Russia Direct asked young leaders to come up with a new bilateral agenda for U.S.-Russian collaboration. One promising idea was health diplomacy. Here, Russia Direct experts weigh in on the prospects for health diplomacy to bridge the diplomatic gap between Moscow and Washington.

It remains to be seen if health diplomacy will strengthen U.S.-Russia collaboration. Photo: Reuters 

Graham Westbrook, an undergraduate student at Mercyhurst University in the U.S., won the Russia Direct essay contest with his entry on health diplomacy published on the Russia Direct site on Nov. 25. According to Westbrook, while this issue is underrepresented in the media, health diplomacy is very promising for strengthening U.S.-Russia collaboration. Health diplomacy is one area where both countries can see eye-to-eye to face common challenges. 

“Russian and American news reports both recently described U.S.-Russian bilateral relations as stagnating, suggesting that they were perhaps at their lowest point in Obama’s presidency,” writes Westbrook in his essay. “Underreported, however, is the latent potential of non-politically-charged public health cooperation between the two countries. Nascent U.S.-Russian cooperation on health initiatives has made tangible strides in eradicating disease and producing vaccines. As U.S.-Russian relations continue to be stymied by political stalemate, bilateral health diplomacy has the ability to transcend politics and establish common ground.”

Below, Russia Direct experts discuss whether health diplomacy is indeed underrepresented in media and whether it can be a field where Moscow and Washington can find common ground. 

Larisa Permyakova, Ph.D. in Political Science, Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)

It is hard to agree more with the idea of health diplomacy. Indeed, in cases where more conventional diplomatic relationships may be strained, health diplomacy endeavors can help continue relationships with governments at a non-political level, merge health expertise with diplomatic finesse to alleviate suffering, bring peace, prepare for disasters and help improve health care systems around the world.

Basically  health diplomacy can be compared to track II diplomacy, that is, a specific kind of informal diplomacy, in which non-officials (academic scholars, retired civil and military officials, public figures, and social activists) engage in dialogue, with the aim of conflict resolution, or confidence-building. This type of diplomacy has been traditionally defined as the involvement of private organizations or individuals in conflict resolution. But it is much more than that and certainly can be more than that. It should include shaping foreign policy priorities and opportunities through dialogue and persuasion of those who influence foreign policy at home and abroad. And health diplomacy is one of the forms of this kind of interactions.

I assume health diplomacy is not one of the most popular topics of the Russian - U.S. relationship because a specific health diplomacy institution is not established in Russia. Although Russia is a WHO member and supports its major global health initiatives, health diplomacy of the Russian Federation remains, so to speak, nobody’s terrain. The Concept of Russia’s Participation in International Development Assistance adopted in 2007 deals with health diplomacy only on an indirect basis.

The two federal executive authorities – the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation are directly involved in the implementation of the Concept.

Nonetheless global health and health diplomacy are far from being the ministries’ immediate interests. In other words, there’s not enough political will to support and promote the subject of health diplomacy as a substantial part of Russian – U.S. relations. Another reason health diplomacy endeavors lack mass-media coverage - they are not events that make page one news in the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile new approaches to public health problems solution are needed because many of the answers to the question “How can people in the 21st Century have healthier lives?” are not narrowly medical at all. That means the potential for cooperation of the two world powers is definitely there.

Photo: Reuters

Andrey Sushentsov, an international relations expert at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), a former visiting researcher at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service (2007) and at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (2008)

Collaboration in health diplomacy is a part of broader humanitarian issues. And this problem is rarely in the spotlight of mass media because of its routine, ordinary character. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that this problem is not important. It rather indicates that there are differences in U.S.-Russia relations that overshadow collaboration in other fields.   

We can see how the humanitarian issues are on the top of the agenda in bilateral relations between countries that closely collaborate in political and economic issues, for example, between France and Germany or Russia and Belarus. However, it is very difficult to imagine that these issues will become top priorities in U.S.-Russia relations.

Yet, it doesn’t mean that the relations between Washington and Moscow preclude any type of cooperation on this issue. In fact, throughout the history of the U.S.-Russia confrontation after the 1917 October revolution in Russia, the two countries have come up with a conflict-cooperation model which encourages broad collaboration in different fields even during periods of serious conflict. And it is very difficult to throw this system out of balance, as has been proved by recent international crises in Georgia in 2008 and in Syria in 2013.    

I would be very pleased if the problems of health and humanitarian aid played a key role in U.S.-Russia relations. I believe that establishing deep trust between Moscow and Washington and a set of sustainable mechanisms that support this trust will bring desired results. The Bilateral Presidential Commission is one of the most important agencies in bilateral relations today.  

Gregory Feifer, former Moscow correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), writer, an independent expert in U.S.-Russia relations

Although I know very little about "health diplomacy," I suspect it's slightly underreported – that is, it's not discussed at all when it deserves at least mention.

Although I believe it would be wonderful if cooperation over medicine and healthcare issues were to help improve U.S.-Russian relations, I don't believe it will have any noticeable effect in the current climate. The problems facing the health care systems of each side are so dissimilar, I don't think it's a viable way to prompt a larger improvement in relations even if significant cooperation were to take place. As it is, Moscow has sought to end the kind of cooperation between NGOs and other civil society groups the Obama Administration tried to initiate in 2009.

Although I share Westbrook's hope that "health diplomacy" can help resurrect constructive bilateral relations, I believe he overstates the case for its potential.

Jack Goldstone, sociologist, political scientist, and professor at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University. He specializes in studies of social movements, revolutions, and international politics

If we have learned anything about U.S.-Russia relations in recent years, it is that they can change quickly, and that there are many areas of potential cooperation as well as conflict. In the last few months, joint diplomacy by Russia and the U.S. to remove Syria’s chemical weapons has presented a remarkable turnaround of relations on a security issue of shared interest, and shows what can be achieved when both countries identify and agree on a clear policy goal.

As Russia Direct’s student winners point out, there are many such goals that could produce fruitful U.S.-Russia cooperation. One such area is global health issues; it is in the interest of both Russia and the U.S. – indeed of all nations – to put an end to such scourges as polio, HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and other mass killers. Another such area is regional concerns, as shown in Syria.

Both Russia and the U.S. would be hurt by the eruption of violence and disorder in Africa, or south Asia, or the Korean peninsula. Thus there is scope for cooperation on programs to underpin stability in all of these areas. Even on issues that seem highly competitive, such as the race to exploit the resources exposed by melting polar ice in the Arctic, or the creation of profitable business innovations, both countries would be well served by framework agreements covering Arctic property rights and educational and intellectual property initiatives that secure opportunities for both countries, and prevent dangerous and possibly ruinous open conflicts.

It is fortunate that these young authors can clearly see areas for cooperation that may not be front-and-center in the media, or even in the minds of Russian and American leaders. For in fact the United States and Russia need each other.

Whatever mistrust or rivalries persist from the end of the Cold War or global economic competition, neither Russia nor America will be as powerful in the coming century as they were in the last century, the era of two great superpowers. In the decades ahead, both countries will simply be large players in an increasingly multi-polar world, where China, India, Europe, Latin America, and even major countries in Africa and the Middle East will be important actors shaping the global economy and international security.

In that world, having broad multi-lateral agreements to deal with such pressing global problems as climate change, nuclear proliferation, global health, global financial stability, regional conflicts, the development of Arctic resources, and cooperation to promote technical and intellectual innovation is crucial.

Identifying discrete policy areas where the U.S. and Russia can work together to make progress, build trust, and achieve notable improvements in global welfare and security is the path to success. I congratulate all of Russia Direct’s winners for showing the way forward.

UPDATE: This article was updated on November 26, 2013 to include commentary from Jack Goldstone, professor at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University.