With tensions growing between the US and Russia, diplomatic talks between the two countries’ leaders are often strained. But that has not stopped students from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M and students from the Russian Diplomatic Academy from engaging in constructive discussions during a teleconference session each year. This year, about a dozen students from both programs were provided a unique and increasingly rare opportunity to share Russian and American perspectives on a wide range of relevant foreign policy issues, including the crises in Syria and Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), missile defense, US politics, and the Arctic.
“This was a unique and interesting opportunity that allowed us to talk with Russian Diplomatic Academy students about the hard-hitting issues that affect our two countries,” said Leah Crowder, a second-year Bush School student who participated in the teleconference. “While our perspectives align on some issues and differ vastly on others, this experience showed that it is possible to carry on a civilized and diplomatic dialogue despite these differences. Informal dialogues such as these are crucially important in a time when official relationships between our countries are becoming constantly more strained.”
The annual teleconference was initiated by an exchange between Larry Napper, a former US ambassador and senior lecturer at the Bush School, and Dr. Oleg Ivanov, the chairman of the Department of Political Science at the Russian Diplomatic Academy. The Academy is an arm of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs within the Russian government. While not a university in the same way as Texas A&M, it is a degree-granting institution that trains Russian diplomats for diplomatic assignments abroad.
“What was surprising was the range of topics we were able to discuss,” said Napper. “We did spend some time on Syria and Ukraine, but we were able to talk about some other things too. There was an interesting exchange on American politics. They were very interested in the American presidential campaign and were confused, at least on the Republican side, about the plethora of candidates out there—this coming from students in Russia, where there’s only one candidate for the presidency who makes any difference.”
In diplomatic relations, there are multiple tracks through which nation-states interact. Track one consists of formal relations between world leaders and high-level officials. Track two involves more informal, nonofficial activities among mid- and lower-level government and civil society actors focused on relationship building. Napper says the importance of track two interactions has only increased in light of recent developments, which have further strained diplomatic relations between the US and Russia. “We still have track one—formal diplomacy with Russia—but it’s not very productive at this point,” said Napper. “We’re basically in a shouting match on most issues. There are some things the US and Russia continue to cooperate on; but the number of those cooperative issues has become greatly reduced, especially after the Russian intervention in Ukraine and the recent intervention in Syria. It’s a difficult time for track one diplomatic relations. I’m a believer that when that is the case, these track two, nonofficial contacts are even more important than they would be in a better time.”
Bush School students enjoyed answering the questions posed by students at the Diplomatic Academy as well as discussing both sides of issues debated in class throughout the semester.
“The topics ranged from more divisive issues on Syria and Assad to some very interesting issues like the drug trade in Central Asia as well as their views regarding our own presidential candidates,” said Bryson Strupp, another Bush School student who participated in the teleconference. “It was a great opportunity to learn from their own specialized training on issues and also present our own views in a candid manner.”
In addition to the teleconference, students taking Ambassador Napper’s Russia in International Politics course were able to participate in a simulated summit between the US and Russia, which involved multiple faculty members acting as world leaders.
“Having just completed the simulated summit, the teleconference provided an opportunity to be in the room, virtually, with real, live, breathing, speaking, thinking, articulating Russians,” said Napper. “These Russian students are not so different from the Bush students in terms of age and experience, although some have been to the field. On both sides, it’s a chance to see the other side in real life and in real time.”
Ryan Crocker, current dean of the Bush School and a former US ambassador, said the teleconference is another example of how the Bush School is preparing students for careers in public service and international affairs.
“This unique experience enables the future leaders of the American and Russian Foreign Services to begin dialogue years before they meet professionally,” said Crocker. “The real-world experiences Bush School practitioners are able to provide today’s students of diplomacy uniquely qualify them for the challenges they will face in their careers.”