Improved perceptions of one another can alter the predominant ways in which U.S.-Russian relations are now perceived, and through this help change the relations themselves. There are two opposing approaches to this. Proponents of the first approach heavily rely on propaganda campaigns, believing that massive advertising will eventually work. Their opponents insist that the image of their country will change only when the country itself becomes different: “Change yourself, and your image will follow suit.”

Both ideas hold some truth, but do not embrace the entire reality. Propaganda and advertising do work, but there are strict limits as to their efficiency. There are also limits to how much individuals can change themselves and their country, while history, moreover, demonstrates that even a cardinal change of a country may be insufficient for its image to improve. Are there any other ways to solve the problem of improving the existing negative perceptions?

The well-known fact that U.S.-Russian relations knew periods of ups and downs, that we were close friends and “probable enemies” in various historical eras, must be considered alongside another, less obvious idea. One may challenge the common sense notion that the “Other’s” behavior predetermines our attitude to it. Indeed, those periods of enmity or friendship did not coincide with a change in the foreign policy of the other country or even in its internal development but instead rather closely followed the twists and turns of the domestic politics and public debates at home. One may cite the Vietnam War (which the United States was waging against the Soviet Union’s ally), which did not preclude détente, as contrasted with the Iraqi war (against a regime which evoked no sympathy in Russia), which seemingly boosted Russia’s anti-American policies. A constructivist explanation of the difference between these two periods points to the fact that the Iraqi war was started at a moment when Russia was searching for its new identity, and such a search shaped its attitude toward the United States. Conversely, America’s attitude to the Russian empire in the last third of the 19th century changed for the worse not so much because of a change of Russian policies, but as a result of a deep self-reevaluation undertaken by the United States after the Civil War.

When we look at the current U.S.-Russian relations through the same prism, we see that the problems in bilateral relations have at least two sources belonging to the realms of internal agendas rather than to foreign policy.

Linking the elimination of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Magnitsky Act in the same piece of legislation (however justifiable or not both decisions were) contained a message to that part of the American public that believes in an unchangeable Russia. The Dima Yakovlev Law, besides its goal to “punish” the United States, was also a part of the policy of portraying Russian opposition as puppets of the U.S. State Department and alienating it by targeting it with anti-American propaganda. The Snowden affair was another interplay of home and international concerns for both sides.

How would such a change of perspective influence policymaking? Those politicians genuinely interested in improving bilateral relations should pay more attention to their home agenda and engage those sides of the Other’s image that will be both relevant to the internal discussions and positive toward the partner. The image of the other country is used and is amended in the course of the discussions on the home fronts (as a part of political and cultural adjustments of the society to new challenges). We need to know each other much better than we do now, and the most important knowledge is about the long-term agenda and mechanisms for setting the agenda in the other country.

Can Russia, for example, contribute anything important to the discussions on health care or gun control? Can the U.S. image be instrumental in solving problems of corruption or reforming Russian science and education? Certainly, any image of this kind is ambiguous; the proponents of health reform in the United States may say that “even in Russia there is mandatory medical insurance,” while the critics of the reform would cite cases of the low quality of Russian medicine. Still the major argument for the positive image of Russia is its ability to change itself and overcome even the hardest challenges it faces.

There are certainly powerful actors interested in maintaining the image of the other side as an adversary, and using that image to demonize the other country. However, I dare to say that the spectrum of negative images is relatively narrow, and the repetition of the old ones does not provide an image of the changing country. A positive image will be the image of a dynamic and changing nation that may face problems, make retreats, but nevertheless keeps moving forward. To create better relations, it is essential to improve the image of one country in the eyes of the other’s public.

Ivan Kurilla is a professor of history and department head at Volgograd State University.

This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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