Former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul gave a lecture at Northwestern University on Thursday as part of the Weber speaker series in honor of the late Admiral Alban "Stormy" Weber. He spoke on the topic of his latest book, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia, and recounted anecdotes from his five years working under the Obama administration, from being informed that his every movement as ambassador had the potential to be monitored, to inspiring a crowded room to start dancing at a concert – despite being warned that Russians don’t dance.
McFaul grew up in Montana and later attended Stanford as an undergrad, having already developed a strong interest in the Soviet Union. At the time, the Soviet Union and the U.S. were still entangled in the Cold War, and President Reagan had branded the nation the “evil empire.” McFaul recalled his terror at the prospect of the two countries’ governments “blowing up the world.” But he had a theory: that the tensions between the U.S. could be alleviated if the U.S. got to know Russia better.
And a few years later, everything changed. McFaul said that the end of the Cold War in 1991 was a glorious moment for him.
“The idea that Russia could be a partner, and even an ally… for me, was one of the most euphoric moments of my personal and my professional life,” McFaul said.
McFaul served as Special Assistant to the President on the National Security Council between 2009 and 2012, before serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation until 2014. Now a professor at Stanford University and a senior fellow both at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute, McFaul is considered a leading expert on Russia and U.S. Foreign Policy.
Having witnessed Russia’s transformation over the past few decades, McFaul emphasized that this era of ‘hot peace’ is drastically different than the Cold War era, though it poses its own threats. While the U.S. is not in a quantitative arms race with Russia, it is engaged in a qualitative one, and Putin is modernizing his arsenal. While the ideological struggle between communism and capitalism has subsided, Putin is fighting an intra-state ideological war between conservative nationalism and Western ‘decadence.’ And though the two nations are no longer fighting proxy wars, tensions remain high with conflict over annexations, cyber attacks and sanctions. McFaul himself is barred from traveling to Russia.
McFaul stressed, however, that the reason U.S.-Russia relations have regressed in recent years is not due to aggravation by U.S. policy, but rather is the result of domestic political change in Russia. Even after NATO expansion, the Iraq War and the Orange Revolution, the U.S. and Russia had reached a state of cooperation under Obama’s reset. Incendiary U.S. policy prior to the reset cannot explain current animosity, according to McFaul.
Weinberg freshman Ruby Scanlon was surprised by this argument.
“It was an interesting opinion,” Scanlon said. “I hadn’t heard that, but I buy it.”
During Obama’s presidency, the two nations signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), developed the Northern Distribution Network, passed multilateral Iran sanctions and managed the Kyrgyz Revolution of 2010. Furthermore, the reset led to economic successes and mutually positive perceptions between the two nations.These were big successes for foreign policy, especially considering the role of the Iran sanctions as a predecessor for the Iran nuclear deal.
“I think it is a huge mistake for the president to pull out of that,” McFaul said. “It’s hard to get things done, first within the government, and then you have to go deal with the Russians.”
McFaul argued that the cause of diplomatic deterioration is more complex than a reactionary explanation implies.
“Putin sees the world in zero-sum terms,” McFaul said.
And, according to McFaul, Putin also sees the U.S. as both a competitor and a “fomenter of regime change.” Going into his first meeting with Obama, Putin was still upset by the actions taken by the Bush administration, such as the Iraq War.
“His agenda in this meeting was to school the new guy,” McFaul said.
But Obama agreed with Putin that the Iraq War was a mistake. What brought hostility was the Arab Spring 18 months later. Though the U.S. did not instigate the revolutions, it did play a facilitative role.
As a new ambassador, McFaul became the poster child for Russia’s critique of U.S. policy on regime change. While most ‘disinformation campaigns’ took the form of propaganda portraying him as Obama’s delegate to orchestrate the revolutions, he was even accused of being a pedophile. This accusation was not from the government, but McFaul still said he and Putin are not on great terms.
“I don’t think we’re Facebook friends,” McFaul said.
McFaul doesn’t think Putin has a master plan, but he also doesn’t think Russia is likely to change while he is in power. Drawing lessons from the Cold War, he emphasized the necessity for containment and a balance of isolation and engagement in U.S. policy toward Russia. But Trump doesn’t agree, and McFaul expressed his concern that the U.S. president has become increasingly emboldened in his decision-making.
“A lot of government work is making sure really bad things don’t happen,” McFaul said.