scale. At Beyond War, we somehow found a way to work with a team of Russian natural and human scientists to write Breakthrough/Proriv, the first jointly written book on politically sensitive subjects. Sister city programs took off. So did exchanges of artists, farmers, young people, and more. Martin Sherwin introduced a course that used the then novel and expensive “spacebridge” technology to teach a course that enrolled students at Tufts and Moscow State University. We don’t have concrete evidence, but there is no doubt that the people who even learned about these programs had their eyes opened. Those of us who took part in any of them had our worldviews changed.
- By the middle of the decade, we had learned to expect the unexpected and frankly found ourselves playing catch up with global events in 1988 onward when the Cold War began to end. In the end, no one can tell you how much of a role we played in those events, but organizations like Beyond War found themselves ill-prepared to do much to shape evens as the Cold War was ending and even less ready to deal with what came afterward.
I don’t work on Russian issues very much these days, but you don’t have to be in order to see that some version of those four points could point us toward ways forward now, but do note that I am by no means certain of how we could or should do so on any of them. It is clear, however, that we no longer have to stumble—a word I used intentionally in the paragraphs before the first set of bullets—as much as we did thirty years ago because both academics and peacebuilders have learned a lot in the interim.
- That said, very few of us are taking leaders on both sides to task for demonizing each other. That’s all the more worrisome since many of us are at least as upset with the leaders of both countries as we were in the 1980s. I’m by no means saying we should stop the sanctions, for example. However, can we both be tough and do so in a way that makes constructively dealing with our differences possible? I was no fan of President Ronald Reagan, but his administration (and, of course Gorbachev’s) deftly combined carrots and sticks, with more and more emphasis on the carrots once the relationship began to turn. Unfortunately, I see few signs of that kind of behavior in either Washington or Moscow today.
- As far as I can tell, very few people are trying to identify the systems dynamics that could initiatives that could broaden what is known as the Overton Window. That term is used to describe the kinds of policy options that mainstream decision makers believe are worth considering in much the way that the number of of credible options grew in the second half of the 1980s.
- Any such initiative that leads to identifying and building on bright spots will probably have to be found outside of governmental circles now as was the case in the 1980s. As should be clear already, they rarely appear out of thin air but emerge from the creative ideas hatched by the 2010s equivalent of the Track II diplomates of the 1980s. Non-government officials have already been working to identify areas of common ground on such difficult issues as terrorism and nuclear proliferation. As in the 1980s, most of them came in issue areas that weren’t in the daily news, like the sister city or scientific exchange projects. I certainly don’t know what those issues could or should include, but I’ve seen initiatives involving everyone from artists to athletes make a difference in other hot spots
- Finally, we should expect unexpected events to occur even more frequently. That’s one of the general lessons we should draw from a world that is becoming more interconnected at accelerated rates of speed. We can’t predict what the Mueller investigation will lead to or Putin will do when his term ends six years from now or much of anything else. Whatever happens, it behooves not to be as ill-prepared as we were 30 years ago. I’m intrigued by a systems dynamic term I’ve picked up from friends in the US military—which I also didn’t have 30 years ago. They talk about using an OODA loop in which one observes, orients, directs, acts, and then keeps doing it again and again.
All this makes sense to me because one thing is clear. US-Russian relations and Russian politics in general will remain challenging for years to come and will probably remain so whenever Putin finally leaves the scene.
Also published on Medium.