The Whom Do We Trust 2018 Conference, held in St. Petersburg Russia in collaboration with Esalen Institute’s Center for Theory and Research, The Herzen Russian State Pedagogical University, the Center for International Education and Exchange, and Track Two: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy, brought together 16 Russian and 16 American students, 27 Track Two participants and numerous professors, student advisors and university and educational NGO leaders. We organized four days of discussions and activities to encourage the open exchange of ideas, to foster new friendships and to inform the Track Two network about how a younger generation is viewing international relations and forming perceptions around news media.
While circumstances vary widely across the Track Two Network, the experience in Russia where students discussed their news and information sources, their worries and their understanding of an increasingly complex global arena, shed light on a commonality amongst Russian and American students that was unexpected.
We may attribute much of this common ground as a positive impact of the presence of the Internet in these young people’s lives. With internet access fairly widespread across Russia and the US, these students have managed a certain degree of voyeurism into world affairs that was not available to prior generations.
In a survey conducted after the four-day event we recognized that Russian students are regularly reading US and international press just as the American students are accessing some of the same press – from CNN to BBC, The Economist and Facebook (yes – a news source!) and well beyond. Smaller independent news offerings focus locally however they cover national and global affairs to provide a window into new ideas. These shared information sources – along with a common ‘Internet Culture’ amongst young people - contribute to a sense of shared perception and understanding. And certainly Russian students, perhaps to an even greater degree than their US counterparts, are looking through those windows with avid curiosity and a true sense of connection – a greater commonality in humanity. This was, naturally, uplifting. One participant commented: “we are in despair in the US; this conference, this kind of discourse and interaction, this was hope!”
The work of track two diplomacy is about building trust amongst individuals, within and between networks, and between societies themselves. When nations mistrust each other it is up to citizens to reverse that mistrust. This was the overarching theme of this conference.
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