On February 4, U.S. ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul announced that he would leave his post after the Winter Olympics to be with his family again in California, ending what the New York Times described as “a stormy two-year tenure during which relations between the two countries were at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War.”
McFaul had never served as a diplomat before taking this post, and his two years on the job have drawn polarized reviews. Many observers hold McFaul at least partially responsible for the slump in U.S.-Russian relations, and some of those critics point to his inexperience in diplomacy as one cause of that slump. Others praise McFaul for his dogged and open pursuit of “dual-track” diplomacy, publicly engaging with Russian activists and the wider public in person and through social media while also engaging in more traditional relations with the Russian government those activists are trying to transform or topple.
I think there’s truth in both views, but I agree with James Carden (here) that the fault for McFaul’s rocky tenure lies primarily with the people who decided to appoint him to the post. I see Ambassador McFaul as a tragic figure—a man who meant to do good and tried his level best but whose accumulated professional baggage made it almost impossible for him to succeed in the job of a lifetime. (Disclosure: While in graduate school at Stanford, I served as Mike’s teaching assistant for one quarter, for his course on Russian politics. Mike was professionally cordial toward me at the time, but I haven’t had contact with him since finishing school apart from being “friends” with him on Facebook.)
Relations between the U.S. and Russia are both vitally important and persistently fragile, in no small part because the Russian government views its U.S. counterparts with deep distrust. Into this crucial but volatile mix the Obama administration chose to inject a man who had devoted a significant fraction of his public-facing career to transforming Russia in ways the Putin regime could only regard as hostile. As Carden notes,
For twenty years McFaul had been a prolific and consistent promoter of the idea that Western democratic values, American-style capitalism, and Western norms with regard to press freedoms are universal and that it ought to be the goal of American statecraft to impose those norms on Russia. And if the Russian government wasn’t interested in this transformative project, America should engage directly with Russian ‘civil society’ instead. Indeed, writing in the Washington Post in 2000, McFaul was firmly of the opinion that ‘democracy in Russia is a precondition for cooperation.’
International-relations theorists can tell you that there are plenty of structural reasons why the U.S. and Russia struggle to cooperate in many areas. Still, it’s hard to see how the appointment of someone with McFaul’s background to the post of ambassador could have done anything but make that cooperation even harder. When McFaul hit the ground running in directions that only seemed to confirm the Power Vertical’s suspicions of him, he almost certainly dug himself into an inescapable hole. But how else could it have been? The ambassador believed what he had been saying about the democratization of Russia his whole adult life, and as a man of good character, he had to act on what he believed.
The tragic flavor of Ambassador McFaul’s tenure permeates an excellent “exit interview” with him on the New Republic‘s web site. In that interview with Julia Ioffe, McFaul seems to speak candidly about how he approached his job, how hard it was, and where he succeeded and failed. In the “success” column, he notes that the U.S. continues to run supplies for troops in Afghanistan through Russia, and he points to cooperation on counter-proliferation efforts in Iran, North Korea, and Syria. At the same time, he acknowledges that, on the issue to which he has devoted much of his career—the democratization of Russia—things have only gotten worse. Asked what the future holds for Russia’s opposition, McFaul says,
I mean, my honest answer is: I don’t know. The space for political action has been dramatically constrained. That’s just obvious. At the same time, I am impressed by the vibrancy of Russian society. There’s a dynamism here that is not going to end.
That’s poignant in its own right, but the tragedy comes into starker relief in his response to an earlier question. After talking about his dual-track strategy and the Russian crackdown that has coincided with it, McFaul admits that the public engagement he has practiced and continues to champion may sometimes have exacerbated the problem.
JI: Do you feel at this point that tougher measures against Russia would be counterproductive?
MM: I think it’s easy to overestimate the coercive power of outsiders when dealing with large powerful countries like Russia. But I don’t have a good answer to that. I genuinely do not. I know that we struggle with it every day. I know that we want to make sure that we listen to our Russian colleagues. Many times I’ve heard from civil-society leaders and members of the opposition that, in the name of a nice sound bite or photo op, we have done damage.
For a man who clearly cares deeply about Russia and its people and came to Moscow to do good, that has to be a tough admission to make. He did exactly what he said he would do, and Russia’s domestic politics and its relationship with the U.S. both moved in the wrong direction.
Postscript. Since publishing this post, I’ve heard from a few people who inferred from the final sentence that I hold McFaul partially responsible for those domestic and international trends. That’s not what I meant to say. I think the domestic trend in particular was largely baked into the situation, and there was little McFaul could have done to alter it. As a longtime observer of democratization and Russia, I’d say that the erosion of political rights and civil liberties we’ve seen in that country over the past few years can be explained fine by general theories of political development; we don’t need to reference the ambassador’s dual-track diplomacy to explain it.
That said, I do suspect that the Russians’ perceptions of McFaul’s efforts to engage with their domestic “enemies,” and what those efforts and his background “revealed” about American intentions, made it marginally harder to find common ground in the international arena. Since the collapse of the USSR, I think that the U.S. has consistently underestimated the extent to which its efforts to expand Europe and transform the Soviet successor states have stoked Russian insiders’ distrust of, and hostility toward, the U.S. In that context, I wonder if things which seem tangential or modest to us—like McFaul’s academic and professional history—are perceived very differently by them. Or maybe they’re just really good at cranking up the faux outrage machine. In any case, I hope the ambassador will have a chance to speak more to that argument in public when his tenure is officially over.