Wildon Kaplan was preparing to study abroad in Moscow when he received the news that he had been accepted into the competitive Stanford U.S.-Russian Forum for 2015 to 2016. Conveniently for him, the forum’s first meeting took place in Moscow in September.
There he began a project in diplomacy that brought him into contact with students from across the US and Russia, industry leaders and ambassadors, and the gritty details of the international aviation manufacturing. From Moscow, he went on to on to the Siberian city of Tyumen, where the next part of the conference took place.
“I thought it would be an interesting opportunity because it is focused on track-two diplomacy,” Kaplan said, referring to diplomacy carried out by non-government actors, such as citizens or students.
In this case, the diplomacy was conducted by 20 students from American universities or colleges, and 20 students at Russian universities. Each year, the forum accepts 40 undergraduates and graduate students into its yearlong program. Roughly 500 students applied for a spot in the 2015-2016 forum, vying to get the chance to learn about US-Russian relations and mutual interests, and to meet people like Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, US Ambassador to Russia John Tefft, and other government and business figures.
Bowdoin government professor Laura Henry, an expert in Russia and Europe, said the SURF program was an exceptional opportunity for Kaplan. “The SURF program provided Wildon with connections that will be enormously beneficial as he continues to work in the area of Russia relations and international political economy,” she said. “Wildon has paved the way for other Bowdoin students, showing that Russian language skills and knowledge of the region can open the door to prestigious programs.”
The students in the program are broken into small groups to focus on specific projects, such as nuclear security, energy, the Arctic and the environment, entrepreneurship, the future of Europe, the Middle East, and other areas. “[The] SURF delegates from the United States and Russia…discuss where collaboration can still be productive for the two countries, especially during trying diplomatic times,” the forum states.
Kaplan was invited into the civil aviation working group with two other undergraduates and two graduate students (three Americans and two Russians in all). The five students had different backgrounds in policy, economics, and engineering.
After meeting at the first weeklong conference in Russia, Kaplan’s group spent the next months researching economic ties between Russia and China, specifically looking at the flow of aviation technology and business between the two nations. “There are a lot of new jets coming out of Russia,” Kaplan explained, which are attractive to China as it seek to increase its cross-country air traffic, to link rural areas with industrialized cities and the coast.
“Russian firms are releasing new aircraft models, like the new Sukhoi superset series and Irkut MC21,” both large planes, Kaplan said. He predicts that Russian aviation could one day challenge the dominance of the United State’s Boeing and France’s Airbus, the two giant players in the sector now.
The civil aviation students communicated remotely every week, said Kaplan, and in the spring of last year, the SURF delegates all gathered again, this time at a conference at the Hoover Institute in San Francisco. There they met Michael McFaul, 2012-2014 US ambassador to Russia, and political scholar Francis Fukuyama, as well as former US Secretary of State George Shultz. “He’s so wise,” Kaplan noted of Shultz, who is now in his mid-90s.
Kaplan said he believes the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum is a step toward building cooperation and ties between the two countries, and helping normalize relations. “Working with Russian students made it obvious we’re very similar,” he said. “We share common goals and interests.”
Kaplan first became interested in studying Russian at his high school in Switzerland, where many of his peers came from Russia and former Soviet states. He began studying the language at Bowdoin in his sophomore year.
After graduating in May, Kaplan will head to a traineeship working for the European Union, in international trade, where he’ll be based in Brussels. Then, after pursuing a master’s degree in political economy, he sees himself getting involved in the private sector, perhaps in cross-border mergers and acquisitions.
“The goal” of US-Russian-Chinese relations, said Kaplan, “should be based around mutually beneficial economic, military, and technological cooperation.”