12 June 2008

Talking to the enemy

In his book The Soviet Ambassador: The Making of the Radical Behind Perestroika, Christopher Shulgan tells an interesting tale about the collapse of the Soviet Union. He suggests Pierre Trudeau may have played an important role, not with any grand gesture but by simply talking to and developing a rapport with the other side. Trudeau made friends with the Russian ambassador Aleksandr Yakovlev, and the two held long discussions about, according to Trudeau, "everything from world peace to the health of [his] grandchildren and of my sons." The two became so close some diplomats were worried Trudeau was being brainwashed. To the contrary, Yakovlev, a bit of a sceptic to begin with, was being seduced by Canadian and values and becoming convinced the Soviet Union had "to move in this direction." He helped arrange a trip to Canada for Mikhail Gorbachev, then the Soviet agricultural secretary. During the visit, he took Gorbachev aside and raised ideas about reforming the Soviet Union. Gorbachev later said, "It was a conversation about the Canadian experience, about using it as an example." When Yakovlev returned to Moscow, he became a member of Gorbachev's inner circle and a major influence in leading the Soviet leader toward perestroika.

This isn't surprising. Western values and ideas about democracy and human rights are powerful. We should not be surprised they can seduce a mind cultured in a closed society but open to different perspectives.

This brings us to the current presidential race in the United States. One candidate, Obama, is open to dialogue with the Americans' current nemesis, Iran; the other, McCain, is not. One cannot help but wonder why McCain won't even talk to his enemy. Does he not appreciate the lure of Western ideals? Or does he simply lack confidence in his ability to convey them? Trudeau was an insatiably curious man, intrigued by how other cultures affected the thinking of those born to them. Perhaps McCain, like George Bush, simply lacks curiosity or imagination. Whatever the case, our hopes must lie with Obama.

Iran's leaders, men like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, exhibit the righteousness and prejudices typical of men who have lived sheltered lives in a closed system, rather like Yakovlev. But, as Trudeau said about his discussions with Yakovlev, "We haven't seen eye to eye on everything, but ... we have found ways to work together to serve the interests of both our countries." Certainly Iran and the United States have powerful common interests: oil, peace in the region, a fair settlement in Palestine, etc. Who knows, dialogue might even lead to the peaceful collapse of Iran's theocracy just as it led to the peaceful collapse of Soviet communism.

Of course the Trudeau/Yakovlev chemistry may have been unique: two exceptionally inquisitive minds meeting at the right time and place. Maybe no similar chemistry exists between Obama and Ahmadinejad. But what can possibly be lost by at least opening a conversation? Or at least encouraging conversation. Two compatible minds might exist on another diplomatic level as with Trudeau and Yakovlev -- a prime minister and an ambassador. Nothing else seems to be available to mitigate the dangerous hostility between the two countries.

Now if Obama wins and can be convinced to open a dialogue with Hamas as well, even the seemingly intractable Palestinian problem might finally be solved.

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