By Brittany Holom, Alyssa Haas and Yury Barmin.
The U.S.-Russia relationship, by many accounts
, has reached a low point not seen since the Cold War. Syria
and the imposition of sanctions
, and accusations of hacking
are just some of the bilateral bones of contention.
Against this backdrop, private initiatives and Track II diplomacy
— the quiet, non-politicized discussions that can bring about progress on contentious issues — have helped the otherwise bleak relationship stay the course.
One example of this type of diplomacy is the annual Fort Ross Dialogue
. Russian and U.S. intellectuals, politicians and business leaders met recently at Stanford University for the 2016 session. After top leaders
provided some perspective on the challenges of the bilateral relationship, panels discussed ideas for educational exchange programs and innovative collaborative projects. [The U.S. has just accused Russia of hacking America's election]
When international relationships are particularly tense, such dialogues are an important alternative channel to official diplomatic contacts. According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, Track II
diplomacy happens when civil society leaders engage in "unofficial dialogue and problem-solving activities aimed at building relationships and encouraging new thinking that can inform the official process."
Track I diplomacy involves official meetings — the events that the media is likely to cover. Since the 1960s, Track II diplomacy has concentrated instead on peer-to-peer relations and sub-national contact between states. The actual terminology was introduced in a 1981 Foreign Policy article
by psychiatrist William D. Davidson and Foreign Service officer Joseph V. Montville. In the early 2000s, "Track 1.5
" diplomacy emerged, an approach that includes both state and non-state actors. Unofficial ties date back to the 1960s
The Kettering Foundation's Dartmouth Conference
, one of the oldest unofficial initiatives between the United States and what was then the Soviet Union, began bringing together citizen leaders in 1960. Participants continued to meet over the decades, including tense discussions during the Cuban missile crisis
. The Dartmouth Conference has hosted more than 130 meetings on a broad range of topics, including nuclear disarmament, climate change, trade relations and peace frameworks for the Middle East.
Educational exchanges are a cornerstone of Track II diplomacy. The Institute of International Education's 2015 report
shows that 1,527 U.S. students were in Russia in 2013-2014, and 5,562 Russians studied in the United States in 2014-15. During their student years, both Ambassador Michael McFaul
, a former ambassador to Moscow, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice
studied Russian at Soviet universities. The 2010 SAGE project
detailed how study-abroad programs promote the development of global engagement, leading to long-term political and economic benefits.
Scientific exchanges also have a long and collaborative history. A 2004 National Research Council report
looked at 50 years of U.S.-U.S.S.R./Russian interagency scientific cooperation and argued for continued ties between research academies. Future plans called for cooperation in education, environmental protection, nonproliferation, innovation and other areas. As Russian universities move to internationalize under the Russian Ministry of Science and Education's 5-100 program
, both scientific and student exchanges could increase. [Russian health-care protests continue despite Putin's popularity]
A 2009 CSIS report
detailed the long history of "health diplomacy
" between Russia and the United States — more than 30 partnerships between health institutions foster direct peer-to-peer links between more than 3,500 U.S. and Russian doctors and health-care workers.