Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Winning Friends and Influencing People

“How to Win Friends and Influence People” was the title of a highly influential book by Dale Carnegie published in 1936 and still read today by people seeking to improve their chances of success.  (The author was unrelated to Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate, and in fact was the poster-child of the 'self-made man').

In 1936, the world was making its way toward World War II, in which the Soviet Union suffered the greatest casualties (27,000,000 ), and the Khruschev era that began in 1953 after the death of Stalin had all it could do to continue rebuilding and developing the country while avoiding nuclear war with the US over its promotion of the developing world.  After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow was enrolled in the Western economic system, with disastrous results due mainly to the weakness of President Boris Yeltsin in the face of Wall Street greed.  So it wasn't until a younger, healthier, determined leader entered the Kremlin (a foreboding citadel whose first iteration was built of wood in the twelfth century), that space age Russia turned to the finer art of winning friends in a US-dominated world, from which all notion of solidarity and comity had been banished.  President Putin is not selling communism, but social democracy, in which social protections and cooperation are as important as entrepreneurship, and he is doing so by demonstrating these qualities in his relationships with other leaders, including those that would appear least likely to become partners. The recent visit to Moscow of Salmon the new, young King of Saudi Arabia, is a perfect example of how this works.

(Saudi Arabia and Russia are the world's largest oil exporters and recently, they agreed to cut production.  If the two countries move closer over time, whether via their shared oil interests or for other reasons, this would mark an unprecedented  shift in the world's most volatile region.  Recently it was revealed as part of the daily drip drip of US 'news' about ‘Russiagate', that acquaintances of Donald Trump had been negotiating with the Russians to build nuclear plants in Saudi Arabia, and the new King's visit to Moscow could well have been part of the country’s long-range preparations for the end of its oil bonanza. But why not turn to solar…?)

Fast forward to the press conference by the two country's foreign ministers, Sergei Lavrov and the younger but nearly as ubiquitous Adel al-Jubeir.  The event was broadcast live by RT, and after a few minutes of watching al-Jubeir read a few sentences from a prepared statement, followed by Lavrov speaking without notes in Russian for an equal length of time, I came to the conclusion that Russia’s Prime Minister was acting as consecutive interpreter for his guest.  He appeared perfectly at ease in Arabic and having been an interpreter myself on occasion, I admired his ability to carry out this task flawlessly. (Simultaneous interpreting presents a different set of challenges....)

Was Russia's top diplomat pinch-hitting for an interpreter who failed to show up, or had the press conference been organized this way from the start?  Either way, it is worthy of note that the Russians were not standing on ceremony, as other diplomats would surely have done, convinced that only when each side has its own interpreter can they trust the result.  This behavior fits into the larger picture of the Russian President's way of interacting with foreigners, in an informal manner that implies equality, rather than America’s, in which familiarity is not intended to erase inequality, but to emphasize it. 

Anyone watching a clip from a Putin-organized forum involving foreigners will notice that he is rarely standing alone on the podium, but is seated as part of a group. Russia Insider ran a video of the recent energy summit in which Putin told a joke whose message was that he didn't want to be the only panel member to be interrogated by the audience of business people from around the world attending the event. (Putin is often seen answering a question with a joke, while an American president will only tell a joke in public on the occasion of the yearly Washington correspondents’ dinner, where for a night he is cast in the role of a stand-up comedian.) 

Similarly, when Putin holds a press conference, he is usually seated in the middle of a long table together with the journalists rather than standing at a mike in front of them. When American presidents or high officials meet with journalists or foreign counterparts, it's very structured and controlled, and there can never be any doubt who is top dog. I’m convinced that Putin’s informal style, demonstrating his commitment to collegial relations between states, goes a long way toward making friends for Russia.

The Soviet Union too had a deliberate outreach policy, organizing meetings and fora to which  foreigners were invited, either as representatives of 'brotherly parties' or as 'fellow travelers': people who had a favorable attitude -- or even just an open mind - toward communism.  Under President Putin, Russian outreach reflects the fact that countries are turning away from the hegemon toward a cooperative international architecture, in which reciprocal respect is a matter of course.  The 19th International Festival of Students and Youth currently taking place in Sochi, in which President Putin dialogues with participants from 130 countries is bound to have a much greater influence than any number of bots on Facebook.

President Putin with Youth Panel, Sochi, 2017

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