Moscow may well be sending a second-level message too. Strikingly, Russian officials have said little about the affair—the media, Nashi and bloggers (including in comments on McFaul’s LiveJournal post) have led the charge. Russia’s leaders seem to be saying “have a little taste of democracy” to the United States. (McFaul might have picked up on that when responding to Leontiev on Twitter, writing “Odnako had no word about the 3 years of reset. Yesterday my mtgs with WH/Kremlin officials could not have been warmer. pluralism!” He clearly noted and reported the contrast—and its implications.) Fueling concern about Russia’s opposition parties appears to have been a long-term strategy of successive leaders; facing plunging popularity when seeking reelection in 1996, Boris Yeltsin tried to make the same argument to the United States by demonizing Russia’s Communist Party. Likewise, many suspect that the ill-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia has been and remains a government-endorsed effort to discredit the opposition.
While McFaul’s pregovernment writings and statements are a source of suspicion for Leontiev and others in Russia who are skeptical of U.S. motives and actions, his position at the National Security Council may well have provided the Obama administration with greater flexibility in pursuing its reset policy. While there are limits to the political impact of any special assistant to the president, McFaul’s reputation gave his superiors a certain Nixon-to-China credibility. This was readily apparent when both human-rights activists and neoconservative Republicans rallied to support his confirmation as ambassador in the face of Senate delays.
In this sense, the admittedly minor Leontiev drama and McFaul himself symbolize a major unresolved dilemma of the reset—and of each previous attempt at U.S.-Russian post-Cold war rapprochement. How do we obtain Moscow’s cooperation on U.S. security priorities while simultaneously pushing its officials to do other things that contravene either their personal interests or views of Russia’s national interests? Washington has not yet answered this question.
McFaul’s first days in Russia put this problem at center stage. Deputy Secretary of State Burns was in Moscow to seek Russian support on a variety of issues including Iran, Afghanistan and Syria. (Burns, a former assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, also visited Egypt and Turkey on the trip.) After their meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a spokesman said that Russia would “oppose any new resolution” with sanctions on Iran.
A long-running challenge has been balancing U.S. security priorities related to Russia and U.S. goals in other areas, ranging from Russia’s democracy to NATO expansion and U.S. intervention in places like Libya and the former Yugoslavia. Washington’s inability to address this tension was a major factor in the collapse of previous efforts by the Clinton and Bush administrations to build a cooperative relationship with Russia. Needless to say, Russia’s conduct also contributed. Of course, U.S. and Russian policies have also been deeply intertwined and intensely reactive to one another’s real and perceived actions and intentions.
Prior to his government service McFaul, along with former Clinton-administration official Stephen Sestanovich, promoted the “walk-and-chew-gum” school of thinking in U.S. policy toward Russia, which has also been known as “selective engagement.” In brief, they argued that the United States can and should cooperate with Russia where possible, while simultaneously doing what they see as necessary in areas of disagreement, even over determined Russian opposition.
While this approach seems logical and reasonable on its face, it has proven difficult to implement in practice. (The Clinton administration did the greatest damage, piling considerable baggage on the shoulders of its successors.) The United States can indeed “walk and chew gum” in the sense that government officials are fully capable of constructing a policy that puts cooperative measures in one box and sharp disagreements in another. What Washington cannot control, however, is Russia’s reaction—or, for that matter, China’s or Pakistan’s reactions to analogous policy approaches. The root problem is that we have deeply different national interests, priorities and perceptions. The “walk-and-chew-gum” policy may look more like “shake hands and spit” to those on its receiving end.
Many will argue that the United States must pursue key national interests even if Washington and Moscow differ, or that administration officials have no choice other than to be public advocates for democracy and human rights in Russia because of U.S. domestic politics. U.S. officials must indeed seek to advance and defend vital national interests—meaning those strictly necessary to America’s security and prosperity—regardless of what anyone else thinks. But the United States has many other interests that do not rise to this level, and one of the president’s core responsibilities is to establish clear priorities. None of America’s post-Cold War presidents has succeeded in this task.
Polling regularly demonstrates that America’s political elite is far more interested in promoting democracy abroad than the American people, who typically rank democracy well below issues like nuclear proliferation, terrorism and energy security. Moreover, the argument that U.S. foreign-policy must be subordinate to our domestic politics seems bizarre when made by people who often want other governments to ignore their own domestic politics (not only Russia, but also China and Pakistan). They seem to think that we cannot change our own domestic politics but have great hope that we can change others.