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Expert Panel: It'll Take More Than Talk and Debate to Fix the US-Russia Relationship

A must-read American University in Moscow report illuminates the challenges of rescuing US-Russia relations.

It is unrealistic to expect official Washington to respond to reason about Russia. That's the essence of my response to a question posed by American University in Moscow to an expert panel.

The panel was asked specifically: "What concretely can we all do to force the media, the foreign policy establishment to 'come out and play' now rather than sulk and spit venom at the victorious Trump team?"

That was accompanied by the suggestion that with Trump's election it's finally time to have a frank debate and discussion of US-Russia foreign policy issues.

Here's what I had to say:

"Words alone can't force the media and foreign policy establishment to change anything."

I don't think it is realistic to expect official Washington to respond to reason about Russia. Reasoning hasn't worked so far.

Trump has certainly set a softer tone toward Putin and Russia compared to the American political mainstream. But who will be the allies in his administration? Google what Mike Pence has said about Putin in the past. Do the same for Jeff Sessions. There's little reason for much optimism there. I'm not saying that the Trump presidency won't be more open to policy change. But it doesn't seem like it will be a cakewalk.

Many analysts, historians, and writers have written multitudes of reasonable articles and reports with an eye to correcting blatant misinformation. I truly respect the intelligence, knowledge, and dedication that all have shown. I've written my share of stories too. Our targets have been the fabrications about Russia that have appeared in the Western press and have been espoused by political leaders.

But, I just can't identify any concrete change that has resulted. I don't mean to say that we haven't changed any minds at all. But we haven't brought about change in the fundamental problem: a counterfactual and highly negative view of Russia and its leaders. Isn't it time that we admit that rational explanation has failed and look for another solution?

In all candor I personally admit to having failed to effectuate change regarding the many issues I've addressed. There are only two exceptions. The first is the legal framework for Russia's media sector. Early in Putin's original presidency I led an effort that successfully advocated for the Yeltsin-era draconian laws to be changed. The second is the coronial witch hunt for Russian state responsibility in the Alexander Litvinenko affair. The efforts of my colleagues and I succeeded in taking that witch hunt off the table.

However these were not causes about which we merely wrote articles. These were efforts directed at effectuating concrete change, not simply debunking fabrications. We actually interacted with key players to gain their accession to making the changes for which we advocated. In my book Litvinenko Murder Case Solved I described this as a strategy-agile methodology, and gave it the name "Surgical Solution of Practical Problems," (SSOPP).

Just writing articles and speaking out to correct misconceptions has become a standard operating procedure (SOP). Methinks we need to move into something more like SSOPP.

The Trump presidency may or may not provide greater opportunity for making changes. But frankly I don't believe that Trump was ushered in by an enlightened American electorate. This was a campaign by two highly unpopular candidates, each seeking to make the other seem more unpopular. To me the choice seems to have been made more at a gut level rather than cerebrally.

I don't think his election evinces popular support for rethinking Russia. We're not looking at the power of an idea whose time has come.

This is not a time for more debate and discussion. Such activities might be psychotherapeutic for those of us who fret over all the fake news. But it's not a modality for real change. Now is the time for concrete action like SSOPP to bring about real change, not just promote more talk.

(William Dunkerley is author of Ukraine in the Crosshairs and Litvinenko Murder Case Solved. He is a media business analyst, principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, and a Senior Fellow at the American University in Moscow.)

Other panelists offered great insights and background on the challenges before us all:

Stephen Cohen: "Can we engage with the anti-détente Establishment? And is this essential for Trump's pro-detente policy to succeed?"

Patrick Armstrong: "The encouraging truth is that reality eventually triumphs; the discouraging truth is that it only does so over a long and painful time."

Andrew Korybko: "There isn't much that regular folks can do to force the foreign policy establishment to change its course. This is an internal battle that the Trump Administration will have to wage…"

Vladimir Golstein: "The failures of recent anti-Putin and anti-Trump hysteria in mass media had revealed that the simplistic approach to the politicians who challenge 'Washington consensus' does not really work."

Vlad Ivanenko: "Ten years ago, when the popular belief was that the outgoing Russian president, Mr. Putin, sought to choose a successor, I set an objective to define an optimal program for the next leader."

Jim Jatras: "Foreign policy professionals usually view 'foreign policy continuity' between administrations to be a desirable thing. However valid that notion may be in general, it is not applicable when the so-called 'experts' in the bipartisan establishment are heading us towards the rocks."

Daniel Lazare: "Imagine a business tycoon entering an operating room and telling the surgeons that they're idiots who don't know what they're doing. 'Give me that scalpel,' he shouts. 'I'll show you how to remove a brain tumor!' Sixty seconds later, the patient is dead."

Martin Sieff: "The paucity of politically presentable picks for secretary of state available to Trump reflects the degree to which the Republican Party, since the accession of the awful George W. Bush, has fallen into the hands of simplistic ideological idiots and insanely reckless warmongers who pose a risk to the entire human race."

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The expert panel was convened by Edward Lozansky, president of American University in Moscow. The topic for the panel was framed by Gilbert Doctorow, European Coordinator of the American Committee for East West Accord and Senior Research Fellow at the American University in Moscow.

View the entire report right now here.


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