Reflections on the Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul's New Memoir
June 14, 2018
The first thing that should be said about Michael McFaul’s recently published memoir, From Cold War to Hot Peace, which recounts his time as President Barack Obama’s principal point man on Russia, and, later, as US Ambassador to Russia, is that his love and appreciation of Russia and for the Russian people emerges clearly, authentically and unmistakably.
McFaul, who has returned to Stanford after his stints of public service in Washington and Moscow, writes of his abiding interest in Russia, which goes all the way back to his high school days and which has been borne out by his longstanding commitment to getting to know Russians on a personal level.
Yet it’s clear to me that McFaul’s prior writings about Putin and Russia soured government leaders in Russia on his being appointed Ambassador.
And while I’m not sure that having a different Ambassador than McFaul for the somewhat less than two years he held the position would have made a difference in the trajectory of the U.S.-Russia relationship, I cannot believe his presence there helped the situation. This is not to say that the treatment he and his family received at the hands of Russian authorities, which he recounts in his book, was in any way justified.
McFaul came into the position of Ambassador with a deeply skeptical, indeed negative, view of Putin and his behavior. Many of these negative views, some of which could be justified later in Putin’s tenure, are often identified as attributes Putin had from the start. For example, McFaul claims (Page 259) that “Putin developed his theories about American foreign policy years earlier, when he was a KGB agent in East Germany.” Yet if Putin was anti-American from the start, what explains, for example, him being the first international leader to offer assistance to the United States in the aftermath of 9/11? As it happens, even Michael McFaul expressed a measure of optimism about US-Russian relations at that time.
It seems to me McFaul’s approach to Putin became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, by the time he got to Spaso House, he had already decided that Putin was not someone with whom the US government could or should do business. In that connection, I found it bizarre that McFaul found it so important to underscore (Page 79) that “good relations with Russia was not the goal of Reset, but a strategy for pursuing American interests regarding Russia.”
Similarly, I found McFaul’s characterization of the relationship between Obama and Medvedev at the June 2010 Summit to be somewhat odd. McFaul writes that, “Obama started his remarks by using the dreaded ‘f-word,’ saying that it was a ‘pleasure to be here with my friend and partner…’” McFaul continues, “I was always wary about using the word ‘friend’ in diplomacy, but I could not stop the President’s reference in relation to Medvedev.” I found that a very sad comment.
McFaul goes to great lengths to lay out alternative motivations for Putin’s behavior. He acknowledges, for example, the impact of the expansion of NATO, the bombing Serbia, the overthrow of Gaddafi, as factors that influenced Putin’s thinking. But then, in his ultimate analysis of what guided Putin, he again and again downplays the impact that these factors might have had.
I find McFaul flipping back and forth from expressing a commitment to work with Russia and then advocating action, or a possible line of action, that presumes Russia is an adversary. For example, during the 2009 Reset, he expresses his belief that, “For the Reset to succeed, we had to do more to enhance the security of our NATO allies in closest proximity to Russia; translating this aspiration into policy proved challenging. NATO expansion was not an option.” But he then goes on to note that NATO issued a “confusing statement which welcomed ‘Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO’ and insisted ‘that these countries will become members of NATO’ but also kicked the start of their MAPs (Membership Action Plan) to the distant future.’”
How did he expect Putin and Russia would react to this? Naturally, they’d see it as a signal of continued intent to expand NATO eastward.
At the same point in time, there was the issue of missile defense. The Obama administration argued that our intent in locating missile defense batteries in Poland and Romania was to “defend against Iran, not Russia.” Was it realistic to believe that Russia would accept that? I don’t think so. Here was just one more instance of the U.S. taking action which, through Russian eyes, looked adversarial. And this in the midst of the Reset!
In the end it seems McFaul was either unable or unwilling to empathize with what the Russian government viewed as legitimate national security interests.
I have the sense that McFaul’s academic work, including the study of how autocratic regimes can transition to democracy, colored his belief as to what should be his and the U.S. government’s role in Russia. I come away from this book feeling that he saw himself as something of a “savior” to bring about “democracy,”as he envisaged it in Russia.
This is not to say Putin’s Russia hasn’t violated acceptable norms. For instance, I believe that Putin’s decision to annex Crimea was both wrong from the standpoint of international law and wrong for the best long-term interests of Russia. There had to be other ways (a protectorate?) for Russia to have protected its interests on the peninsula. The suppression of opposing Presidential candidates and bombing of Syrian civilians in alliance with President Assad cannot be excused.
Despite the currently poisoned relationship (deserving McFaul’s description of a “Hot Peace”), I continue to believe that the time will come when our relationship with Russia will return to a positive plane. I know there is a lot of “hope”in that belief. I base it on the commonality and existential importance of so many of the interests of our two countries, above all control of nuclear proliferation and terrorism. For this to happen, we’re going to have to find a way to break through on the knottiest problems of Syria and Ukraine.
In the end, for me, Mc Faul’s account is a cautionary tale which reveals how the failure to consider how our actions, as well-intended and justified as they seem to us, may appear to another country and its leaders, and might, unintentionally, impede the achievement of our common interests.
A cautionary tale, too, in that it shows how a reflexively negative view of another country’s leader – in this case Putin-can become so personal and so unidimensional that the assumed inability to reach a “win-win” outcome becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.