By Peter Bergel
Dear Friends, Supporters and OPW Members,
As some of you know, I’ll leave on June 15 to join a citizen diplomacy peace delegation to Russia for two weeks. I will take with me a peace message from the mayor and mayor-elect of Salem, OR and will, I hope, bring back peace messages from Russian citizens, decision-makers, academicians and journalists. I will also listen carefully to the Russians’ concerns, especially those that concern our own country. At the same time, I will assure them that whatever our government may be doing in our name, it does not represent me when it threatens Russia with missiles placed practically on its doorstep. I hope I’ll be representing your views as well as I do this.
This person-to-person approach helped substantially to melt the Cold War’s deep freeze in the 1980s, when President Reagan jokingly threatened nuclear war on the radio. We hope this trip can be the start of a new era of citizen diplomacy that will help prevent nuclear war once again.
A recent appeal from Oregon PeaceWorks’ Board Chair John Roy Wilson brought in a heart-warming amount of financial support for this mission, and for that I am very grateful. To all those who contributed, my deeply-felt thanks.
The political situation between the U.S./NATO and Russia has degraded substantially even in the weeks since I was invited to join this delegation. From the Russian point of view, western missiles deployed in Romania – and soon to be deployed in Poland – are a serious threat. The explanation that they are defensive weapons aimed at Iran is hard to credit and few outside the US government do credit it. Memories of the 20 million Russians killed in World War II and the enmity sparked by the Cold War makes it hard for Russians to trust people from the U.S. Likewise, U.S. media demonizing of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has created trust blockage in the other direction.
People in both East and West must shake off the chains of distrust forged by weapons makers and politicians and seek to once again find the common ground that flourished in the late 1980s in the wake of many people-to-people projects.
The following article by David Swanson, who has often appeared in the pages of The PeaceWorker, describes the ongoing work of Sharon Tennison, the director of our trip. Our delegation will comprise an exciting mix of peace makers and peace advocates including Nobel Peace Prize nominee Kathy Kelly; David Hartsough, co-founder of the Nonviolent Peaceforce; Col. Ann Wright, who resigned from the U.S. Army in protest against the invasion of Iraq; Ray McGovern, a former CIA whistleblower and about 15 others.Φ
Peter Bergel is a former Director of Oregon PeaceWorks and the founding editor of The PeaceWorker. He is now a member of the OPW Board and calls himself an “activist at large.”
Lessons for Peace from Back in the USSR
By David Swanson
In the early 1980s almost nobody from the United States traveled to the Soviet Union or vice versa. The Soviets wouldn’t let anybody out, and good Americans were disinclined to visit the Evil Empire. But a woman in California named Sharon Tennison took the threat of nuclear war with the seriousness it deserved and still deserves. She got a group of friends together and asked the Russian consulate for permission to visit Russia, make friends, and learn.
Russia said fine. The U.S. government, in the form of the FBI and USAID, told them not to go, warned that they would not be permitted to move freely once there, and generally communicated that they, the U.S. government employees, had internalized their own propaganda. Tennison and company went anyway, had a wonderful experience, and spoke at events with slide shows upon their return, thus attracting many more people for the next trip.
Now it was Tennison’s turn to brief the flabbergasted and ignorant U.S. government staff who had virtually no actual knowledge of Russia beyond what she gave them. This was back in the day when President Ronald “Is this a film or reality?” Reagan said that 20 million dead Americans would be acceptable in a war. Yet the so-called intelligence so-called community didn’t know its assets from its elbows. War as a “last resort” was being considered without having considered literally any other resorts. Someone had to step in, and Sharon Tennison decided she’d try.
Those first trips took courage, to defy the U.S. government, and to operate in a Soviet Union still monitored by a nasty KGB. But the Americans went with friendship, were generally permitted to go wherever they wanted, and encountered friendship in return. They also encountered knowledge of cultural differences, the influences of history, political and social habits both admirable and lamentable. They became, in fact, a bridge between two worlds, experts on each for the other.
They expanded their work as Gorbachev came to power and the USSR opened up. They hired staff and opened offices in both countries. They sponsored and facilitated all variety of exchanges from art schools to Rotary clubs to police officers to environmentalists. They began bringing Russians to the United States as well as the reverse. They spoke all over the United States, even — in some examples Tennison gives in her book The Power of Impossible Ideas — converting gung-ho members of the U.S. weapons industry into volunteers and staff (in one case a man lost his job at General Dynamics as penalty for associating with them, but this freed him to more closely associate).
Tennison’s organization worked on sister cities, citizen diplomacy, alcoholics anonymous, and economic development. The latter would, over the years, become increasingly central and certainly focused on privatization and Americanization in a manner that might well be criticized. But it was not U.S. citizen diplomats who created the oligarchs of the 1990s or any culture of oligarch admiration. In fact, Tennison and her philanthropists made grants to Russians dependent on their making donations to others, working to build a culture of philanthropy. Alcoholics Anonymous can also be criticized, of course, but this was an effort to assist Russians with a real problem, not to threaten them with nuclear annihilation. All of these projects built relationships that have lasted and that have influenced U.S. policy for the better.
Through the 1990s, the projects evolved to include food and financial donations, orphanages, aid modeled on the Marshall Plan’s Productivity Tours, the creation of urban gardens and sustainable agriculture, and numerous business-training initiatives. Tennison met Vladimir Putin before he rose to power. She also met and advised top officials in the U.S. government. She accepted huge grants from USAID, the agency that had advised her never to begin her work. Of course, USAID has been involved in coups and hostile propaganda around the world, and a closer look at that problematic association might have been helpful in The Power of Impossible Ideas. But the work Tennison describes was all for the better, including taking U.S. Congressional leaders to dine in ordinary Russian homes. (I wonder how many current U.S. Congress members have done that.)
I can’t possibly recount all the amazing stories in Tennison’s book, which lives up to its vague and extravagant title; I strongly recommend you read it yourself. The critical development in the later chapters is the diversion Tennison encountered between reality and U.S. media. She found Putin to be a force for reconciliation, and the U.S. media to be intent on demonization — at least from the moment that Russia refused to participate in attacking Iraq in 2003.
Putin had tried to partner with the United States, challenging the demands of Russian hardliners. He allowed the U.S. to use Russian bases in Central Asia. He overlooked the United States withdrawing from the ABM treaty. He accepted NATO expansion right to Russia’s border. He supported, up to a point, the U.S. “war on terrorism.” Washington didn’t care.
“During the 2000s,” writes Tennison, “I watched as the reservoir of goodwill from the Gorbachev/Reagan years evaporated.” In 2004 the State Department cut off its funding for Tennison’s work. In 2006 the Council on Foreign Relations produced a report hostile toward Russia. That same year, Russia gave the United States the 10-story-tall monument that stands in Bayonne, New Jersey, but it was too late to have the U.S. media inform many people of it. In 2007, the U.S. was pushing to get Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Now, following the Ukrainian coup, the U.S. is seeking “partner