At a panel discussion Tuesday, several Duke scholars expressed concern about the effects of recent United States sanctions on Russia.

Entitled “‘Is There A Pulse?’ The Critical Condition of US-Russia Relations,” the panel featured several Duke professors and Jack F. Matlock, Trinity '50 and a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Panelists evaluated America's historical foreign policies against Russia and made recommendations about the current bilateral relationship. 

“There are no good reasons for [the U.S. and Russia] to be enemies but many good reasons for us to cooperate,” Matlock said. 

More than 40 years ago, the U.S. imposed the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974—a trade restriction order against the Soviet Union for impeding free emigration of Soviet Jews—and the Magnitsky Act in 2012, which barred certain Russian human rights violators from engaging in financial activities in the U.S. 

Matlock, who is currently a Rubenstein Fellow, said the U.S. and Russia share responsibilities to many global tasks, including preventing nuclear proliferation and mitigating climate change. But the recent sanctions may jeopardize the two countries’ cooperation.

The U.S. has historically used trade sanctions for political purposes, noted panelist Michael Newcity, visiting professor of the linguistics program and Slavic and Eurasian studies.

“Sanctions have a long history in the United States,” Newcity said. “But it’s questionable if it is an effective way to make a foreign government change its behavior.”

The recent legislation has consolidated the Russian sanctions President Obama issued as an executive order last year into written laws, generating a frozen system of sanctions, Newcity said. 

Economic sanctions sometimes backfire and distort the U.S. economy because it interferes with the normal development of economy in both countries, Matlock said. 

“We always assume sanctions as a punishment on others,” he added. “But there is always a possibility that it will turn around and bite you.”

Panelist Charles Becker, research professor of economics, said two game theory models have justified a cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. 

A prisoner’s dilemma arises when both parties tend to get less payoff than they would be if they cooperate, Becker said, so the optimal outcome is for the two parties to trust each other and coordinate. But even if they cannot trust one another, it is still beneficial for both to cut some slack for their counterpart when one of them defects—a strategy called tit for tat. 

“It is always good for both sides to act as if they trust the other player so that they could continue with their cooperation,” Becker said. 

Matlock noted that the U.S.-Russia relationship is not limited to governmental affairs but is also between the general public in the two countries. 

Duke has a long and healthy relationship with the Russian academia, said panelist Edna Andrews, Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus humanities professor of Slavic and Eurasian studies. It launched an exchange program with Russian scholars in 1988 and has accepted visiting Russian scholars every semester since then. 

Senior Nuray Orujova said she learned more about America's historical interaction with Russia through attending this panel. Originally from a post-Soviet state, Orujova said her identity has enabled her to connect to both countries and she looks forward to more cooperation between them instead of hostility.

Reflecting upon his career as the last U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union before it collapsed, Matlock said the U.S. ended the Cold War not by defeating the Soviet Union, but by negotiating with them and protecting both sides’ interests.

“It’s inaccurate to say the United States won the Cold War,” Matlock said. “We all won.” 

The U.S. need to learn from its past experience and promote peaceful relationship with Russia, Matlock added. 

“Differences can always be resolved peacefully,” he said. “It is our common goal that we should look at.”