The Personal Touch in Diplomacy

Grantees in this story

“When there is trust between the military, there is trust between the politicians.”

With that statement, Russia’s Deputy Chief of Mission Oleg Stepanov acknowledged the power of the personal touch when it comes to military diplomacy. Minutes later, he raised a glass with his American counterparts at a reception for high-level U.S. and Russian generals, who had just completed five remarkable days of face-to-face conversations.

Brigadier General Peter Zwack, U.S. Defense Attaché, Moscow, with Russia’s Deputy Chief of Mission Oleg Stepanov. In the background, Brigadier General Brian Beaudreault and General-Major Mikhail Sinyukov, who both participated in the exchange program.

The program, run by Harvard Kennedy School and funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, took place at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC in November. Brigadier General Jacqueline Van Ovost, (who works with the Joint Chiefs of Staff), says it's the only way she could come to know her counterpart at the Russian Embassy.

“From now on, we can have one-on-one discussions. So if something is bubbling up, I can say, ‘What do you think, why did it happen that way?’ And we can get answers back from our respective staffs before it bubbles over into the political realm,” Van Ovost said.

Air Force Brigadier General Jacqueline Van Ovost, Deputy Director for Politico-Military Affairs, Europe, NATO, Russia, poses with her Russian counterpart, Major General Valeriy Baranovskiy, Russian Defense Attaché to the United States.

Since 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Kennedy School has coordinated the annual U.S.-Russia Security Program, which has been funded from the start by Carnegie Corporation. Deana Arsenian, the Corporation’s Vice President, International Program, says the exchange is one of a kind.

“Andrew Carnegie always believed if you bring people together and give them enough tools to solve a problem, they will be able to address a problem. So putting together communities across countries has been a part of our tradition as a foundation,” Arsenian said.

Deana Arsenian, Vice President, Carnegie Corporation, welcoming participants to the five-day exchange at the Wilson Center with Sergei Konoplyov, Director, Executive Education at Harvard Kennedy School.

Each country selects fifteen senior military officers for the exchange. They stay at the same hotel, starting each day with a 7 a.m. breakfast and generally concluding their work by 9 p.m. During the day, they attend lectures hosted by Harvard faculty and other experts in international issues. Then they break into small working groups. It’s an academic setting that encourages an informal exchange of ideas. At this year’s exchange, it was inevitable that Edward Snowden and issues around international security and spying would arise.  Interestingly, many—including the program’s faculty chair, Tad Oelstrom—discounted this as the primary concern. 

“We had an opportunity to build positive relations relative to Syria and chemical weapons, relative to Iran and nonproliferation, relative to Afghanistan and helping the U.S. with the withdrawal pieces and stability,” said Oelstrom.

Graham Allison, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, spoke to the participants about nuclear terrorism.

At a time when world leaders are turning to social media, including Twitter, to communicate directly with each other and to the public, direct contact—the personal touch—remains invaluable. It can also lead to meaningful action. Retired Rear Admiral Ben Wachendorf will never forget the urgent phone call he received in 2005. At the time, Wachendorf was the U.S. defense attaché in Moscow and a Russian classmate from the Harvard exchange needed a favor.

A small Russian submarine with seven sailors on board was trapped, tangled in fishing gear in the Pacific. Wachendorf’s exchange classmate, then the Russian Vice Chief of Naval Operations, knew Wachendorf had formerly been the U.S. commodore responsible for submarine rescues. The Russian admiral asked for Wachendorf’s help in getting U.S. and British rescue equipment to the scene. A British minisub cut the Russian vessel loose, saving all aboard.

“They had no way to get fresh air or water,” Wachendorf said. “If [the Russian admiral] had not reached out that fast, those sailors would not be alive today.”

Retired Rear Admiral Ben Wachendorf (left, pictured here with translator) describes his role in the rescue operation of a small Russian submarine in 2005.

There are some lighter moments built into the program. The generals have lunch and dinner at local restaurants including popular chains with at least one located at a shopping mall to provide the Russians with plenty of Western exposure. Despite the cultural and language differences, Van Ovost says everyone understands the social ground rules of “mil-mil diplomacy.”

“We stick to making jokes about other countries or about sports teams,” she said.  

Retired Russian Lt. General Evgeny Buzhinskiy spoke for his comrades in summing up their visit. “When the generals come home, they are different people. This program, you have to experience to understand,” he said.