Twenty-Five Years Later, A Citizen Diplomat Reflects on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…

       —Robert Frost

A quarter century later, I remember the day the Wall fell as though it was yesterday. On November 9, 1989, the world changed. As a student in the Soviet Union a few years earlier, I had come to understand Russia’s history and culture, making lifelong friends along the way. I remember the elation I felt upon hearing and seeing the news.

So many lives changed, including mine. A year later, I uprooted my life and moved to Moscow for a four-month assignment at a university. I stayed for nine years. I fell in love with the Russian language, Russia’s culture, and her people. Many Russians are among my closest friends in the world. I married a Russian, and we are raising bilingual, bi-cultural children.

The Berlin Wall divided East and West Germany for 28 years in an effort to eliminate the exchange of ideas, culture, and politics between citizens of the Soviet-allied countries.

Yet, over all these years, I had never journeyed to Berlin to pay homage to those courageous enough to overturn the world order. For years, I anticipated the joy and humility I would feel when I finally made the pilgrimage. This September, the opportunity to visit Berlin finally presented itself. Just weeks before the 25th anniversary of the re-opening of the East-West gates, I stood at Checkpoint Charlie, and then at the Berlin Wall Memorial, and choked back tears. Having spent a great deal of my life and my career working towards collaboration between the United States and Russia, I felt a cascade of feelings. Being reminded of the sacrifice of so many and walking the route of the Wall evoked all the expected emotions. The tears, though, quickly gave way to something else entirely. I was suddenly overcome with an almost unbearable anger.

“The old wall was built quickly, in the dead of night, such that the next day, it was impossible to ignore. This new wall, though invisible to the eye, is no less divisive. It has been erected slowly, brick by brick, many of them placed by neglect and ignorance, rather than intent.”

How is it that, 25 years later, the United States and Russia are once again rebuilding that wall?

The old wall was built quickly, in the dead of night, such that the next day, it was impossible to ignore. This new wall, though invisible to the eye, is no less divisive. It has been erected slowly, brick by brick, many of them placed by neglect and ignorance, rather than intent.

Building Barriers by Neglect

Some of the construction is fresh.

Earlier this year, Russian authorities announced the cancellation of the Future Leaders Exchange, or FLEX as it is known, one of the few remaining exchange programs funded by the U.S. Government. In just over two decades, FLEX built people-to-people relationships, bringing nearly 8,000 Russian high school students to the United States for a full academic year for a homestay and study abroad experience.

At the 20th anniversary celebration of FLEX, in November 2013, Senator Bill Bradley, the founder of the program, stated, “The whole purpose of the program was to bring people together and show how basically we are all the same. And that should be the continuing objective and, hopefully, be a long-term outcome of the FLEX program.”

Who could have imagined that a year later, the landmark program would be no more?

On the occasion of the cancellation of FLEX, John Tefft, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia remarked on the program’s returns.

“These young Russians have served as cultural ambassadors, representing the best of Russia, to millions of Americans throughout all 50 states…the United States remains committed to exchanges and programs that promote cultural ties and mutual understanding between the Russian and American people,” said Tefft.

While the former is certainly true, the latter is a bit hard to swallow. The Russian Government is responsible for the cancellation of FLEX, but the U.S. Government’s commitment to cultural, educational, and scholarly exchange is also severely compromised. From 1983 until 2012, roughly $5 million annually was obligated to Title VIII, the Program for Research and Training for Eastern Europe and the New Independent States of the Former Soviet Union. In 2013, after the United States Department of State severely cut funding the year before, these monies were removed by state  in their entirety and without explanation. In 2011, all funding for the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) program for Africa, Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Russia was cancelled due to Congressional budget cuts. DDRA has since been restored but at significantly reduced funding levels. To add insult to injury, the half-million to $1 million in annual Department of Education funding for The United States-Russia Program: Improving Research and Educational Activities in Higher Education, which began in 2006 was terminated in 2010.

The decline in opportunities to build bridges between the two nations due to the contraction over the last four years of these and other regionally-focused programs makes it too easy to gloss over this as a recent phenomenon; however, the erosion of public diplomacy between the United States and Russia has taken place over more than 15 years. This is especially disappointing given that, over the decades of the Cold War, scholarly and cultural exchange kept important conversations going and built key relationships at a time when our governments were unable to do so.

Looking back to the mid-1990s, statistics from the Institute for International Education show that the number of students coming from Russia to the United States annually peaked at just above 7,000 in 1999 to 2000; the number of American citizens studying in Russia has seen incremental increases, but has still never broken the 2,000 mark. Together the countries have a population of nearly half a billion; it seems inconceivable that in 2014 fewer than 6,500 students will cross borders to learn about the other country and culture.

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Effective Bilateral Relations Depends on Citizen Engagement

There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence of the value of people-to-people interactions known as citizen diplomacy, but to date, there have been no broad-based studies of its impact. In 2012, the British Council conducted research on cultural diplomacy (like citizen diplomacy, a subset of public diplomacy) and shared its findings in the report Trust Pays: How international cultural relationships build trust in the UK and underpin the success of the UK economy.

The British Council’s research demonstrated four key facts about cultural engagement. First, participation in one or more cultural activities with the United Kingdom was correlated with an increase in the average level of trust in UK citizens in all 10 countries surveyed. Second, the average level of trust in people in the United Kingdom increases with the number of different types of cultural activities in which a person has been involved. Third, increased levels of trust are associated with a significantly increased level of interest in opportunities for business and trade with the region. And lastly, when people trust UK citizens, they are also more likely to trust the government of the UK. It is not a stretch to extrapolate that the indicators for citizen diplomacy would echo these results, and thus all the more surprising that U.S. Government funding has been so lean for the past 15 years, a critical juncture for U.S.-Russia relations.

Of course, government support is just part of the story—private grant-makers are doing no better where Russia is concerned. The MacArthur Foundation, which launched in Russia in 1991, provided an average of over $7 million in grants each year; in 2011, MacArthur decreased its grant pool for Russia by half. Ford Foundation ceased its Russian operations in 2009 after nine years, closing the door on over $100 million in funding it had provided. Both foundations were adversely affected by the Russian Government’s crackdown on foreign influence. Restrictive legislation regarding NGOs has also had a detrimental effect: In April 2014, Russia ordered American Councils, an NGO working in Russia for four decades (and the organization that managed my study abroad program in Russia in 1987), to cease operations and re-register. Six months later, the new registration is still not approved. Russia has done almost everything possible to prevent private interests from stepping in where the U.S. Government fears to tread.

“When governments fail to act, history has shown that individuals can transcend borders and barriers. Those who remember the darkest days of The Cold War on both sides of The Wall know that human relationships were the only hope for a better tomorrow, for the day the darkness would end.”

Though it is, no doubt, a great investment, citizen diplomacy does not require government, foundation, or NGO funding or facilitation. The overwhelming majority of citizen diplomats are tourists. But the number of tourist traveling from the United States to Russia has mirrored government-sponsored exchange. In 2014, the number of visitors is down 30 to 40 percent, even in a year that the Sochi Olympics drew thousands of Americans to Russia. While the number of Russian visitors has grown over the past several years, Russians are not even in the top 20 of nationalities visiting the United States each year.

And while government involvement is not necessary for citizen diplomacy, government funding is often a critical enabler for such programs. Political scientists in both hemispheres will continue to ponder how U.S.-Russia relations went awry during the past two decades, but I feel certain that circumstances would be dramatically different had people-to-people interactions remained a U.S. Government priority. After all, it takes a person-to-person conversation to understand that the term American “exceptionalism” translates into Russian as “exclusivnost”—exclusiveness. The listener hears not “we’ve created something special” but “we’ve created something you are excluded from.” It becomes easier to understand how distaste quickly becomes resentment towards a nation that holds up such an ideology if it’s lost in translation—of words and experience.

Over the past month, I’ve continued to reflect on my experience at the Wall. I have thought about those who built it to begin with, and those who tore it down. The United States and Russia—and indeed, any world power—are obliged to consider the effects of their actions in the long term. It is impossible to look at the host of cancelled programs and the anemic exchange numbers and not blame shortsightedness towards the importance of public diplomacy, at least in large part, for where U.S.-Russia relations stand today.

Twenty-five years—is our collective memory so short? When governments fail to act, history has shown that individuals can transcend borders and barriers. Those who remember the darkest days of the Cold War on both sides of the Wall know that human relationships were the only hope for a better tomorrow, for the day the darkness would end.

In a few weeks, the world will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the opening of The Wall, and people from across Europe—and the world—will flood the streets of Berlin in celebration. While there is certainly cause for celebration, there is also good reason to pause and consider the future. By embracing the culture, friendship, and generosity of another country, perhaps it is possible to influence others to stop building virtual walls in defense of some delusional idea of exceptionalism or exclusiveness.

After all, great nations and their people don’t build walls, they build bridges.

Deirdre White

Deirdre White

Deirdre White is an internationally recognized leader in the field of economic development. As CEO of PYXERA Global, Deirdre spearheaded the growth of best practices in Global Pro Bono to benefit global corporations, local governments, and nonprofits worldwide. Widely cited for her thought leadership, Deirdre has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Forbes, and Fast Company, and contributed to MarketWatch and Stanford Social Innovation Review. Previously, she served as a facilitator of the Employee Engagement Action Network at the Clinton Global Initiative and participated in Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Initiative and the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread’s Leadership Forum for Global Citizen Diplomacy.

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