I spent last week representing Williams at the first ever United States-Russia Summit at Stanford University. There, 25 Russian student leaders, 13 American student leaders and a slew of politicians, dignitaries, et cetera, have been hashing it out over democracy, free trade and the implementation of our very own community projects. We toured ghettos, studied organizational tactics, discussed the post-Cold War vacuum, and (don’t laugh) met with Reagan, Bush and Clinton administration officials, including ambassadors, secretaries of state and national security advisors. Together, we’re forging a new vision to change the stagnant status quo and better U.S.-Soviet relations, economic prosperity and social progress.
So why does Russia matter? Isn’t it far away, filled with penguins and falling apart? Despite bumbling politicians and tricky foreign policy, Russia remains a world power, presiding over a large nuclear arsenal, vast oil reserves and other resources. It influences much of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, where its manipulatory strong-arm tactics and monies finance everything from local governments and social works to arms purchases and terrorist groups.
Russian decisions to a certain extent determine U.S. troop deployment, renewed American commitment (read: expenditure of your tax dollars) in regions like the Caucasus and Central Africa, and world “hot button” issues like weapons control and genocide (Russia backs Milosevic, and has, throughout its history, supported campaigns against Muslims and Jews). Further problems in present-day Africa are similarly rooted in U.S.-Russia relations, as both powers bankrolled opposing “clients” in the 1970s and ’80s.
Russians at home contend with a volatile political mix, including an increasingly hostile international community, growing poverty and falling life expectancy and quality. New laws allow an influx of mostly American-based business in a market economy widely perceived not to meet peoples’ needs. The recent election of strong-arm ruler Vladmir Putin exacerbates the situation.
With the collapse of Communism some 10 years ago, Russia, encouraged by the West, rushed to embrace capitalist free market reform. Economically crippled, it sought loans through lending institutions backed by the United States and Europe – the IMF and World Bank. Unable to harness its resources effectively or efficiently, it rewrote a great portion of its policies, resulting in the current state of foreign economic domination and capital flight.
The Westerners and “New Russians” quick to profit from these changes form the new national elite. But the bulk of Russians, those unprepared to navigate a non-command economy, fell quickly behind. The resulting financial and political instability has forced Russia to allot a quarter of its budget to debt repayment, with potential crises looming large each day. The Chechen War, lack of capital for Russian-based startups and Western pressures for “democracy” and “human rights” further stresses a disabled polity.
So what can Williams students do? We can stay informed, vote conscientiously and, as consumers, choose wisely. We can pledge ourselves to renewing the debate over democracy (what is it, how would it differ elsewhere, are there other [possibly temporary] solutions?) and world development (is the United States pushing its values and companies on other nations? How can we help countries develop internally?).
We can even involve ourselves in the many stateside grass roots and foreign relations groups. Soros (www.soros.org) is changing the face of former Soviet States, while Volunteers For Peace, Doctors without Borders, Amigos de las Americas and others allocate themselves throughout the world.
To better serve its citizens and embrace international business, Russia must build a secure, economically stable foundation. Indigenous business ventures, resource development and increases in properly managed tourism, export and taxation projects can help. So can grass-roots organizations, and people like us. Last week’s conference was about forging partnerships and making the commitment (however small) to a peaceable, more prosperous global reality. When everyone gets involved, everyone can benefit. On behalf of the 40-odd Summit leaders here at Stanford, I invite you to meet the challenge.