The winner of the Russia Direct essay contest argues that the emerging area of U.S.-Russia health diplomacy deserves a closer look at a time when Washington and Moscow search for new areas of potential cooperation.

Health diplomacy steps in where traditional diplomacy falls short. Photo: Reuters

Russian and American news reports both recently described U.S.-Russian bilateral relations as stagnating, suggesting that the relationship is perhaps at its lowest point in Obama’s presidency. Underreported, however, is the “latent” potential of public health diplomacy 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 between both nations.

Despite the lukewarm political climate between Russia and the United States, a mechanism of transcending politics still exists that appeals to a fundamental, universal, social need: public health. This mechanism, though underreported, is health diplomacy. Examples include the Social Expertise Exchange (SEE) Public Health Working Group, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Public-Private Task Force on US-Russian Health Cooperation, and the Bilateral Presidential Commission’s (BPC) Health Working Group.

Described as “latent” by members of the Carnegie task force effort because of its untapped nature, long-term potential, and resilience amidst political turbulence, health diplomacy could become the pillar necessary to rebuild U.S.-Russian bilateral ties. It is prudent, then, to shed light on these health initiatives, their respective impact, and the common ground bridging two global giants.

SEE, an expansion of the US-Russia Civil Society Partnership Program (CSPP) within the Eurasia Foundation, has reprioritized a number of tasks, namely public health. In late September 2013, “practitioners, researchers, educators, area experts, and community and religious leaders” from Russia and the United States gathered to discuss and promote the health of migrants in a project implemented by the Russian Public Health Association and the UIC Center for Global Health.

As long as the SEE public health working group develops further projects to tackle international health problems and attract important American and Russian leaders in their respective fields to cooperate, the potential for long-term bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and Russia will likely increase.            

Another example of ongoing health diplomacy centers on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Public-Private Task Force on US-Russian Health Cooperation, which has made tangible strides in public health leading to improvements such as the eradication of smallpox and the Sabin polio vaccine.

Recommendations of the task force to potentially increase the effectiveness of both the U.S. and Russian health care systems include measures that could “create a system of standardized, institutionalized, and digital medical records, increase access to quality care, and share knowledge of medical technology.” The potential of this collaboration, however, has yet to be fully realized.

The final example is the Bilateral Presidential Commission (BPC). This is an initiative created by U.S. President Obama and (then) Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2009 to further U.S.-Russian bilateral relations and establish areas of cooperation. Included in the partnership is a working group on health that “fosters bilateral cooperation in four areas: scientific collaboration, maternal and child health, healthy lifestyles, and global health.”

Subsequently, many diplomatic protocols have been created that seek to raise awareness of public health issues and “combat infectious and non-infectious disease.” However, the BPC health working group’s lack of differentiation between relatable, non-politically-charged health diplomacy and other more politicized areas of cooperation has marginalized its diplomatic importance, effectiveness, and media presence.

The necessity, then, of such health diplomacy initiatives to reestablish the U.S.-Russian relationship is threefold. Health diplomacy “often transcends diplomatic challenges” at times when traditional diplomacy fails to resonate. It has fostered significant U.S.-Russian cooperation leading to such achievements as the eradication of smallpox and the dissemination of the Sabin polio vaccine.And, finally, it is an underutilized means of connecting the United States and Russia on a non-politicized basis.

This partnership must no longer be marred by outdated Cold War mentalities, but rather, defined by a clear-eyed inventory of current health capabilities, better cooperation between two giants on the world stage through health diplomacy, and a resolute foundation toward future collaboration. Health diplomacy, though vastly underreported, has the potential to transcend political stalemate and create a common ground in a world devoid of sturdy, bilateral footing.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.