In an era of globalization, educational exchanges between the U.S. and Russia are leading to new opportunities to work together and patch over Cold War tensions.

Skolkovo Moscow School of Management. Photo: Skolkovo / Press Service

In this interview with Russia Direct, the President of the American Councils for International Education, Dr. Dan E. Davidson, discusses new models of educational exchange between the U.S. and Russia.

Over time, Davidson suggests, these expanding educational exchanges can become the basis for new types of U.S.-Russian cooperation in other spheres as well, such as climate change.

To overcome the lingering Cold War mentality that has held back the growth of these exchange programs, both the U.S. and Russia should reassess the image they have of each other.

Dr. Dan E. Davidson. Photo: Russia Direct

Russia Direct: In what way does the current generation of Americans coming to Russia differ from the previous one?

Dan Davidson: The main observation I have made over the years is that students and young people are generally becoming more “global” in their orientation, more oriented toward the 21st century view of the world economy, than many of those who teach them or advise them at home.

Institutions, and educational institutions in particular, are conservative structures, slower to change than many of those they teach, who already think very globally.  Some call this generation “millennials”: they are more mobile, more socially-oriented, and more global in their view of the world, than many who have gone before.

When we announce programs for competitions to study overseas for a semester, a year, or summer for our high school students or undergraduate students, U.S. student interest in study overseas, for example, in Russia, is strong. They understand that learning about another part of the world is not just something for narrow specialists, or a kind of pleasant “extra” for those who have the time. Language and international study is absolutely essential to work, live, and succeed in the 21st century.

In addition, today’s students increasingly understand that the world is not defined primarily in Eurocentric terms, as, say, my own generation, or that of my parents.

American schools from the time of George Washington until about the 1970s,  –  200 hundred years! – defined  language training as learning either German, French, Spanish, or Latin. That was an education. And it wasn’t until the first Sputnik (satellite) went up that one additional language was added to that list  – and it was Russian. Today about 50,000 Americans study Russian at about 750 schools and universities all across the U.S. 

More than 250,000 foreign students from 150 countries are currently enrolled in 750 Russian universities. Photo: Kirill Lagutko 

RD: From your point of view, what events and factors bring about such a change in perception of the world and a deeper interest in other languages?

D.D.: It wasn’t until September 11, 2001 that the present generation fully opened to the fact that the world is not just Europe, Russia, and Japan, but it also means learning Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, Persian, Urdu and many African languages too.  And we are speaking now about huge populations of the world that are increasingly middle class, increasingly “flat,” to use Thomas Friedman’s famous metaphor.

RD: And what do you do to tackle this problem?

D.D.: We have to focus more on funded programs that are merit-based. If you’ve got motivation, you’ve got good grades, you’ve got an ability to think about your future and demonstrated promise, we’ll take you and we will pay for it all. We will send you to China, we will send you to Russia, Egypt, Tanzania, India, and other places where you will be able to learn, where you can go to school and live in a family.

And you will come back a different person with a very different view of the world and different multiple perspectives on your own future and how the world works. The U.S. government has responded by creating solid, reliable, competitive funding opportunities for Americans to learn about the major languages and cultures of today’s world without regard to those students’ ability to pay the cost of these programs.  Several hundred Americans come to Russia every year with American Councils to take advantage of those opportunities to study at Russia’s excellent schools and universities.

RD: There seems to have been a drop in funding for some educational programs like Edmund Muskie or Global UGRAD. What common challenges should Russia and the U.S. tackle just to improve the situation in U.S.-Russia educational exchange?

D.D.: In the 1990s and the early part of the past decade there were substantial special appropriations from Congress organized by people like Senator Bill Bradley, Congressman James Leach, the Librarian of Congress James Billington, and others, who were advocates of exchanges. Such senators used their influence to say that Russia is going through an important change and becoming a new country.

Russia has become a strong country with its GDP among the top few nations of the world. Russia is now a donor nation. And it’s planning to play a major role in the G8.  If previously the American programs were designed as assistance programs, current exchange programs are bilateral in nature.

Russian students today study in the U.S. with scholarship support from the U.S. side as well as with support from the Russian government, Russian universities, or Russian business organizations. So the balance has changed, and the potential for U.S.-Russian exchange is actually much greater now, as a result. I expect the numbers to grow in the years ahead.  

RD: You mean that the Russian government is now paying more attention to U.S. exchange programs and, maybe, it plays a bigger role in this exchange?

D.D.: Yes. And it’s absolutely natural.

RD: Can you elaborate on any new format of educational exchange that involves Russia?

D.D.: Sure. The U.S.-Russia Innovation Corridor is another example of more involvement of Russia’s universities and regional governments in U.S. educational and scientific exchange.

The Corridor projects grew from Project “EURECA”, a pilot program funded by the U.S.-Russia Foundation, designed to engage Russian and American research universities in a new way, not merely through student and faculty mobility, but through longer-term engagement in research projects capable of helping regional economic developments, both in Russia and in the U. S.

The project takes advantage of recent changes that have taken place as a result of Russia’s entrance into the WTO and passage of Federal Law 217 in 2009, providing recognition and protection of intellectual property produced at research universities. The new law opens up new pathways of cooperation for U.S. and Russian research universities.

RD: Could you explain what specific changes in Russia drives you to launch this project?

D.D.: Many things happened recently that make our project possible. First, Russia entered the WTO. Second, it passed a federal law on the protection and recognition of intellectual property. Third, Russia adopted a series of laws, such as 218 and 219, that created enormous possibilities for scholars: the national research universities and the nine federal universities – an enormous investment by your government. And then came Skolkovo!

The Skolkovo Tech University. Photo: Skolkovo Community / Press Photo

Russia is looking not just at oil and gas but at intellectual property as a way to develop the economies of Russia’s regions. This has many parallels with the U.S. The fact of the matter is that the American economy is regional. We have no center. We have no real national economy and culture.

When you ask an American where he or she is from, they will mention their region first and then their state. But that’s why we have many regional economies based on the strengths of Silicon Valley, or University of Michigan, or University of Texas, or MIT.

The corridors that this project has created are heavily driven by the universities on each end, and the intellectual property, spin-offs, start-ups, and new businesses the universities generate. These are university-to-university corridors but they are not just about universities – they are about regional economies, with regional governments in Russia matched with an American region that has strengths in similar fields.

RD: Like twin regions?

D.D.: Exactly. So, for oil and gas, it’s probably Tatarstan here and Pennsylvania in our country. Or, if it’s an automotive industry it might be Samara, while in our case it’s Michigan because Michigan is transforming the American auto industry. If it’s IT, it’s probably Silicon Valley.

RD: What is your first corridor?

D.D.: The first of the corridors was announced in April. It’s focus is biomedical, and it’s between Maryland, which is a major U.S. center for very high-end biomedical research, and Nizhny Novgorod, which is one of the leaders in genome-based, precision medicine which is diagnostic and can provide non-invasive treatments for diseases like cancer.

RD: How will this corridor work in practice?

D.D.: A certain amount of work should be done on both sides of the corridors. It’s a matter of promotion, commercialization and protection of certain products: Sometimes it will be an American product that is trying to gain access to the Russian market; sometime it will be a Russian product that wants access to the American market.

Sometimes it’s not a product but an idea. Someone might say, “I do have an idea but I don’t know whether it’s possible to commercialize or not” and the corridor will be able to work with that person. It can help test the marketability and the commercializing ability of a technology or process. If it is possible to commercialize, the corridor will help bring in venture capitalists, business angels, and other funders.

RD: What field and specific programs are you going to focus on to bring together Russian and American youth to cope with global challenges?

D.D.: The bigger projects are actually social and the largest one we are looking at right now is climate change. But first and foremost we have to demonstrate the business viability of every single project before starting the social enterprise. That’s the reason why half of our projects deal with energy resources, oil and gas, and new materials.

For example, recently, I was in Yekaterinburg and they are looking at titanium not only as a source for rockets and aircrafts but also for very high quality material that can be used as replacement for body parts. If I need a high quality replacement for a knee, I need to be sure it will not fall apart. Likewise, if I need titanium for rockets and aircrafts I should be sure that it’s of exceptionally high quality. And Russia and the United States are the only places in the world that can do that – this is another reason why we should work together.

RD: What challenges should Russia and the U.S. handle to increase the efficiency of their collaboration?

D.D.: In some ways the biggest challenge is still the legacy of the cold war, and the fact that vast parts of Russia were closed, which has resulted in a lack of knowledge and a lot of stereotypes on both sides. Indeed, what really is Russia: friendly or not friendly? A threat or not a threat?

You can see this in the statements of some American politicians, like John McCain, who react in a very negative way towards Russia, and you see this attitude in statements of some members of the Russian Duma, equally harsh and unbalanced, biased. And I’m talking about both sides.

Future generations have to challenge these stereotypes to get rid of the legacy of the cold war, the lack of knowledge and suspicion.

Despite this weakness in our relations, we have had a great number of achievements: We’ve done amazing things, like the joint space mission. And if you look at the arctic and climate change, it is hard to imagine how these challenges could be addressed without Russia and the United States working together. It’s impossible! But sometimes one thing goes wrong and everything what we have achieved is overshadowed by something like adoptions or…

RD: … Or Snowden?

D.D.: Yes! It shouldn’t dominate the headlines for weeks and weeks. Unfortunately, it does.

RD: Russia and the U.S. should switch to different topics …

D.D.: Exactly! Suddenly Snowden is a part of Russian-American relations. There is little else in terms of popular perception. But there are a lot of issues where we could and should see eye-to-eye: Afghanistan, North Korea, for example; we have a joint space missions going on, collaboration in science, technology, and education.

Yet suddenly something bad in our relationship arises and that becomes the definition of the whole relationship, which is very frustrating. And this probably is the most serious challenge. Although we’ve done a lot, our relationships need to be more organic and broad. And we are going to overcome these limitations.

RD: If you had a chance to talk to the Russian and American presidents before their meeting at the G20 summit, what would you say or recommend?

D.D.:  Russia and the U.S. need different messages. Yet, nevertheless, both countries need to look again at their image of each other and reassess it in terms of a new reality rather than the legacy. For Americans, I have a very strong message and it may not surprise you: If I were to speak to President Obama before he comes here in September, I would recommend going to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the wall of the Kremlin.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry paid a visit to Moscow in May and talked to Russian veterans. Photo: AP

This was a profound sacrifice during the past century, and such a powerful contribution by Soviet soldiers to civilization, and this is not understood and appreciated enough in the West and in the U.S.

RD: What about Russia’s government? What would you say to it?

D.D.:  I would wish the Russian government could look beyond its lack of trust in the United States. There are some hesitations regarding what U.S. intentions really are. In this sense America is seen as a country that underestimates other countries, and often American motivations towards Russia are overestimated. Yet it’s not as complicated as the Kremlin thinks. It may be because we have not made our motivations clear. That’s why both countries should fight the cold war mentality.