U.S.-Russia relations have been a tough nut to crack for generations and a recent meeting in Helsinki between senior U.S. and Russian diplomats underlined increasing tensions between the two nations as talks appeared to stall.
But a new study suggests a potential path forward, taking cues from a theory used in marriage counseling and the youth of both countries.
Researchers, led by Dr. Alexander Laskin, a professor of strategic communication at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, saw the recent uptick of youth-led political activism in both countries as an opportunity to assess college students’ perceptions of U.S.-Russia relations.
"College students today will become leaders of both countries tomorrow, so it makes sense to look at them if we’re interested in seeing how the relationship between the two countries will develop in the future," Laskin told ABC News. He also said no academic study has directly compared the perceptions of Russians and Americans of each other and of U.S.-Russia relations.
Guided by coorientation theory, which has roots in psychology and is used to mediate conflict between married couples, the researchers surveyed nearly 300 American and Russian college students between November 2016 and January 2017 to examine their perspectives on the top 10 issues affecting U.S.-Russia relations during that time.
Coorientation theory takes into account not only the ideas of each party, but how the parties perceive each others' ideas. Each of four possible scenarios involves a different level of danger.
Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who became America’s most wanted international fugitive, the crisis in Ukraine and war in Syria were among the issues compiled from the official statement of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in the U.S. and a list published by progressive news site ThinkProgress.
The researchers found that young Americans and Russians disagree on many of the issues. The main point of division, according to Laskin, involved Russia granting asylum to Snowden. Russian respondents generally believed their government was doing the right thing, whereas American respondents generally believed the opposite.
"Edward Snowden is very polarizing in America," Laskin said. "You may hear stories about him being a hero who fights for freedom of information, or you may hear stories about him being a traitor who betrayed his country. But for Russian respondents, he is essentially a nonissue—he didn’t do anything to Russia, he wasn’t against Russia."
The researchers also found that both sides were aware that they disagreed with one another. This awareness, the researchers argue, is "very promising" as conflicts often escalate when two parties inaccurately perceive the other’s position.
"It is better to know that you are in disagreement than to proceed as if you are in agreement only to find out that the other party isn’t happy," Laskin said.
"It is a good starting point because from here [they] can begin negotiating to find a solution that benefits both sides."
Laskin and Dr. Anna Popkova, an assistant professor in Western Michigan University’s school of communication who worked on the study, noted that young Russians’ disagreement with their American counterparts doesn’t mean they agree with their own government, evidenced by younger Russians taking the lead in protests against President Vladimir Putin and their preference for alternative news sources.
"It’s not that black and white," Popkova told ABC News. "You can be very, very much in opposition to the Kremlin and be distrustful of whatever you get from American news sources. In general, as a Russian, it’s almost like you’re trained to distrust the government -- Russian government, American government -- it doesn’t matter."
The researchers also found that the two sides tended to overestimate their levels of disagreement with one another, suggesting that they are more in agreement than they think.
This underlines the need for better strategic communication between the two countries to make their perceptions of each other’s positions more accurate, which in turn will reduce the amount of disagreement and improve the accuracy of understanding of each other’s positions, the researchers argue.
Laskin also said he supports student exchange programs, which puts U.S. and Russian students in direct communication with each other, thus paving the way for them to further build mutual understanding years before they ascend to political leadership.
One obvious limitation of the study, Laskin said, is that even though coorientation theory has proven to be successful in mediating conflict between married partners, its principles may not easily apply to relations between two large countries.
"Obviously, you may say, 'What works between married couples doesn’t necessarily work between Russia and the United States,’" Laskin said.
The study was published in the International Journal of Strategic Communication.