U.S. Russianists and Reset

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Both Russians and Americans are acutely anxious about national fiscal policy these days. Perhaps we should let history suggest where our worrisome bailout billions might serve good ends for both countries -- and others as well.

Sometimes a little panic is a good thing. When the Soviet Union put the world's first artificial satellite into orbit in 1957, official Washington soiled its collective shorts. The U.S. response to Sputnik was very American -- throw money at it -- but with one salutary difference: For once in our national life, we threw smart money.

Beyond a predictable increase in military spending, Sputnik also inspired Congress to pass the National Defense Education Act, which provided major financial aid to education -- particularly in science, math and foreign languages, notably Russian -- so we could "catch up with the Soviets."

Simultaneously, the government began funding education of another, and wholly novel, variety: It hired U.S. citizens to tell Russians about the United States -- in person. In 1959, the U.S. Information Agency opened its first exhibition of "Americana in Moscow," with young U.S. exhibit guides enthralling huge crowds of information-starved Soviet visitors with accounts of their country, its values and themselves.

The ensuing three decades proved how smart these two investments were. U.S. performance in the targeted areas improved substantially, helping the Cold War die of both natural causes and George Kennan's "containment." But wait, it gets better. The NDEA and its derivatives, along with further USIA exhibits, also produced a corpus of U.S.-Russia specialists who are now poised and ready to refit the U.S.-Russian relationship after decades of mismanagement and neglect. "Cold War II" could soon be history.

Just who should "press the reset button," as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden aptly put in Munich on Saturday? Here are a half-dozen Americans, the tip of a modest iceberg, who spent significant time in the 1970s as either U.S.-subsidized exchange students at Soviet universities or USIA exhibit guides -- or both -- and have stayed conversant with things Russian ever since: Harley Balzer, professor of Russian studies at Georgetown; Blair Ruble, director of Washington's Kennan Institute; Laura Kennedy, deputy commandant and international affairs adviser at the National War College; Thomas Robertson, former Russia director at the National Security Council and ambassador to Slovenia; Rose Gottemoeller, previous director of the Carnegie Moscow Center; and John Beyrle, U.S. ambassador to Russia.

This group's expertise was developed first in U.S. schools and then in Russia's school of hard knocks, before perestroika. The resulting specialists are neither emigres nor ideologues, and their book-learning plus in-country tenure and honest-broker mentality distinguish them from less well-rounded peers. They represent a unique generation of new "old Russia hands" who bring with them more experience than baggage -- and understand the difference.

The extent to which the Obama administration takes their advice and uses their skills may dictate how much the U.S.-Russian relationship improves on multiple fronts. Or doesn't.

Even before Munich, things were warming up in several areas. Gottemoeller, a former Rand Corporation analyst, was named point person for breaking the U.S.-Russian nuclear negotiations logjam. Muscovites who have seen her in action call the appointment a boon to both sides. Beyrle, moreover, went on Vladimir Pozner's national television program recently and inspired myriad viewers to reconsider the United States and U.S. intentions. One veteran of Russia's "surveillance organs" wrote that he "listened to [Beyrle] for a few minutes and came to believe an entire country." Now that's "your tax dollars at work."

All right, today's learning points for the bailout-obsessed: 1. A stimulus package or subsidy plan is neither the Big Rock Candy Mountain nor a free lunch. It's an investment, and it has to pay off twice -- next month and next generation. 2. Education, in all its domestic and cross-cultural forms, always pays for itself -- and a good deal else.

Oh, and point 3: The Iranians launched their own Earth-orbiting sputnik last week. Any more questions?

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.