NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia — Twenty years ago, I was responsible for the United States’ effort to support civil society development in Siberia. One objective was to get nongovernmental organizations to create coalitions.

Our approach was simple. We invited all the environmental groups in our city to a meeting and offered to pay for a Siberian conference if they organized it. I was surprised that it was the first time that many in the NGOs had met their colleagues.

After a discussion about issues of importance to them, the meeting ended and everyone thanked us, then indicated they had no interest in working together to prepare a conference. This was the first time something hadn’t clicked right away, so we repeated the meeting with NGOs dedicated to other missions: children, health care, etc.

They always ended the same: “Thanks, but no thanks.” Grant competitions, government partnership: No problem. Coalition: We hit a brick wall.

The usual American NGOs that provide coalition-building training would not or could not help us. This was a blessing because most of their seminars used professional trainers, and Siberian activists learned more from people who had actually done what they were training others to do.

I called our U.S. office in Maine (my sister), located in my mom’s home. “Can you find a Maine grass-roots activist who can help us get people to create coalitions?” I asked.

She called a few days later and made arrangements for a local activist to come. He had only one day with the 15 NGO leaders we invited to the seminar. He began by asking everyone to answer five questions and then invited them to ask him questions.

“How long did it take your coalition to achieve its goal?” they asked. When they heard the man from America, the heartland of democracy, say, “years,” the sigh of relief and possibility was audible. It was like watching Mozart compose a symphony.

Before he left, the Maine activist explained to me and to the Russian staff that “weak organizations don’t make coalitions. Concentrate on institutional development, create opportunities for people to meet and work together and coalitions will appear.”

He was right. That is exactly what happened.

I was reminded of this recently when the United States refused to meet with a Russian delegation led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev after having rebuffed previous attempts to work together to address the crisis in Syria.

The key Russian issue with the U.S. strategy to destroy Daesh (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL or ISIS) over the last four years is the inability of America to answer one question: “What happens after Bashar Assad?”

Unanswered questions do not inspire action by a country that lost 27 million during World War II (what is called the Great Patriotic War here), especially given the chaos that resulted in Iraq and Libya when Russia acquiesced to America’s desire for action without answers.

The United States’ wing-and-a-prayer approach to Islamic countries is of great concern in Russia, where 11.7 percent of the population is Muslim as opposed to 0.9 percent in the U.S., and Damascus is 400 miles closer to Moscow than New York is to Las Vegas.

Refusing to work with all countries involved does not make the U.S. look stronger. Another lesson passed on from American grassroots activists to Siberian activists was “after any meeting, find out who was not in the room and how you can get their opinion.” There are Americans, including former President Jimmy Carter, promoting the coalition approach.

America’s efforts – involving dropping thousands of bombs and arming and training “moderate” terrorists – have failed. The Russians launched their air campaign. The result has been 224 Russian vacationers dead, 43 killed in the early evening light of Beirut and 129 slain while enjoying a Friday night out in Paris.

All countries agree a military victory is not possible. There is only a political solution. That essential patch of common ground that everyone can build on to find a sustainable solution is visible. It is time for our leaders in Washington to return to our grass roots for the way forward.

It wasn’t freedom that impressed French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville the most about America. It was people in their communities working together to address issues of concern. Identifying common ground, building a coalition that respects all voices, these principles from American activists 20 years ago continue to enlighten the work of NGOs here as I continue to pass them along to my students at a Siberian university.

President Obama: Tune out the noise from those who have never created peace, go back to the lessons you learned in community development and start applying them internationally.