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When the People Lead, Leaders Will Follow

In, her book about helping to end the Cold War and to build a better Russia, Sharon Tennison tells one of the great hidden stories of our age.
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In The Power of Impossible Ideas, her book about helping to end the Cold War and to build a better Russia, Sharon Tennison tells one of the great hidden stories of our age. She naturally focuses on her own organization, now called the Center for Citizen Initiatives, though a complete account of citizen diplomacy would include other pioneering groups such as the Esalen Soviet-American Exchange Program.

What led these ordinary people in the early 1980s to invent and engage in citizen diplomacy ?

The USSR collapsed in 1991, about the time of the birth of the recent college graduates now learning jobs or looking for them. The four decades before that included regional wars, space exploration, and an economic boom, but the consequential events of that period also included something that nearly happened, more than once, but didn't, and something that seemed impossibly naïve but wasn't; and the two were closely related.

What nearly happened but didn't quite was a nuclear exchange in the northern hemisphere, missiles soaring over the Arctic sea ice that is now melting. In the fall of 1962, for example, the Cuban missile crisis unfolded over the famous 13 days and is remembered as a moment of American triumph. As the Secretary of State said, "We're eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked." But as his colleague, the Secretary of Defense, said in a documentary film, holding his thumb and index finger barely apart, "we came this close" to nuclear war. That film, The Fog of War, was released 40 years after the events, long after Robert McNamara had found out about a nuclear secret that nobody in the U.S. knew at the time.

What's the status of something that didn't happen? Less than a year later, on September 26, 1983, alarms sounded in the Soviet control center for satellite detection of a nuclear missile launch, warning of a possible American first strike. The officer in charge, Stanlislav Petrov, couldn't believe something so terrible was happening and so he disobeyed orders to notify superiors immediately and paused for five long minutes until radar stations could have observed incoming missiles but didn't. What seemed like an attack was later reinterpreted as sunlight glinting off the cloud cover over Montana. Petrov disobeyed orders and his only consolation, apart from preventing a mistaken war, was a UN medal quietly awarded.

This situation persisted for the next 20 years. We don't know how many close calls happened (in The Fog of War McNamara reported "three" during his tenure), but others are probably hidden behind the veil of "national security." A single close call was too many, when the penalty was what became known as "nuclear winter," a period when crops wouldn't grow. But how to undo the situation, managed by elites on both sides, each citing quite persuasively the danger of the other?

One contribution to extracting us from this dynamic was an American initiative called "citizen diplomacy," a good example of which was Sharon Tennison, the author of The Power of Impossible Ideas. Like most of us, she was an ordinary person, in her case a Texas girl who grew up to become a nurse in San Francisco. When a physician at her hospital invited her to join Physicians for Social Responsibility and give local talks about the Cold War, she realized she didn't know much about the nuclear stand-off or about the enemy.

It was in a friend's kitchen that she heard a voice in her head saying one simple sentence, a message that changed her life: "it's time to go see the enemy." The Soviets gave her a visa and said it would be OK to meet ordinary people, so long as she was accompanied by an Intourist guide. Some friends joined her.

The attitude of our national security elite, including the FBI, was doubtful, not to say hostile. Who were these innocent women and men who might just get in the way of proper diplomacy, be seduced by the Soviets, perhaps cause some sort of incident? Nobody thought that the Cold War would ever end. But Tennison and some friends went to Moscow and talked with strangers, ordinary people on the street, in parks, in the elegant subway, in humble apartments.

To jump ahead, Tennison worked on relations between her country and the USSR and then Russia for about a quarter century. She organized many programs, starting with the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Russia and a large exchange program bringing over 400 ordinary Soviets to the U.S. and arranging for them to "meet Middle America."

When Russians were finally allowed to start small businesses, but didn't know how, Tennison's organization brought many to the U.S. where they could observe the sort of business they wanted to start and then helped them to network with and support each other back home.

She stayed on the job through the terrible 1990s when the Russian economy fell apart. She then worked with a large State Department grant to train entrepreneurs and with Rotary International to foster a civic culture of volunteer service in a society marked by pervasive lack of trust. She supported a campaign against the corruption that in the 1990s took the form of "mafias" that ran protection rockets, to be followed in the 2000s by bureaucrats who impeded businesses by demanding bribes.

Meanwhile, Tennison kept Congress in touch with her activities, both by arranging meetings in Russia and in Washington. As she reminds us, it was President Eisenhower who said, "when the people lead, the leaders will follow."

Her book is one of the big untold stories of the late Twentieth Century, and citizen diplomacy in its many forms has implications for some of our present troubles. As she writes, "the world desperately needs citizen diplomacy to the Middle East and other trouble spots around the globe."

The situation in the USSR was especially suited to citizen diplomacy. After years of propaganda on both sides, simple reality was almost revolutionary. The USSR was physically safe, and friendly Americans had a certain access to the mass media. All you had to say, as I had occasion to say on all-Soviet TV, was (1) some Americans were neither Cold Warriors nor what Lenin called "useful idiots" (followers of the Party line), (2) we wished a better life for people there, (3) what had the Cold War accomplished in four decades other than to endanger the world?

If Gorbachev had not undertaken to change the faltering Soviet system, employing the centralized power of the General Secretary, the Cold War would not have ended as it did, Eastern Europe was not have been liberated, and we would not have become rivals and trading partners rather than enemies. But if Gorbachev had not seen some new thinking in the West, would he have dared to normalize external relations? As it was, on the government level he met enormous and understandable suspicion. Was the Kremlin really changing or was it all a trick, a "peace offensive" to throw us off our guard?

As Tennison tells in her book, I played a small part in arranging some early support for her activities, and together, at a brunch, we discussed the elements of what became "Soviets, Meet Middle America." I saw my job at the Ark Foundation as giving impossible challenges such that, as talented, passionate, persistent people worked to meet them, they might do something wonderful. I knew that bringing Soviet unofficial people to tour American cities was unprecedented, so we doubled down by specifying that they stay in private homes and meet school kids, attend backyard barbecues, talk on the radio, visit small businesses, be introduced by local officials, go to city council meetings, stop by religious services if they liked.

After years of being told that Americans were greedy, exploited, racist demons, the Soviets went home reporting that their hearts were touched by warm receptions. In short, rather than discussing arms control, the visitors entered the ordinary life of the other side.

Tennison calls her book The Power of Impossible Ideas. Another book with the word "impossible" in the title is Vaclav Havel's memoir of going from prison to the presidency in Prague. Yet another author is Paul Rogat Loeb, who wrote The Impossible Takes a Little While, a line from Bessy Smith. All of these writers were illustrating what it means to be a citizen, not just a "consumer."All faced tasks that looked daunting. When I had brunch with Tennison in 1987, I told her the Ark Foundation was looking for leaders who didn't assume that things that seemed impossible necessarily were, and who didn't wait for a grant to get started. She met both criteria.

My boss Don Carlson, who funded Ark, didn't know whether it would be possible to end the Cold War, but he judged that if it couldn't be ended, nothing else would matter. For that reason, we focused on that single goal for five years, ending in 1989 with the breaching of the Berlin Wall.

Tennison, to her credit, didn't stop. As the USSR collapsed, she kept going through the terrible 1990s, when most of the Western media perceived a flowering of democracy, and Russians saw "oligarchs" grabbing control of big industries, mafias running rampant, and people going hungry.

In The Power of Impossible Ideas a word that keeps coming up is "trust," as in "lack of trust." One consequence of living under Stalin was that the level of trust was very low: who could not betray you? People kept their private lives hidden. One of the shocking parts of Tennison's book is her talk with Putin's economic adviser, who laughed at her innocent question about whom the President, in the adjoining Kremlin office, could trust. Almost nobody, was the answer.

To Tennison's annoyance and alarm, much Western reporting took the side of the oligarchs whom Putin was arresting. Maybe they did steal huge enterprises in the 1990s, but in the West they were familiar kinds of figures, like captains of industry; and at least they weren't commissars. Plus which Putin, though perhaps honest, had come up through the KGB. He was acting like a czar, at least as compared with his predecessor Yeltsin who, when not drunk, won approval in the West by praising the "free market."

Tennison's persona as an ordinary person wears thin by the time senior U.S. Senators praise her, when she meets in the Kremlin in the office next to the president's, or when Russia's best-known TV personality shows up for her court appearance in St. Petersburg (a pipe in her apartment burst and caused damage downstairs). Nonetheless she won attention and respect as a citizen without official status, with the help of hundreds of volunteers.

She is modest about her abilities as a litterateur, and the latter part of her book is organized more like a fascinating diary than like a set of stories with a clear "arc," but taken as a whole, The Power of Impossible Ideas is engaging, suspenseful, inspiring. She and her colleagues were happy warriors for peace. Her book recounts the kind of adventure story that actually happened.

At the close of the book Tennison summarizes the huge differences between the learning, relating, and negotiating styles of the two peoples, based on their very different histories. If the first lesson of citizen diplomacy was, "we're remarkably similar," the later understanding among those who stuck with it was, "we're quite different but can learn from one another, get along, and even enjoy it."