Friday, October 22, 2010

Why Did You Stay Communist So Long?

Chandler Davis has a new book out: It Walks in Beauty (ed. by Josh Lukin. Aqueduct Press, 2010). Last night there was a book launch at the Judy Merrill Science fiction library at the Toronto Public Library on College Street. Chandler's book includes both science fiction and essays in which he recounts his experience as a leftist in the United States during the forties and fifties. Eventually he went to jail for refusing to testify about belonging to the Communist Party while refraining from “taking the fifth amendment.” Then he joined the University of Toronto faculty as a mathematics professor. He has been an activist in peace work for his whole life and serves on Peace Magazine’s editorial board and as treasurer for Science for Peace. I like him and admire him greatly. I was one of the panelists discussing the book. I’ll print my comments here. To read Chan’s answers, I suggest that you obtain his book.

My comments

I enjoyed Chandler’s science fiction stories. Sci Fi is not something that I read often, but these stories are beautifully written—especially the one that sounds like an ethnographic field report. I kept trying to read it as an Aesopian commentary on contemporary Western civilization but I’m not good at that sort of thing so I turned to the more political essays.

What really grabbed me was his essay, “Shooting Rats in a Barrel.” It impels me to address the issues that were alive during the period of McCarthyism (which is not a term that Chandler uses, probably because the repression started long before McCarthy’s day).

The main point of Chandler’s essay is to urge us not to shut out the questions that the Left posed during his youth. I quite agree that we should not do so; they are important questions. However, there are ways of shutting out certain questions without engaging in political repression, and without sending anyone to jail. The main way is through politeness. We avoid certain discussions just to keep the peace and keep friendly relationships. I myself have been often avoided topics for that purpose, so let me re-open some of those questions now.

In 1949, a week after my 18th birthday, I moved to Berkeley and into a small coop. There was a boy’s house with about ten guys and a girl’s house with about eight of us; we cooked and ate and slept together. There was no housemother. Chan is the same age as the guy I slept with and married — five years older than myself.

Chan might have been part of that group, which was certainly tilted toward the left. Half or so were black (then properly called “negro”). I was told later that some of the members had been CP members at the time, but had kept it quiet. To this day I don’t know which ones they were.

The same week when I arrived in Berkeley a huge historic controversy arose. It was the year of the Loyalty Oath. Immediately I became involved in committee work to oppose the oath. I was entirely in favor of fraternizing with Communists and having them on the faculty. If Chandler had been part of my coop, we would not have argued. There was a norm of acceptance that involved not questioning each other with hard political questions. A Communist Chandler Davis would have been perfectly acceptable.

Chan’s article makes it sound as if the whole debate was between repressive Right-wingers and Left-wingers such as himself. He leaves out my type — liberal. The argument about the oath was based on the opinion of the Right that we must exclude political groups that themselves refuse to respect civil liberties. The Communist Party was (correctly) believed to be pro-Stalinist, hence willing to use undemocratic methods to pursue its own political goals. Unless a party would agree to the rules of democratic government, they should be excluded, said the Right.

As a liberal, I took the view that if you believe in freedom of speech and of academic freedom, then you have to include anti-democratic organizations too. I did not doubt that Communists would indeed be repressive themselves if they had the chance, but I believed as a liberal that our responsibility would be to counter their arguments from a democratic, civil libertarian perspective.

There are many, many authoritarian regimes in the world that do not respect civil liberties. The US was never the worst one. And today the same debate is going on about how to treat terrorists. I still hold the liberal view that you cannot repress your adversaries, even potential terrorists, without giving away what you prize most: freedom and democracy.

In 1949 I never would have asked Chan how he could belong to the Communist Party, knowing what it was doing to people in other countries. That would have been rude. However, I once did ask Anatol Rapoport that question. He had fled the Soviet Union at about age 10, skating across a frozen river, to escape persecution in Ukraine. During the nighttime, his family could hear what was going on. Yet Anatol stayed a Communist for many years thereafter, despite knowing what was going on in terms of human rights in the Soviet Union. I asked him what he had told himself to justify staying on and he said that he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t explain it anymore.

Now that we are old and have been friends so long, Chan, I am finally going to ask you this: Why were you a Communist so long?

(Chandler gave a credible reply, and his wife Natalie Zemon Davis also stopped me afterward to supply some more information —including the facts that Chan had been a “red diaper baby“; had never been a Stalinist; and had quit the party in 1953. But I won’t try to summarize their comments here. Read his book. Also, I’ll invite him to post his comments here. It’s a discussion we should never have postponed out of a misguided sense of politeness. Engagement in political discussions is a civic duty, in my opinion.)


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Classifying Russian Political Opinions

Speech to International Peace Bureau, Oslo, September 2010

In 1982 I began visiting the Soviet Union and then kept returning and interviewing hundreds of people for the next 28 years. Today my book The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy is supposed to be released. I’ll give you a peek.

In those days it made sense to classify Eastern public opinion in four categories: Sheep, Dinosaurs, Barking Dogs, and Termites. It’s only the last two that interest me.
  1. Sheep—the ordinary Soviet citizens who overtly accepted whatever their government said;
  2. Dinosaurs—the official, government-sponsored Communist bureaucracies who criticized Western policies, but never their own. This reactionary bunch included most military officers, the KGB, the Soviet Peace Committee and the World Peace Council;
  3. Barking Dogs—dissidents who accepted the risk of speaking honestly. They didn’t like to be called dissidents, so I call them “Barking Dogs” because they made a lot of noise, trying wake up the general public, though they couldn’t bite;
  4. Termites—reformist, democratic members of the CPSU who were secretly burrowing silently within the party.

Barking Dogs (Dissidents)

Most dissidents were refuseniks or numan-rights protesters, but I used to visit an independent peace group that I’ll call the Trustbuilders.

Lacking access to Soviet military data, the Trustbuilders concentrated on building people-to-people relationships between Russians and Westerners. I now believe that this is still important for building peace. Because of their totalitarian history, Russians are culturally mistrustful, but getting to zero nuclear weapons will require us to cultivate trusting relationships with them.

To avoid being provocative, the Trustbuilders used such mild actions as exchanging family photos with Americans. Nevertheless, as dissidents, they were beaten up, sacked from their jobs, sent to prison, and eventually allowed to emigrate. By 1988 most of the Trustbuilder founders were living in the United States.
Besides the Trustbuilders, a few courageous individuals such as Andrei Sakharov criticized Soviet military policies independently and publicly. Sakharov was a truculent man who berated his scientific colleagues for not supporting him, though they were in fact working quietly on his behalf. He never repented having invented the Soviet hydrogen bomb, yet he constantly tried to stop the arms race. As the most prominent Soviet Barking Dog, he performed great services for his country—but also great harm. If one group deserves special blame for the breakup of the Soviet Union, it is the radical successors of the Barking Dogs. Inspired by Sakharov, it was they who defeated Gorbachev’s best efforts.


Next, the Termites. When I spoke in peace dialogues in Moscow or Vienna, I often emphasized the connection between democracy and disarmament. For example, I said that any Western arms control negotiator who knows how the Soviet Union mistreats its citizens probably will hesitate about making any deals.
The Soviet officials would reply with a standardized response, but during the coffee break they would come up and praise me for raising this issue, and for putting it so politely. Their “onstage” and “offstage” responses were miles apart.

If my friends or I passed a high-level Soviet official in the hallway there might be a startling moment of nonverbal communication. Without winking or giving a thumbs-up sign, the official’s warm, prolonged gaze would convey an unmistakable message: that we were secret allies. This, I learned, was how Termites expressed themselves when they could not choose their words freely. But how many such “closet democrats” were there?

In the 1980s, there were 270 million Soviet citizens, of whom almost 20 million were members of the CPSU. Of those, probably one million were Termites—members covertly opposing the regime. What were their social backgrounds?

Many of them had traveled abroad, knew many foreigners, admired Eurocommunism, and had worked in Prague at the journal, Problems of Peace and Socialism, and later worked in the International Department of the CPSU. When Gorbachev, the master Termite, came to power in 1985, this community of experts became his advisers, the most powerful decision-makers in the country.

Transnational Civil Society

Gorbachev and his advisers adopted four guiding ideas that moved us toward peace. Together these were called “new political thinking.“ I have only enough time to name these principles: (a) common security, (b) reasonable sufficiency, (c) non-offensive defense, and (d) unilateral initiatives, all influenced by Western peace research. Several Termites had picked these ideas up while studying abroad or serving in foreign embassies. Most had participated in elite transnational civil society organizations such as International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Pugwash, the Dartmouth Conferences, and the World Order Models Project. Termite scientists worked closely with Western scientists and weapons designers, and promoted such policies as a moratorium on nuclear testing. By 1994 both Dr Bernard Lown of IPPNW and physicist Frank von Hippel had visited Russia over 30 times. My main point is that transnational relationship were among the most influential factors behind the ending of the Cold War.

But Gorbachev had opponents too. He had expected to be opposed by the 19 million Party members who were Dinosaurs, as well as many Sheep. His challenge was to hold together the opposing political wings—Dinosaurs and Termites—and prevent civil war. He would compromise when necessary, lest the Dinosaurs (who still had considerable power) force him out of office. He would move cautiously toward democracy and peace, steering between the right and left wings. But this strategy proved harder than he expected.
All three categories of peace groups were hostile to each other. The official peace committee were mostly Dinosaurs who resented both the Barking Dogs and the Termites, regarding them alike as traitors who were “giving away the store” to Western countries without getting anything in return. This was an entirely predictable clash between hard-line Communists and flexible reformers.

What was surprising, however, was the extreme hostility between the two progressive groups, the Barking Dogs and Termites. Both groups shared the same goals—democracy and peace—so they should have been allies, but in reality, they despised each other—and still do today.

The conflict was not about goals but methods. Barking Dogs believed that change could only come from below, from democratic rebellion, as in Poland or the Prague Spring. They had risked their lives on that theory, and Gorbachev had disproved it. They regarded the Termites as a privileged gang of cowards who had never stood up for their own principles. Some of them called the Termites “whores. ” They especially despised Gorbachev—that Termite reformer, that slick politician!
For their part, the Termites regarded the Barking Dogs as naïve extremists incapable of the compromises required by democracy. Termites believed that freedom could only come from above, from the Party’s leader. On the basis of this theory, Gorbachev indeed had held his tongue all his life and manoeuvred adroitly to reach the only post from which to change the Soviet system. But having reached it, he still could not win the support of the old dissidents.

The new glasnost policy allowed everyone to speak and act freely. By about 1988, civil society was forming, including a mass political movement called Democratic Russia, which backed Yeltsin. In 1990, the Termites—indeed, virtually the entire Soviet intelligentsia—deserted Gorbachev and joined the remaining Barking Dogs, who began to attract a mass following because it was now safe for anyone to join. They called themselves “radical democrats” and demanded faster changes than Gorbachev thought wise—at least until he could remove the Dinosaurs from power.

Yet he was implementing dramatic reforms. He almost reached an agreement to abolish all nuclear weapons, and did achieve the remarkable INF Treaty. He let the Eastern Europeans oust the Communist rulers. He let East and West Germany reunite, inside NATO. He allowed some private ownership of businesses. He removed Soviet troops from Eastern Europe. He began work on a new Union Treaty to reconnect the various Soviet republics. That constitution would have no role for the Communist Party.
All these changes antagonized the Dinosaurs, who threatened him. He placated them temporarily, knowing that the New Union Treaty would soon leave them high and dry. By appeasing them, however, he alienated the rest of his former Termites—his centrist base.
By August of 1991 the Dinosaurs attempted a coup for the Right. It failed, but Yeltsin promptly made a coup for the Left by dissolving the Soviet Union and leaving Gorbachev without a job. The breakup led to separatist wars in several republics, most notably in Chechnya, and to economic chaos. Yeltsin gave most state industries away; shelled his own parliament, killing perhaps 1,000 persons; imposed a constitution giving himself almost complete power; and conducted fraudulent elections. By the end, less than five percent of the population approved of his presidency.
What caused such disasters? First, the groups that had worked from below and from above, respectively, refused to join together when their cooperation was needed. The Barking Dogs would never support the ex-Termites.

But in 1990 they did join together—as Gorbachev’s opponents, not his supporters. The Termites went over to the Barking Dogs, thus replacing Gorbachev’s presidency with something far worse. 

Today Barack Obama is learning what Gorbachev discovered in 1991: that a crisis increases polarization and eliminates common ground, perhaps making it impossible to move forward with a progressive policy.

In August 1991 END held a big conference in Moscow. At last, thousands of authentic new peace organizations were flourishing throughout the Soviet Union. But two days later came the coup. Although Muscovites defeated it with non-violent means, few of them understood what they had done. In contrast to the Poles, few Russians comprehend the power of nonviolence. They even tried to account for their success in terms of other factors.

In 1997 there was an IPB conference in Moscow. Russian peace groups were still numerous but now confused. They had supported the US-led Gulf War, and they still hated Gorbachev. Bruce Kent took the floor and explained to them how much Gorbachev had contributed to world peace, but the Russians weren’t impressed. They still hate him now.

From Below and Sideways

Today the Russian peace movement and the transnational groups are moribund. Putin enacted controls over civil society to prevent a “color revolution” in Russia. Now NGOs are regulated and inspected constantly, and protest marchers are often jailed. There are, nevertheless, new pro-democracy Barking Dogs in Russia who deserve our support.

Russia is an authoritarian state again, but not totalitarian. That is progress. But the opportunities that Gorbachev had created are long gone. Russian activists today no longer expect to change the society from below, by their own efforts. They admit to needing outside help.

Fortunately, there are some new technological possibilities for creating numerous transnational civil society organizations, even at the grassroots. Most young Russians now study English and most have computers with webcams. For advice, see the handout I’ve distributed. We can form videoconferencing discussion groups with four Russians sitting at a computer once a month for an hour discussing world affairs with, say, four Canadians or Norwegians. That builds trust, a precondition for further cuts in nuclear weapons. If 1,000 or 2,000 such dialogues continue for a year, I’ll bet that relations will visibly improve between Russia and the NATO countries.

Let’s begin a new sustained dialogue with Russians. We need, not only the fervor and integrity of the new Barking Dogs who demand fast results, but also the quiet patience of new Termites with whom to build trust.

On Our Way to Nuclear Disarmament

On Our Way to Nuclear Disarmament: Speech to Physicians for Global Survival

Surveys suggest that about three-quarters of the human population want nuclear weapons to be abolished. Why have we been unable to do so? I’ll list five reasons, which will suggest an agenda of five preconditions that must be resolved. I won’t discuss the technology of the bombs or the diplomatic steps toward abolishing them, but rather some obvious tasks for us as activists in civil society. What can you and I do?

Presumably we all share one common goal: to eliminate every nuclear weapon on the planet and keep anyone from building new ones. That will require every country to sign a Nuclear Weapons Convention—a treaty with procedures for inspection and enforcement. Who is blocking this? Answer: The five nuclear weapon states, France, Britain, China, and particularly two—the United States and Russia, which between them own 95 percent of all nuclear weapons.

While we work toward promoting our big goal, a Nuclear Weapons Convention, we also have intermediate goals, such as Nuclear Weapons Free Zones or the de-alerting of existing nuclear weapons to keep them from being launched by mistake. Or the locking up of loose fissile material so it can’t be collected for use in bombs, which is the only way terrorists can get them.

Here is my list of the five obstacles to disarmament.
  1. The belief in deterrence as a source of security;
  2. The belief that nuclear weapons confer power and prestige;
  3. Economic interests in favor of maintaining nuclear weapons;
  4. Political constraints against disarming;
  5. The poor relationship between Russia and the US, with its NATO partners, including Canada.
First, the worst of these problems is the belief that deterrence is a basis for security. If you were the only person in the world with a nuclear arsenal, you might feel like a king. But if your enemy got one too, you would both realize that you couldn’t fire without being killed too. You both would sit and stare at each other helplessly for a long, long time. The only benefit of having nukes would be to warn your opponent not to fire his. We call this condition “mutual deterrence,” or “mutually assured destruction.” It’s terribly frustrating but, as they say about getting old, it’s better than the alternative.

However, sometimes strategists can’t endure the frustration. They want to have their cake and eat it too, so they try to figure out how to use a few nukes under special circumstances without setting off a frenzy of mutual retaliation. Still, even those strategists believe in deterrence. It is up to you and me to prove that disarmament makes everyone more secure than deterrence. How can we do that?

Unfortunately we cannot exactly disprove the notion that deterrence has worked. For example, we can’t disprove the idea that NATO’s missiles deterred the Soviet Union from invading Europe. We think the Soviets wouldn’t have done so anyway, but logically, it is impossible to prove what would have happened if what did happen had not happened.

We can, however, show that there have been times when deterrence has almost failed and nearly resulted in nuclear war, and that similar occasions must be expected again. For example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Castro all mis-estimated what the other two guys would do, thus coming within minutes of ending civilization. Because misunderstandings are part of the human condition, we have to expect similar crises in the future if we retain a nuclear deterrent.

Moreover, we can prove that nuclear bombs, which are intended only for deterrence, actually stimulate the proliferation of more nuclear bombs. Whenever a country acquires such weapons, a rival country tries to get some of its own. The competition began when the US thought Hitler was creating an atomic bomb. He wasn’t. But after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union quickly caught up with its American rivals. So did Britain, whose rival France in turn matched its achievement and even helped Israel build nukes too. Then China noticed what the Soviets were doing and built its own bomb, thus un-nerving India, which raced to catch up. But India’s nuclear capacity made Pakistan so anxious that it too built the bomb. Indeed, Pakistan’s chief nuclear scientist passed the technology on to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. And so it goes. Instead of deterring others, each new nuclear arsenal stimulates proliferation—which will continue until disarmament or doomsday, whichever comes first.

But anyway, how many nukes would a country need for nuclear deterrence? The answers vary widely. During the worst of the Cold War, there were 70,000 of the bombs on the planet. Now there are about 23,000 and declining. Some US Air Force strategists recently declared that the US needs exactly 311 nuclear bombs and could safely reduce to that low number unilaterally, even if no other country also cut its stockpile. It’s a strangely precise number, 311, and I want to consider some of its implications.

Other experts have long predicted that if the Russian and American arsenals were reduced to, say, 500 apiece, all the other nuclear states would come to the table and negotiate a nuclear weapons convention. After all, China, India, Pakistan, and the European Parliament have promised to go to zero if the others will do likewise, and even Israel has made a similar pledge. Hence, by proposing to go below 500, these Air Force guys may set off a stampede toward complete nuclear abolition—which is not at all what they intended.

But let’s not get carried away with glee over this prospect. If it doesn’t happen we face a different, far nastier, possibility. Keeping as few as 311 warheads still threatens humankind’s survival. Back in the 1980s Carl Sagan and others calculated that smoke from the fires of nuclear-bombed cities would darken and chill the planet, even in summertime. They called it “nuclear winter.” More recent research also shows that to nuke even 100 cities could postpone summer for ten years. No crops would grow, and populations would starve. That’s one hell of an antidote to global warming, using only one-third of those 311 nuclear bombs. In a real war, of course, they would all be fired. Please pass this news on to your friends who still believe that deterrence keeps us secure.

Now I’ll move on to the second obstacle to disarmament, namely, nuclear weapons as a status symbol, conferring power and prestige. This is not exactly a fiction. There are two types of nations in the world: those officially recognized as nuclear-armed states and those that are not supposed to be. Notice that in the UN Security Council, the permanent five members are the nuclear-weapons states, each wielding veto power. No wonder every ambitious young non-nuclear country wants to grow up and join the nuclear club! It is symbolic proof of manhood.

We have to overcome this silly indicator of prestige. What should count instead is a country’s commitment to universality and the rule of law. Almost all Non-Nuclear Weapons States belong to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In joining, they agreed to a bargain: they promised never acquire nuclear weapons if, for their part, the Nuclear Weapon States would disarm. Guess which group has failed to fulfill its pledge? The Nuclear Weapon States. Our job is to demand that they do so.

The third obstacle to nuclear disarmament is economic. Buying useless weapons is as foolish as burning $100 bills. But the creation of any new industry is also the creation of a new interest group—its employees. If banks and auto manufacturers can be “too big to fail,” so too can the nuclear weapons industry. When NATO and Russia start to disarm, corporate employees and stockholders will start screaming bloody murder. Count on it. To prepare for this, we need to create alternative jobs. Luckily, climate change is going to require big investment. This is where the economics of climate and disarmament coincide. We can resolve both problems by promoting a switch from military-industrial investment into green energy. Read Tom Friedman, who tells us that China is already far ahead and that our own future prosperity depends on developing a green economy.

The fourth obstacle to disarmament consists of political constraints. No political leader in a democracy can do everything he pleases; he has to pander to potential voters. I’m sorry to remind you, but that’s the price of living in a democracy. Often a politician cannot afford even to disclose frankly what he would like to do. But there have been two political leaders who promised nuclear abolition: Mikhail Gorbachev and Barack Obama. Both were smart, democratic politicians who shared the same bipartisan game plan: to steer between right and left, moving forward cautiously while holding together the two political wings. Unfortunately, both men encountered a crisis, which polarized politics, made the right and left less willing to compromise, and eroded the common ground between them.

Gorbachev, bless his heart, almost achieved disarmament, but the right wing Soviet military-industrial complex retained enough power to intimidate him. He had to placate them, which infuriated the left-wing reformists who had originally been his supporters. In 1990 they deserted him in droves for compromising with the right. They joined Yeltsin, who promised swift, radical changes. This weakened Gorbachev further, allowing the reactionaries to plot a coup against him. Although the right wing’s coup failed, Yeltsin soon made a successful leftist coup by dissolving the Soviet Union. That ended Gorbachev’s opportunities for nuclear disarmament.

There is a lesson in this for us. If we want peace and disarmament, we had better stick with Obama, even if he disappoints us by compromising with reactionaries. He has to court voters, so he often appears weak, but he’s the best politician we’ve got. Personally, I worry that Obama will fail for the same reason as Gorbachev. Peaceniks and Democrats will abandon him, letting the Republicans take charge. Then the US Senate won’t ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or even the START follow-on Treaty. If we want disarmament, we must stop disparaging the only democratic politician who favors it.

But this does not mean that we should stop campaigning for our issue. Obama wants to be pushed to disarm because that empowers him, so long as we don’t give up on him. Here’s a true story. In 1982 the US was pressing Canada to test cruise missiles in Alberta. Some of us in Science for Peace (including George Ignatieff) wrote a letter of protest to Prime Minister Trudeau. That same day his assistant, David Crenna, flew down to have dinner with us. (It was probably Ignatieff’s name that explains this speedy reaction.) Crenna said that Trudeau would like to refuse the cruise but could not afford to do so because there were no crowds in the streets demanding it. He implied that Trudeau wanted us to work up sufficient political clamor to enable him to stand up against the Americans. The same goes for all democratic leaders. They need voter support but also voter pressure. That’s what social movements are for, so let’s provide it!

Finally, let’s turn to our fifth obstacle: the hostility between Russia and the West. The US government deserves most of the blame for it. If you visit Russia, you will hear endless complaints about past American betrayals. I’ll summarize a few of them.

During the hardest phase of perestroika, Gorbachev needed financial aid from the West. By then Bush Senior was in power and said no. His rejection made the coup possible. Then Yeltsin came in and threw the country into shock therapy, upon the advice of American economists, the IMF, and the U.S. Treasury. It resulted in 2600 percent inflation. Many Russians believe that the US urged this precisely to wreck their economy. Then Yeltsin began giving away the state-owned industries, cheating to win elections, and shelling the parliament, which killed perhaps a thousand people. Bill Clinton supported his pal Boris through thick and thin, assuring the Russians that their government was an up-and-coming democracy. The Russians who believed him never want democracy again, thank you very much. The sample was ample.

Gorbachev had let the Warsaw Treaty Organization states oust communist regimes and had let East and West Germany unite within NATO. It had been implicitly agreed, of course, that NATO would not encroach into the other post-WTO countries. Nevertheless, Clinton did so. Today NATO would include Ukraine and Georgia too if the Russian government had not been threatening nasty responses.

Another recent American plan was to set up missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, threatening Russia with today’s version of Star Wars. Naturally, the Russians were cool to this idea. Also, Russians regard the Serbs as family, so they were outraged when NATO bombed Belgrade and recognized the independence of breakaway Kosovo. Two years ago Russia retaliated by recognizing the independence of South Ossetia from Georgia. They even sent troops as a gesture of payback for the West’s recognition of Kosovo.

The Russians are right, I think, in considering all these actions as hostile moves by the US. Nowadays Obama intends to “reset” the relationship, but he either does not want to reverse some of these policies or, for domestic political reasons, does not dare do so. Part of the former Soviet Union now belongs to NATO, which still plans to set up ballistic missile defenses around Russia. No wonder the Russians are resentful!

Canada is in NATO, so we are party to these anti-Russian actions. Yet we are able to improve our relationship with Russia.  There are thousands of ways to do so, but apparently we aren’t willing. Why not?

Our stand-offish attitude toward Russia, I think, is based on an accurate appraisal of its corrupt, undemocratic state, which still violates human rights. Though Medvedev is a better president than Putin, he has not succeeded in implementing reforms. There are excellent reasons for mistrusting the Russian government—but mistrust is no basis for peace and disarmament. Indeed, it’s precisely what we have to overcome.

 I have discussed disarmament with Pavel Podvig, a Russian nuclear weapons expert. He doesn’t expect deeper reductions in the arsenals of Russia and NATO until relations become friendlier. Well, since Canadians belong to NATO, you and I can begin working toward this friendship right now. And your wonderful organization, Physicians for Global Survival, is in a supremely favorable position to contribute.

The relationships that build trust most effectively are civil society organizations, of which there are two types: bonding and bridging organizations. A bonding organization is one whose members are socially similar. Such communities help members acquire social and political skills. But even more important are the bridging groups — those with members of diverse backgrounds and outlooks. Transnational groups are obviously bridging organizations—and you are part of one of the most outstanding ones, IPPNW.

A recent analysis of Facebook shows that most on-line networks are of the bonding type; People tend to hang out with people like themselves. But real peacebuilding requires dealing with people with whom we don’t necessarily agree. There’s a new organization that encourages bridging friendships on Facebook—between Serbs and Kosovars, between Turks and Greeks, and between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s a great idea, but it cannot possibly be as effective as IPPNW was during the 1980s. What really counts are sustained dialogues—getting to know each other personally over a long period of face-to-face conversation.

My new book, The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, describes the close interactions during the Cold War between certain elite groups of Russians and Westerners. IPPNW, for example, was amazingly influential in Soviet policies. The leaders deserve much of the credit for ending the Cold War. There were also a few other such influential transnational organizations, such as the Dartmouth Conferences and Pugwash. Even the visits of exchange students had strong positive influences, though by far the long-term sustained dialogues among elites made the most difference.

After the Soviet Union ended, such bridging transnational civil society organizations dwindled. IPPNW and Pugwash in Russia today are but shadows of the former groups. Nevertheless, they still exist, offering us not only a structure through which to revive transnational contacts but even to enlarge them into a big grass-roots movement.

Almost all Russians now study English in school and many have computers with camcorders. I propose that Physicians for Global Survival organize a number of international video-conferencing discussion groups between your members in Russia and Canada. There’s a new Skype version that lets you hook together up to ten different computers in different locations. Please pick up one of the hand-outs my assistant prepared, giving instructions for connecting your computers. It will be easy to invite, say, three English-speaking Russian physicians to gather once a month for a whole year in front of a webcam in Novosibirsk or St. Petersburg and discuss for an hour, say, breast cancer screening, HIV treatment, disarmament, or climate change with three physicians sitting at a computer in Regina or St. Catharine’s. After a year, you’ll have several new friends who trust each other. We need thousands of such groups to influence public opinion at the societal level.

The Kettering Institute, which funded the Dartmouth Conferences, has a program that facilitates community discussions of social problems in American cities. I recommend their instruction manuals, which teach methods of sustained dialogue.

I myself am setting up two regular videoconferencing groups — one with five members of my family on the West Coast, and one with friends in Moscow to discuss the international news of the month. IPPNW is the ideal group to organize such dialogues, but everyone can do so independently too. If you know someone in Russia, you too can form an ongoing dialogue with, say, some fellow freight train engineers in Krasnoyarsk, or some kindergarten teachers in Perm, or some Aristotle scholars in Vladivostok. Just think of the possibilities!

So get your computers ready, everybody, and let’s Skype for peace!