McFaul's Russia

June 23, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Tags: RussiaCold WarPutinBook ReviewAmerica

McFaul's Russia

Michael A. McFaul’s memoir, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia, seeks to offer an answer on what went wrong in U.S.-Russian relations.


McFaul, author of such books as Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can and articles on the factors for success in “Color Revolutions,” falls clearly into the moderate camp, which Gessen contends is conventional wisdom in Washington.

Gessen identifies a small but growing group of realist Russia hands who are entering the intellectual tug-of-war over how we got into our bilateral mess and how we get out. The world order is changing, they argue, and not in the direction of greater liberal American hegemony. Our efforts to remake Russia and the Middle East in our democratic image have failed. American policy must adjust accordingly and manage relations more deftly with Russia and other great powers.


If the realists are to get traction, however, Gessen implies that they will have to overcome what one might call an “inspiration gap” when compared to the hard- and soft-internationalist camps. Ideals are powerful motivators, and Gessen’s article highlights the passion that former State Department officials Victoria Nuland and Daniel Fried brought to their efforts to expand NATO and advance liberal governance while fighting any notion of a Yalta-like deal with Moscow over spheres of influence. In this regard, McFaul’s book is a case in point; it pulses with exclamatory comments about the excitement inherent in democratic change: “People were organizing peacefully to challenge corrupt, authoritarian leaders. What could be more exciting than that!” By comparison, the admonitions of John Quincy Adams not to “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy” seem rather dull. Graham tells Gessen that his primary accomplishment on the national security council was “preventing worse things from happening,” which is certainly a worthy cause, but hardly one calculated to arouse much excitement among foreign policy elites.

Our national debate over what has gone so badly wrong between the United States and Russia and what we should do to arrest the decline in relations between Washington and Moscow is at an early stage. McFaul and Gessen provide important, though not comprehensive, perspectives on these questions. Moscow certainly bears a good portion of the blame. But did the United States contribute to problems by not intervening more wisely and boldly in Russia’s politics, as McFaul contends? By not being sufficiently realist, as Gessen implies? By not recognizing from the start that pursuing U.S.-Russian cooperation was a fool’s errand and taking a tougher line in countering Russia, as American hardliners suggest? Undoubtedly, other explanations will follow as more experts join the debate. Diagnosing the problem will be a critical first step in prescribing a cure.

George Beebe is director of the Center for the National Interest’s intelligence program. He formerly served as chief of Russia analysis at the CIA, and as special advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney on Russia and the former Soviet Union.

Image: U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul walks outside as he leaves the Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow, May 15, 2013. The Kremlin said on Wednesday a spy dispute could impede efforts to improve ties with the United States, but did not threaten any more action after the expulsion of a diplomat accused of trying to recruit a Russian agent. President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov made his first comments on the case as U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul discussed it with the Russian Foreign Ministry. McFaul, who was summoned on Tuesday, made no comment as he left the meeting. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov