The 2012 Sarah Carey Forum: Climbing Up the Other Guy’s Belfry

December 17, 2012

The value of “climbing up the other guy’s belfry” and seeing the world from another perspective was the dominant theme of the inaugural Sarah Carey Forum. Organized by Eurasia Foundation in November 2012 at the Embassy of Finland, the forum brought together six leading journalists, thinkers and activists to discuss the ups and downs in the US-Russia relationship.

“If we want a normal relationship,” longtime Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner said, “you’ve got to understand, you’ve got to climb up the other guy’s belfry, as they say in Russian, and look at the world from that person’s point of view.”

Veteran journalist Marvin Kalb, who moderated the forum, set the focus of the discussion with his opening question: “Are two countries, such as Russia and the US, capable at one and the same time of having tense government-to-government relationships while also maintaining, developing, and cultivating person-to-person relationships?”

The Carey Forum reunited Vladmir Pozner and his American counterpart Phil Donahue to discuss US-Russian relations and the important role of citizen engagement. In the 1980s, Pozner and Donahue co-hosted a series of televised discussions, or “space bridges,” between audiences in the Soviet Union and the US that gave ordinary Russians and Americans an opportunity to connect in an era when direct interactions were incredibly rare. Pozner and Donahue went on to co-host the issues-oriented roundtable “Pozner/Donahue” on CNBC from 1991 to 1994.

The panel also included John Beyrle, former US Ambassador to Russia, Hedrick Smith, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Russians, and Anna Koshman, executive director of the Russian Alliance of Independent Regional Publishers.

During the forum, the cyclical nature of US-Russian relations emerged as a recurring theme.

“The challenges have always been there and are not new,” Pozner said. “The way both sides perceive each other hasn’t really changed – it only superficially seems that way at times.”

Ambassador Beyrle, who served for three years in Moscow until January 2012, described the ups and downs of the relationship. “For every World War II alliance, we have a Cold War and a McCarthy period that follows it. For every Cuban missile crisis, it’s followed by a period of détente and disarmament.” The “self-correcting mechanism” behind the improvement in relations, he explained, often comes from citizens themselves, not governments.

Addressing more recent trends, Pozner noted a greater anti-American sentiment among ordinary Russians in comparison to Soviet times. The rise of anti-Americanism comes from Russia’s desire to enjoy a special relationship with the US and to be treated as an equal, Pozner explained.

“It seems to me one of the most important things to do is to value Russia as a power and a player in the world, Smith agreed. “We’ve cooled down the Cold War and ironically [this] has made Russia less important to us as a country. And they feel that and it hurts them.”

For his part, Donahue regretted the condescension that was often part of Americans’ attitude towards the Soviet Union. He described his own style during the “space bridge” telecasts as “preachy” and reminiscent of his Catholic upbringing, when after every Mass he would pray for the conversion of the Russians. He felt that this outlook limited opportunities for building understanding between the two countries.

The panelists agreed that improving relations depends on the degree to which both the US and Russia make increasing mutual understanding a priority. Obstacles exist on both sides. In the US, Donahue identified patronizing attitudes as a stumbling block, while in Russia Pozner pointed to institutions like the Orthodox Church and state-run media outlets that are perpetuating deeply embedded perceptions of hostility toward the West. Koshman underscored the importance of independent news media, both print and online, as a critical channel for changing those attitudes.

For Smith and Beyrle, the issue of missile defense and the mythology that the US wants to weaken and destroy Russia remains the crucial matter in improving relations. It is also directly connected to the promotion of civil society, Smith noted, which Russian President Vladimir Putin must be convinced is not only healthy and important for Russia but also for showing the world that the country is developing as a democracy.

Despite the many challenges that currently beset US-Russian relations, the participants all expressed optimism for a strengthened relationship rooted in people-to-people interactions.

“What we need to work on is preventing what feels like a little bit of regression now from steepening into what could be a plummet,” Beyrle said. “And in that, citizen diplomacy will and is playing a very important role.”

Greater exchange between the two countries creates stronger, more enduring relationships. As the discussion drew to a close, Donahue summarized the panel’s message: “It’s amazing what can happen if we reach out instead of lashing out.”

The Sarah Carey Forum, one element of Eurasia Foundation’s Sarah Carey Program, constitutes a living legacy dedicated to Carey’s passion for promoting social change through the practice of business and law. In April 2012, Ambassador Thomas Pickering received the first Sarah Carey Award for his work to advance civil society in the Eurasia region. EF’s Young Professionals Network continues Sarah Carey’s commitment to fostering the next generation of young Eurasia specialists.