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Citizen Diplomacy Where? Part I

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Citizen diplomacy helped to stop the so-called Cold War. Could it now help to turn down the heat on a different kind of war that's already simmering? First of all, what can we learn from a past success?

Three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, citizens were invited to share in an improbable success. "In the field of foreign affairs," said the book Citizen Summitry, "ordinary people often feel powerless, but ... you can help, personally, to transform the nature of our relationship with the Soviet Union.... The method does not necessarily involve marching with a sign or writing to Congress or to your newspaper; it does not require sending a check ...." What could this method have been?

In the 1980s a citizens movement helped to end the long, perilous Cold War between our country and the USSR. Afterwards, national security experts said nobody could have predicted that change, which may be true, but some Americans worked very hard for the demise of the Cold War. One of them was entrepreneur Don Carlson, who endowed the Ark Foundation mainly for that purpose.

"We didn't predict success," says Carlson, "We just worked in every way we could think of, because unless the hair-trigger cold war was peaceably ended, what else would eventually matter?"

It's helpful now to review this under-the-radar citizens movement for the lessons it suggests and then to respond, in a surprising way, to the initial question of this article, about what we can do now.

Disclosure: I was Carlson's junior partner, working for Ark and co-editing a pair of books -- Citizen Summitry and Securing Our Planet -- in which we and some of our contributors envisioned a new type of security. Published by Jeremy Tarcher, reviewed in a journal for the Soviet nomenklatura (bigwigs), and and widely acquired by U.S. libraries, one of the books sought to encourage citizens to engage in a new form of diplomacy; and the other book, as the subtitle put it, to help their countries "succeed when threats are too risky and there's really no defense."

From 1984 until 1989, the Ark Foundation supported groups working to end the Cold War, including Jim Garrison's ongoing Esalen program, an organization called Beyond War, an early e-mail system linking the two countries by space satellite, and Sharon Tennison's exchange program for private citizens, part of which was called "Soviets, Meet Middle America."

At one meeting in Moscow early in the "glasnost" era, instead of facing off in the traditional way across a table decorated with mineral water bottles surrounded by little green apples, the chairperson arranged us around a big hollow square, with each person sitting between participants from the other country. The question she proposed was, "if the cold war ever ended, however impossible that seems, what joint projects could we do together?"

For a while, most people didn't want to play. Any answers might sound disloyal, if not ridiculous. Only when the chairperson carefully defined this as a thought -experiment, to which nobody would be held responsible as soon as we went to lunch, did we cautiously start to invent joint projects. Once we began to explore the possibilities, we didn't want to pause to eat.

As Carlson observed, the cold war stopped not only because well-meaning folks extended the hand of cooperation, but also because a Soviet leader tried to reform a failing system. However, citizen diplomats helped to give Cold Warriors and ordinary people on both sides a new model into which to move.

When traveling with some Soviets in St. Louis and Dallas in the mid-1980s, I saw their astonishment at the hospitality as they stayed with families, ate barbecue, taught lessons in geography at local schools, attended religious services, visited small businesses, talked on the radio.

When a host took his visitors to a supermarket, one skeptical Soviet regarded the store and its abundant shelves as a Potemkin village erected to fool him. Getting back in the car, his host asked him to pick a direction and then another store at which to shop. Standing by a meat counter that stretched across the back, this visitor said quietly, almost to himself,"we could never do this."

Whether impressed by affluence, by liberty, or by the warmth of their welcome, the Soviets saw a U.S. very different from the government propaganda they'd grown up with.

Meanwhile, Americans visiting the USSR turned their gaze from distant missile silos to the everyday life of Soviet people raising families, eating ice cream, complaining about their bosses, making sure their kids did the homework, listening to music. The missiles and nuclear warheads were real. The question was, what to do about them?

Looking around the world today, U.S. pioneers in citizen diplomacy wonder where a similar effort could best be directed. Should they work on Israel/Palestine? on India/Pakistan? or on China/Taiwan? Perhaps Dafur?

Each of these troubling situations is unique, deserving a careful comparison with the position of our country and the USSR in the 1980s. An accidental war between the two superpowers could have wrecked civilization (and, by some accounts, nearly did). Even though they had almost no common border, these two countries were long-time ideological foes, each with allies. Propaganda on both sides had reduced the other to a dehumanized caricature. Even though most citizens were not able to visit the other country, it was physically safe to do so when restrictions were relaxed. Both had mass media to spread a new word.

Having flown into Moscow's Scheremetyevo airport with copies of Citizen Summitry, an Ark book that included non-Party-line chapters by some Soviet citizens, I was interviewed on All-Soviet TV. When I identified myself as neither a Cold Warrior nor what Lenin called a "useful idiot" (a Western follower of the Soviet line), the interviewer looked puzzled: who the hell was she showcasing? Though I didn't speak with the earthy flair of Deng Xiaoping who said, "it doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice," I simply made a trans-ideological statement about Americans who wanted her people to have a prosperous and happy life.

Though the post-1989 transition from the communist system, and the subsequent development of our own system, have been less than optimal, the most dangerous aspects of the Cold War did end, and the change led to this week's interim agreement in Prague. Citizen diplomats ask where, if anywhere, this success could be repeated today.

The basic technique then was citizen exchange, along with an image of a positive future. (During extensive publicity for the Ark books, a radio host told the authors, "you guys are relentless optimists." Actually, we thought we had a balanced view of the relationship, but our self-imposed public job was to imagine a positive outcome.)

But enough history: what situation today, if any, calls for this kind of treatment? Where can radical misunderstanding and isolation be eased by Americans taking the initiative in two sides meeting together and listening to one another?

Tomorrow: part two of "Citizen Diplomacy Where?" in which, with this background, an answer is proposed.