As I noted on Monday, I’m in Sochi attending the Valdai Discussion Club. In case it was not obvious, this is a Vladimir Putin-approved event — high-profile gatherings like this one that are unapproved by Putin unhappen in Russia. This raises a rather awkward question for an American during a time of … let’s say “tension” between the two countries. Does the value of attending such a confab outweigh the costs?
The costs are easier to delineate. There is a large public relations component to this meeting, and that component has taken on a bigger dimension in recent years. In the past, a lot more of Valdai was off the record, including the sessions attended by Putin himself. Now everything is televised. Longtime attendees tell me that it also used to be more introspective; in the past, many of the panels covered Russia itself. Now most of the conference is outward-looking, discussing everyone else’s problems. Russia Today (RT) is interviewing every American they can find, including me in a few days. There is an obvious risk that participation confers greater legitimacy on a government that has been accused of some less-than-legitimate activities as of late.
The benefits are harder to specify. In part, this is because some of the value-added accrues only to me and not to thee. Last night I somehow found myself sharing a healthy amount of food and drink with some former G-20 policy principals. Priceless anecdotes about former heads of state were shared, as were some interesting observations about the prospect of great power politics following the U.S. election. But I can’t provide any more specifics than that because it was all off the record. Indeed, I feel cheap even teasing you about it.
One possible public good to proffer is the one David Rothkopf has used to justify the continuation of Davos:
[T]his meeting is the target of criticism for a reason. It is the granddaddy of the world’s big high-level conferences, and it has an important role to play in the world. People watch it closely; it attracts the skeptical views it draws precisely because it actually makes a difference, whether it is regarding how a leader or policy initiative is viewed by markets or how a particular threat (from climate to regional unrest) might be assessed or addressed.
Valdai matters because it is the highest-profile Russian equivalent to Davos (minus the corporate presence). What Vladimir Putin or Sergei Lavrov or Alexei Kudrin says here is worth observing. For close Russia-watchers — and most of the American attendees fall into that category — observing Valdai is like a physician doing a routine check-up of a patient. The interest is in the year-to-year changes in the official rhetoric, as well as what is said during the coffee breaks.
I am not a close Russia-watcher. Even for generalists such as myself, however, there can be value in listening to official boilerplate. There is even greater value in learning how one’s priors about a country might not match up with what is actually happening in that country. I’ve been genuinely surprised at the free-flowing nature of the conversations here on some very sensitive foreign policy questions. None of this will change official policy — but it is good to hear the thinking behind such policies, as well as the acknowledgment of costs as well as benefits.
As I have noted in the past, sharing a stage with people you disagree with is a good thing so long as you can express that disagreement openly. I have been able to do that here at Valdai. I was asked to envision a world in which the USSR didn’t collapse, because that was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” according to the program. I took great pains to point out the myriad ways that statement was wrong. Mission accomplished.
My attendance at Valdai comes with a few costs. But the benefits are real as well.