From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018, 528 pp., $30
During a press conference at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport on September 19, 1952, the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, George Kennan, remarked that his isolation in Moscow was worse than what he had endured as an interned diplomat in Nazi Germany following the onset of World War II. Two weeks later, Kennan was expelled from Moscow, becoming the first American Ambassador to be thrown out of Russia in the 230 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Sixty years after that, in May 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Barack Obama’s national security advisor that Russian-American relations were on the road to ruin under America’s Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul. McFaul wouldn’t have been wrong to have assumed that he might become the second U.S. Ambassador to be summarily ejected from Russia. Instead, McFaul underwent something worse: A ghastly and at times harrowing experience as America’s top diplomat in Moscow, chronicled in his recent memoir, From Cold War to Hot Peace. Sharing Kennan’s fate might have saved McFaul and his family more than a few sleepless nights.
Kennan permeates McFaul’s memoir. McFaul is convinced that no one would have better understood Obama’s approach to policy than the esteemed Cold War diplomat. For McFaul, the highly-touted “Reset” of relations between Russia and America that commenced at the start of Obama’s first term could have played the same role in post-Cold War American foreign policy that Kennan’s focus on “Containment” played during the Cold War itself. The Reset should have been, like Kennan’s famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs, the defining approach for a new century. This of course never came to pass. Why that is so is a recurrent theme coursing through McFaul’s book.
George Kennan and Michael McFaul are both policy intellectuals who were thrust into a position of actually shaping policy. Each had been conditioned to concentrate on the bigger picture, and both perceived themselves as representing a new course of thinking. Each of them also felt that the policies they authored were badly misunderstood. Nevertheless, Kennan and McFaul are two vastly different thinkers. Kennan, we might say, is the intellectual as historian. Gloomy, often skeptical about democracy, Kennan was a realist by inclination. According to his biographer, John Lewis Gaddis, he was also an elitist, with frustration his default state of mind.
McFaul, by contrast, is a policy intellectual qua social scientist. His competencies are rooted not in history but in comparative politics. He is an optimist, a democratic determinist. In Whiggish fashion, he believes that history has a direction, and that this direction, despite twists and turns, finds its way to democracy. His long-standing relationship with the National Democratic Institute, the U.S. government-funded democracy-promoting outfit of which he writes about with particular affection, is a case in point.
George Kennan is an observer. Michael McFaul is an activist. Kennan is temperamentally ambivalent about what America could and should do. McFaul sees inaction as the major sin of any American policy. These distinctions in their intellectual profiles reflect the difference between someone molded by the dour experience of the 1930s and someone shaped by the triumphalism of the 1990s. It also demonstrates the instability and tension between liberal idealism and foreign policy realism.
A Montana-raised political science professor at Stanford University, McFaul was invited by President Barack Obama to direct the Russia and Eurasia shop at the National Security Council. McFaul’s academic work on democracy-related themes— teleologically called “transitions to democracy” or, infelicitously, “transitology”— provided him a useful perspective to navigate foreign policy alongside career policy practitioners.
Eager to trumpet his scholarly bona fides and ivory tower comparative advantage against career DC policy wonks, McFaul repeatedly references his academic pedigree. He writes that he is “an academic specialist on democratic transitions;” that he is “one of the few professors at the NSC;” that his “aspirations for how Russia might change are supported by social science research;” and that he “got to do what every academic dreams of: walk the president of the United States through every argument of [my] book.” The Stanford academic at the NSC is at pains to show that Obama’s White House policy team was advantaged by their new colleague’s rigorous application of political science theory.
McFaul’s scholarly mien and Russian language facility (unlike other U.S. Ambassadors of yore, though not Kennan) made him a seemingly convincing political appointee to the NSC. After U.S.-Russian relations reached their nadir in the George W. Bush years, the Reset aimed to get relations back on course—and McFaul with his deep well of experience had the apparent legitimacy to make that a reality. His aims were hardly burdened by modesty: “Not since Kissinger’s détente,” McFaul writes, “had one word come to represent an entire mood and moment in U.S.-Russia relations.”
Renewed U.S. legitimacy in the international arena under Barack Obama, a commitment by Hillary Clinton to engage Russia as Secretary of State, and McFaul’s intimate familiarity with Russian politics and society made a leavening of U.S.-Russia relations during Obama’s first-term a good bet. And with McFaul’s claim of having “hundreds of close friends and thousands of acquaintances” in Russia, what could go wrong?
McFaul is quick to suggest that “improved relations” were never the actual ambition of the Reset. Instead, and with Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy realism as an archetype, McFaul asserts that the Reset policy focused on engagement as a means to advance the economic and security objectives of the United States. He goes into exhaustive detail on the minutiae of the policy streams, and seeks to persuade readers that they represented the administration’s hard-nosed approach to the Russian Federation—to fend off, one imagines, foolish taunts about being “soft on Russia.” But he doth protest too much: It is impossible to believe that the career Russia-hand was not smitten by the possibility of quarterbacking improved relations.
The Reset’s launch in Geneva in March 2009 was—regrettably—unforgettable. The humiliating mistranslation into Russian of the actual word “reset”—the cock-up heard around the world—created an agonizing moment for Secretary Clinton and McFaul. Eager to improve America’s frayed relations with Russia, Clinton had hoped the metaphor would reflect a new set of policy relations and be an easy communications payoff. Instead it invited scorn. McFaul concedes that it was he who was responsible for mistaking “reset” (perezagruzka) for “overload” (peregruzka). It might have been dismissed as an honest mistake had McFaul been less brazen about his Russian language facility, but as things stood, it created an institutional birth defect from which he and others would never recover.
Linguistic mistakes are one thing, political naivete something else entirely. Michael McFaul was hardly alone in assuming that Dmitri Medvedev was a Khruschevian figure, especially after eight increasingly hard-nosed years under Vladimir Putin. But McFaul’s expertise should have been able to interpret Russian politics with a longer time-horizon. The absence of any longue-duree lens would trip up those like McFaul who were hopeful that, in the jargon of the time, another Russia was possible. Ultimately, such present-mindedness lead him to deploy a reductive polarity when assessing Russia’s leadership under Dmitri Medvedev (the good cop) and Vladimir Putin (the not-good cop).
McFaul was buoyed by Dmitri Medvedev’s election as President in 2008 and saw in him someone with whom the United States could do business. A lawyer, a modernizer, a Silicon Valley enthusiast, a Deep Purple fan even, McFaul perceived Medvedev to be a more sympathetic partner to the new U.S. administration, someone inclined to roll back the authoritarian carapace of Putin’s prior eight years.
After moving toward a more benevolent Russian regime, McFaul believed, the Reset would receive the credibility it needed. Putin, however, chose not to follow McFaul’s hopeful script and only superficially took a back seat to power. As Prime Minister in a presidential system Putin’s power may have been constitutionally curtailed, but Russian history has never involved much devotion to formal authority. McFaul’s neglect of that reality, or perhaps his wishful thinking, set him up for failure in his new role. Actual power was to remain in the hands of the bad cop.
Despite the Reset’s rocky road during his tenure in Obama’s White House, McFaul was generally excited at his nomination to be Ambassador to Moscow in 2011. Though his family pined for the leafy precincts of Palo Alto, California, McFaul couldn’t pass up the job of a lifetime. Holding out hope that the Reset was not yet kaput, McFaul moved into Spaso House, the manorial residence for the sitting U.S. Ambassador, and got down to work. After having his confirmation held up for months, he was eager to use his new perch to particular advantage. What he didn’t accomplish from within the NSC he would now take on from Moscow. His intimacy with the Russian condition, McFaul believed, could still save the day.
Viktor Chernomyrdin, once Russia’s Prime Minister himself*, aphoristically encapsulated the country’s often tragic past by saying, “We hoped for the best yet things turned out as usual.” McFaul’s tenure as Ambassador might be understood as an American variation on this perennial Russian theme. The new Ambassador had the best of intentions: He sought to offer a corrective to the anti-Western fulminations in the Russian Federation by communicating openly with the Russian people, showing what was “best about America,” and doing so via social media. What he hadn’t fully grasped, however, was that relations between Russia and the United States had soured beyond repair and that his folksiness would fall on deaf ears to a determinedly unyielding populace. Approval ratings of the United States during McFaul’s tenure in Russia had bottomed out.
Why did things go so awry under McFaul’s leadership, someone who on paper was distinctly qualified to restore relations? Part of the problem was his surprising misreading of a still conservative Russia. McFaul discusses at some length the debacle of the Libyan intervention, a UN resolution that the Russians abstained from but that tacitly allowed for invasion. Cries of hypocrisy in the Russian leadership and across Russian media that U.S. forces pressed for regime change instead of no-fly zones torpedoed any remaining chance McFaul had of rebuilding relations. Libya, in fact, had sealed Medvedev’s departure from the Kremlin.
The good-natured Montanan surmised that his ambassadorship, were it to make any constructive inroads against the headwinds of Russian society, would need to present a new kind of diplomat in chief. Unwittingly taking a page from Russia’s 19th century peredvizhniki, those cultural figures who took to the provinces to perform or display their wares, the Ambassador believed that he would have to reach the Russian people directly to make his case.
In a country in which nearly all non-internet media was controlled, in one fashion or another, by the state, McFaul’s use of Twitter helped him reach beyond the strictures of state media organs. He gushes: “I embraced digital diplomacy with enthusiasm.”
Misinformation had not reached the global meme as would later happen during the election of 2016 but McFaul was fully aware of the discord and dystopia Russia sowed to defend its version of reality. Countering what he saw as a stifling media environment and the need for empirical content, McFaul writes, “I’m an academic . . . and in my professional world, data matter.” Furthermore, “I always believed that transparency served our interests.” “I wanted to offer snapshots of American life—our history, our traditions, and our concerns.” In this vein, McFaul asserts, “I wrote blogs [he means blogposts] on . . . the role of NGOs in the American political system, the evolution of LGBTQ rights in America, and my favorite vacation sports in the United States.”
This steady barrage of Americana did nothing to change the perception that behind his folksy social media presence, McFaul was really only interested in one thing: fomenting a colored revolution in Russia. The revolutionary events in Ukraine and Georgia had so spooked the Kremlin that McFaul would have had to become the second coming of FDR to have the Russian establishment think at all differently about him.
In fact, soon after his entrée to Russia, McFaul walked into a diplomatic faux pas. While the new Ambassador’s social media passions may have irritated Russia’s establishment, it was McFaul’s impassioned outreach to human rights actors and civil society in general that truly got the Kremlin’s goat. In an early meeting at Spaso House, McFaul invited a select group of rights activists to show that, despite everything, the Ambassador had their back. Although well-intentioned, it reinforced the Russian political elite’s greatest anxiety: that McFaul and his American compatriots were interested in little more than drumming up social discontent. Human rights actors in the Kremlin’s worldview were, tout court, political actors hell-bent on regime change. Nothing would change that idée fixe.
It would be churlish to critique McFaul for trying his hand at what he was ostensibly in Moscow to do: diplomacy. Aspects of the reactionary Russian firmament, in the first instance the Kremlin-funded youth group Nashi (“Ours”), would give McFaul (and his family) no quarter. In what can only be described as a nightmarish period, McFaul and his family were persistently followed (goons even sitting behind them at church), harassed repeatedly, and made to feel deeply anxious by those who had the worst of intentions. Throughout his time in Russia, the aggression never let up.
By 2013 McFaul was committed to his egress and eventually, after the Edward Snowden imbroglio, would leave Russia to return to his Valhalla, Palo Alto, California, in the winter of 2014. McFaul perhaps assumed that the Silicon Valley precincts would allow him safe harbor from the long nightmare now behind him. Instead, this past July, Vladimir Putin asked Donald Trump that the Russian government be allowed to question the former Ambassador on issues related to McFaul’s tenure in Russia. Rightly, the Senate voted unanimously to keep him on U.S. soil.
At the start of his memoir, McFaul explains that he visited Moscow in 1987 while working on a dissertation devoted to revolution in South Africa. He was interested in how the Soviet Union, at one time a revolutionary power, approached these transformative events when its own appetite for revolutions was long gone and its economic survival depended on a modus vivendi with the West. In a way, McFaul became a protagonist in his own dissertation. Obama’s White House may have been markedly different from its predecessor in that the United States was no longer a global advocate of democratic change. Yet it made sure to claim every popular uprising as a success of its soft power.
At present, America witnesses a failure in its two approaches to Russia. Democratizers failed to establish a Western-style democracy, while realists never made an ally out of Russia at the expense of China. McFaul’s memoir helps to explain the origins of this double failure.
The democratization of Russia was pre-conditioned on two things that did not happen. Yeltsin’s opening to the West never delivered economic prosperity to ordinary Russians, and it did not preserve the illusion of Russia as an important global power. The financial crisis of 1998 savaged the hopes of an emerging middle class, while the Kremlin’s impotence to prevent NATO’s military intervention in Yugoslavia exposed Russia’s global irrelevance. In the beginning of the 21st century Russians were on the hunt for a political leader committed to restoring its status.
McFaul is now back at Stanford, Donald Trump is in the White House, but America continues to lack a coherent policy on Russia. Clearly, the Kremlin’s meddling in the U.S. elections has shaped America’s views of Russia. But while those who insist on the Russian threat are not wrong, and it is clear that the Kremlin has its own policy of regime change in the West, the real threat from Russia is twofold. America’s obsession with the country and the attempt to explain everything that goes wrong by Moscow’s interference may have a short-term mobilization effect, but it blinds Americans to the internal problems of its own political system and its foreign policy. And such a laser-like focus on the Kremlin’s every move distracts Washington from the actual strategic challenge it faces: how to deal with the rise of China. If Putin’s Russia has been a hurricane, China under Xi is nothing less than climate change.
*An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Chernomyrdin as Putin’s Prime Minister.