The St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, Russia)
Posted on April 15, 2003
By Ted Stevens
HOURS after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush received his first call from a foreign leader expressing condolences on behalf of his country. The leader was President Vladimir Putin, and the call was a symbol of a dramatic change in U.S.-Russian relations.
Cold War adversaries for 50 years, the United States and Russia have developed a special relationship based on common economic, political and cultural interests. Today, Russia and the United States are partners in trade, space exploration and allies in the global war on terror. Our people share similar values, hopes and aspirations.
In recent months Russia and the United States have disagreed about important global issues. As I watched these events unfold, I was reminded of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo and Serbia.
That campaign strained the relationship between our two countries, but we learned that our friendship could endure rigorous debate and differences of opinion.
Despite differing views, the United States and Russia are both committed to strengthening our friendship and preserving our important strategic partnership. Our partnership is, once again being tested, but I am confident we will work to maintain our unique relationship.
One reason for my confidence is the way that relations between the United States and Russia have matured. Over time, our countries have forged an exceptional friendship. While friends can disagree, the underlying reasons for friendship never waver.
The second reason for my optimism is that our countries have a much better understanding of one another. We owe much of this understanding to the Open World Program, an ongoing exchange program.
Following the Serbian conflict in 1999, the Aspen Institute and I invited Dr. James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress and one of the leading scholars of Russia in the United States, to speak to leaders of the U.S. Senate about Russia's economic and political transformation, and the state of relations between the United States and Russia. Dr. Billington's message was clear: Assisting the Russian Federation in its economic and political transformation should be our top priority.
I asked Billington what we could do to increase mutual understanding and to support Russia's efforts to strengthen its democratic reforms. Without hesitation, Dr. Billington responded, "We need a Marshall Plan. Not to provide foreign aid, but to share our democratic experience."
Billington's vision included an exchange that would bring federal and local Russian political leaders to the United States. Those leaders would meet their American counterparts and gain first-hand knowledge of how American civil society works. Billington wanted to provide Russian leaders with an unvarnished look at American democracy. His hope was that these encounters would foster greater awareness between our two countries.
In the summer of 1999, I authored legislation to make Billington's dream a reality. The legislation created the first and only exchange program administered by the legislative branch of the U.S. Government: The Open World Program at the Library of Congress. The purpose of the Open World Program was to bring emerging political leaders from Russia to the United States where they could meet with their U.S. counterparts and experience America's democracy and free-enterprise system at the grass-roots level.
The Open World Program is now celebrating its fifth anniversary. More than 6,000 Russian political leaders from all 89 subjects of the Russian Federation have visited all fifty U.S. states under the program. Russians and Americans are brought together annually to share insights and develop friendships. The program is international relationship building at its most fundamental level.
The Open World Program has brought members of the State Duma and the Federation Council to the United States for visits hosted by members of Congress. I have been pleased to welcome Russian judges, regional legislators and election officials to my home state, Alaska, and to Washington under the Open World program. From conservative republicans to liberal democrats and from members of the Russian Communist Party to members of Yabloko, the enthusiasm for the program has been incredible and the friendships forged invaluable.
The Open World Program's mission of bringing Russians and Americans together has never been more important than it is today. Even during the darkest periods of the Cold War, our two countries conducted scholarly and cultural exchanges that kept the channels of communication open. In the post-Soviet era, the United States and Russia are no longer at odds about ideology, and we now have similar political and economic philosophies. It is imperative that we continue to share our experiences and ideas and discover our commonalities.
The success of the Open World Program has not gone unnoticed by my colleagues in the U.S. Congress, who have agreed to expand the Open World Program to include Russia's cultural leaders. The new program will organize extended visits to the United States by Russian cultural leaders. Hundreds of large and small cultural institutions across the United States will benefit from working with these leaders, while the Russian visitors will learn about how U.S. cultural institutions operate.
The Open World Program is creating bonds between our people that will last longer than any bilateral agreement or policy dispute. This type of diplomacy is essential as Russia and the United States seek to foster the cooperation and understanding we will need to meet the challenges of this new century.
Ted Stevens is the President Pro Tempore of the United States Senate and has been a U.S. Senator from the State of Alaska for 34 years. He is the Chairperson of the Senate Appropriations Committee and Chairperson of the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress. Additionally, Senator Stevens is the Honorary Chairperson of the Board of the Center for Russian Leadership Development at the Library of Congress. Senator Stevens, who visited St. Peterburg this week with Dr. James H. Billington, contributed this comment to the St. Petersburg Times.
[Reprinted with Permission]