(Dayton, OH) Since 1961, Russian and American citizens have met at 20 Dartmouth conferences to discuss the relationship between their two nations. This process continues now, even as NATO troops conduct a “massive airborne exercise in Poland,” practicing for a potential war with Russia in the heart of Europe. I’m proud to serve as a trustee of the Kettering Foundation, which has been one partner in sustaining the Dartmouth process for 55 years.
In one sense, any conversation between Russians and Americans would be a “citizens’ dialog.” For instance, presidents Putin and Obama are citizens of their respective nations, so when they have a phone call, two citizens are talking.
The Dartmouth conferences have not drawn statistically representative or typical people, but rather luminaries from each side. And although the participants are formally independent, they are often related to their respective governments in various ways. So if this is citizen diplomacy (and I think it is), we need to understand the word “citizen” in a particular sense.
Official representatives of governments can negotiate. They can agree to outcomes and either shake hands on the spot or at least take agreements back to their bosses for approval. As in any situation modeled by game theory, the parties have pre-established identities and objectives. The “players” know who they are (e.g., the US Trade Representative) and what they want. The outcomes of a negotiation can be good for all, or better for all than horrible alternatives, such as war. Negotiation is essential for peace. But the outcomes can also be suboptimal for everyone when situations like Prisoners Dilemmas arise, as they often do between states. Negotiations can break down completely. And even when the parties reach an agreement that satisfies them, their negotiation can be indefensible in principle or harmful to other parties.
In contrast, the participants in a citizens’ dialog are not empowered to represent their governments or make decisions. They may be influenced in myriad ways by their governments, but they have no opportunity to commit their governments to decisions. That change in the basic situation—which renders the participants “citizens”—also removes many of the constraints of game theory.
People who are not empowered to negotiate can explore a range of solutions that they might not want to commit to. They can choose from among their many identities: American, professor, Massachusetts resident, father, or citizen of the world. They can change their minds about what they want, or even talk without particularly wanting anything. They can disagree with people on their own “side,” since they are not serving on an official negotiating team. And they can develop and come to care about relationships with individuals from the other side, which has happened powerfully and repeatedly in the Dartmouth Conferences. At a minimum, they can come to understand better what people in the other country value and want, and that understanding can enable more productive negotiations between the states.
It’s not true that “to understand all is to forgive all.” People may genuinely and sincerely believe and value things they shouldn’t. That means that you can have a free and frank exchange of ideas (as they say in diplomacy) and still believe that the other side is badly misguided. Indeed, they may be badly misguided. On the other hand, there is usually some validity in any group’s perspective, and if nothing else, mutual understanding allows a relationship to develop. Once you care a bit about the other people, you’re less likely to endanger everyone. Social capital (trust and reciprocity) is repeatedly found to allow people to solve the kinds of problems modeled by game theory.
The current relationship between the US and Russia is complex and fraught. We are, for instance, backing different sides in a deadly civil war. Negotiations have virtually ceased. We also tend to have different grand historical narratives in our minds, in which the other country figures mostly as villain. Citizen dialog is therefore of the greatest importance today.
See also: the limits of putting yourself in their shoes and looking with their eyes; thoughts about game theory; the two basic categories of problems; and threats, negotiations, and deliberation: the case of the Syria crisis