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Michael McFaul and the future of the “reset”

Special Assistant to the U.S. President and Senior Director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs Michael McFaul has been appointed United States Ambassador to Russia.

Dmitry Suslov is Deputy Director for Research at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy; Member of the Valdai Discussion Club.

Special Assistant to the U.S. President and Senior Director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs Michael McFaul has been appointed United States Ambassador to Russia. This is an extraordinary event in Russian-U.S. relations and in U.S. foreign policy in general. After Robert Strauss, McFaul will be only the second U.S. ambassador to Russia who is not a career diplomat. Strauss was U.S. ambassador first to the U.S.S.R. and then to Russia in 1991-1992, some of the most pivotal years in the history of this country. That much is symbolic in itself. President George H.W. Bush appointed Strauss to the position at a time that was decisive for our bilateral relations, for the United States, and for the rest of the world. The Soviet Union was still an influential superpower, and Strauss, a seasoned politician and businessman, was a better choice than a career diplomat used to strict subordination and waiting for State Department instructions on every matter of course. Moreover, he was a politician from the rival party, a prominent Democrat and an influential figure in the Carter administration, but also the kind of man who could facilitate Russia’s democratic transformation at a turning point in its history. At that moment, Strauss was the man for the job.

McFaul is not a politician, but he is as versed in democracy and democratization as Strauss was, at least in theory. A professor at Stanford University, he is one of the most prominent specialists on Russia in the United States, particularly on its domestic development and democratization. A typical representative of the so-called liberal internationalists, he believes that democratization is possible in the majority of countries, if not all, and that such transformations are instrumental in making the policy of these countries, including Russia, more favorable to the United States.

Having taken a job in the White House (as a special assistant, he was on the National Security Council staff), McFaul did not renounce his liberal attitudes. Yet he was also capable of acting as a realist when he became the chief architect of the “reset” strategy in Russian-American relations. That strategy is based on the willingness of Russia and the United States to reassess their national priorities and back away from ideological conflicts that do not concern their vital interests. For the U.S., that list of vital interests includes Afghanistan, Iran, nuclear non-proliferation, and nuclear security. Washington needs Moscow’s support on these issues and, in return, it is ready to back down on less important interests, for instance, in Georgia.

Today, McFaul is primarily thought of as the theoretical and practical advocate of the “reset,” a man whose name is largely associated with the high dynamism of recent Russian-American cooperation and the general positive spirit of their bilateral ties. In this context, his potential nomination as U.S. ambassador to Russia will symbolize the continued effort of the Obama administration to pursue the “reset” and further develop these relations during a second term. Obama is likely to be reelected despite economic difficulties in the United States, if only because, first and foremost, the Republicans have been unable to find a competitive candidate due to the party’s strong general drift to the right.

Like Strauss twenty years ago, McFaul will become an ambassador to Russia at a time when both the country and its relations with the U.S. are at a crossroads. The presidential elections in Russia will take place in March 2012, but it is already obvious that the two main claimants – Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin – have different views on relations with the United States and, most likely, on domestic development as well.

In this context, McFaul’s appointment shows that U.S. policy on Russia will retain the same high level of priority for Obama in 2013-2016 that it did during his first term. As the president’s special assistant, McFaul has already fulfilled his mission by introducing the “reset.” Both Moscow and Washington officially recognize the symbolic change. It is also borne out by the bilateral achievements of the last two and a half years and the sides’ continued attempts to preserve a positive dynamic following the New START Treaty’s entry into force last February and on the eve of presidential elections in both countries. Now, with relations again beset by contradictions and mistrust as at the end of 2008, the task is to preserve what has been achieved rather than to improve upon it. The White House believes that to this end, McFaul will be more useful in Moscow than in Washington or Stanford.

Until recently, McFaul was expected to return to Stanford University for teaching and research, perhaps even before Obama’s first term expires. The decision to keep him in the civil service, which was made by top administration officials no sooner than mid-June, shows that Obama and other top officials appreciate his work and want to stabilize the positive character of bilateral ties and prevent new sources of tension. McFaul will now have to perform the very complicated task of cooperating with the Russian authorities in order to preserve and even strengthen the toolkit of “reset” strategies accumulated by Russia and the U.S. over the last two and a half years.

That’s the problem. It is one thing to send signals about the desire to preserve positive cooperation with Russia and quite another thing to pragmatically apply it. Regrettably, McFaul’s ability to preserve and even consolidate partnership with Russia during Obama’s second term is a big question. The problem does not boil down to his personality. In most cases, the art of diplomacy and the personal factor can only color the undertones of interstate relations. The decisive role belongs to systemic factors, primarily national interests, as well as the place of each state in world politics, the place of bilateral ties in the context of general foreign policies, and domestic factors and restrictions. Even the most seasoned diplomat and skilful politician is powerless to reverse the effects of such systemic forces on the trend of bilateral relations.

This is exactly the case of current Russian-U.S. relations. They have not seen the best of times since the start of this year and are unlikely to match the successes of the “reset” by 2012.

To begin with, both sides are failing to implement the agenda that they set as the foundation of the second stage of the “reset” – a period that began with the START III Treaty entering into force and that will end with the 2012 presidential elections in both countries. That agenda is gradually becoming negative. It boils down to missile defense and Russia’s accession to the WTO. These issues play a major role in bilateral cooperation, and both sides consider them decisive for its future, but there is no progress on either issue.

On missile defense, progress is obstructed by Russia’s reluctance to give up on the classic interpretation of bilateral nuclear parity inherited from the Cold War and based on the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction; meanwhile, the U.S. remains unwilling to limit missile defense in Europe in quantity, quality, and geography. So far, the sides have been unable to negotiate legally binding or even political guarantees to the effect that hypothetical U.S. missile defense systems will not be directed against Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. Washington rejected both of Russia’s proposals – on the said guarantees and a joint missile defense system. Moscow is using this rejection as a pretext for a massive buildup of ballistic missile production in a bid to restore its traditional strategic parity with the United States and reinforce its status of the second nuclear superpower. These actions are perpetuating a philosophy of deterrence in bilateral relations and running the risk of a new nuclear arms race.

At the NATO summit in Lisbon six months ago, Russia, the United States, and NATO decided to try to cooperate on missile defense but failed to overcome a stalemate and reach their planned targets by this July. This failure is already producing a negative effect on bilateral ties. The sides hoped to improve this atmosphere by demonstrating that they can cooperate on the CIS, Iran, Afghanistan, and START-III, thereby overcoming their differences and pursuing their interests in parallel. In June and July, however, they were forced to acknowledge a lack of progress on missile defense with no hope for removing major obstacles in the near future. In this context, their potential for cooperation may seem to be almost exhausted.

Progress on the WTO is a bit more straightforward, especially since the U.S. is putting in an obvious effort, but the results are still unclear. Despite Washington’s real, albeit limited pressure on Georgia, Tbilisi shows no desire for compromise. Moreover, it continues to resort to all kinds of provocations in order to sabotage talks with Moscow. It is enough to mention that it has now accused Russia of organizing and funding attempted acts of terror in Tbilisi. In turn, the European Union and the United States have been unable to satisfy domestic commercial lobbies and accept Russia’s entry to the WTO without concessions on subsidies to car makers, agriculture, and so on.

Yet another failure to get Russia into the WTO by the proposed deadline (late 2011 to early 2012) will deal a heavy blow to Russian-U.S. relations and cause a new wave of disappointment in America and prospects for bilateral cooperation among the Russian political elite, especially the supporters of President Dmitry Medvedev, who has put the accession to the WTO at the top of his priorities. His chances for reelection will suffer as well. Skeptics will receive yet another confirmation of the alleged impossibility of a stable bilateral partnership and Washington’s inability to help Moscow promote its major national interests. They are bound to use this argument on the eve of the presidential elections, thereby creating a bad environment for bilateral relations after 2012.

The disappointment of the Russian president and supporters of stable partnership with the United States in its actions in Libya is another major factor in the crisis of the “reset.” Having decided not to block UN Security Council Resolution 1973 last March, Medvedev took a big political risk. He departed from the Russian tradition of staunchly countering humanitarian interventions and sacrificed Russia’s economic interests in Libya. By so doing, he inaugurated a new mode of cooperation with the United States on settling conflicts within foreign states and on the world scene. This new policy would require Russia to pursue its interests in a given conflict proceeding from specific material interests rather than ideological dogmas, including attempts to get some benefits from Washington for its cooperation on the given conflict.

These hopes did not materialize. As subsequent events have shown, the Western coalition, including the United States, simply used Russia to legitimize a military campaign that has turned into an operation to replace the existing regime and far exceeded the bounds of its original mandate. The coalition is playing a dishonest game with Russia – it is supporting Russia’s mediation in Libya but using it for purposes that have nothing to do with Russia’s own interests or goals. The coalition wants to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power and help the rebels win a war rather than reach the political settlement Moscow advocates on the basis of compromise. The United States and other members of the Western coalition have removed Moscow from participation in determining Libya’s political and economic future. They are discussing the issue with Libyan rebels behind closed doors.

As a result, bilateral relations have returned to their previous ideological stalemate both on Libya and on the general issue of interference into foreign domestic crises. Syria is the best case in point. The sides have already taken contrary positions on the issue. Washington wants the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution denouncing Bashar al-Assad’s regime, whereas Moscow objects to any international interference, not to mention UN sanctions. Russian-U.S. policy disagreements on Iran have also become more pronounced. Bilateral relations have backslid on this important issue. The spirit of Russian-U.S. cooperation that only recently prevailed on both Libya and Iran is dissipating. The Russian leadership is disappointed and even offended by this change (Medvedev emotionally expressed his frustration in an interview with The Financial Times in June). It again seems that the sides are unable to build a stable partnership on global political and military-political issues.

Finally, adverse domestic pressure is growing stronger in both countries and is not conducive to preserving the positive trends that were manifest in their relations over the last two years. In Russia, it is expressed in the growing disappointment of those in the political elite who had hoped for steady improvement in bilateral relations with the advent of the Obama administration and the “reset” strategy. The remaining elements of the Russian political spectrum did not believe in the possibility of long-term partnership from the start.

In the United States, it can be seen in the restrictions that Republican politicians are now imposing on the Obama administration. Their foreign policy views are heterogeneous and largely contradictory (a mix of nationalist isolationism and imperialistically leaning neo-conservatism); however, when it comes to Russia, most Republicans can agree that a partnership is not vital or even desirable to the pursuit of major American interests. They believe that it is much more important for the U.S. to protect the “purity of its values” – i.e., to approach Russia according to its adherence to democratic ideals – and to support U.S. allies in Eastern Europe and the CIS, rather than build cooperation with Moscow. As a result, Republicans almost overwhelmingly view Obama’s “reset” with Moscow not only as a blunder but even as a threat to U.S. interests and values that could spoil its image as “the champion of freedom and democracy” and weaken its standing in the world arena. Republicans are putting strong pressure on Obama to curtail his projects of cooperation with Russia, including arms control, and to pursue a more critical and tougher line towards Moscow in general.

The continued consolidation of Republican political power – in part, as a result of economic circumstances – leaves little hope for improvement in bilateral ties. The Obama administration cannot afford to take steps that may be interpreted as concessions. This is a major factor behind the stalemate on missile defense, inasmuch as Obama’s consent to restrict the U.S.-planned system would be tantamount to political suicide. It stands equally in the way of Russia’s WTO accession: Washington cannot afford to put too much pressure on Tbilisi, and President Mikheil Saakashvili is well aware of it. Meanwhile, the Republicans are compelling the White House to take other steps that are bound to displease Russia. This applies in particular to U.S. support for its allies in Eastern Europe and the CIS, including the deployment of a new air force base in Poland and military supplies for Georgia. Having won control of the House of Representatives in the beginning of this year, Republican legislators are becoming major irritants to bilateral ties. Currently, they are discussing a bill on sanctions against a number of high-ranking Russian officials from the so-called “Magnitsky list” and a complete freeze on constructive dialogue with the State Duma.

All these negative trends are taking shape on the eve of presidential elections in both countries, which means that if they are not overcome in the remaining few months of this year, it will be very difficult to hope for steady improvement thereafter. It is particularly disconcerting to see such challenges arise in Russian relations with what is the most progressive and reasonable U.S. administration of the last few decades. In the near future, the United States is unlikely to see another administration with so much in its favor for better ties with Russia, and if the current window of opportunity closes, it is unlikely that a new one will open any time soon. Most likely, subsequent U.S. administrations will simply come to the conclusion that with Russia, there are no right answers – whether it is George W. Bush’s confrontational and ideological approach or Obama’s constructive and realistic policy shift.

As an ambassador in Moscow, McFaul is unlikely to cope well with these developments or even slow them down. No matter how symbolically or politically charged he may be, as an American ambassador to Moscow, he will carry out Washington’s policy, even if it eventually contradicts the larger goals that prompted Obama to appoint him to the position. That policy line will take shape under the impact of a mutual failure on the part of Russia and the U.S. to come to terms on the issues that they both placed at the top of their current agenda, adding fresh disappointment to the handling of the “Arab revolutions” and further impetus to domestic pressure against future cooperation. Obama’s ambassador to Moscow will have little recourse when the administration itself is often unable to exert decisive influence over such circumstances.

The history of Soviet and Russian relations with the United States shows that the personality of an American ambassador in Moscow is the least important factor in determining the nature of those ties. Indeed, the ambassador’s mission is not to elaborate U.S. policy as regards Russia but to pursue it as skillfully as he can. In other words, the ambassador is supposed to build relations with the government, the political elite, and, as is now increasingly the case, the civil society of the state to which he is appointed. If this policy – as well as the policy of the state in question – rules out constructive partnership, the ambassador is able to do little but make things worse.

It turns out that McFaul would be more influential and useful for promoting bilateral partnership if he stayed in the White House and continued taking an active part in the elaboration rather than implementation of U.S. policy towards Russia – and if Obama rather than Medvedev or Putin were his target audience. It is unclear how much the architect of the “reset” will be able to influence the White House from Moscow. Clearly, his influence will be smaller than it is now. By virtue of bureaucratic protocol, he will have to work through the Department of State rather than directly with the president. In the meantime, it is the president who determines foreign policy in America, and influence grows in proximity to him both institutionally and geographically.

It is also unclear how effective McFaul will be as a vehicle rather than architect of U.S. foreign policy and to what extent his efforts to build relations with Russian leaders and social and political elites will promote the improvement of bilateral ties. It may well happen that McFaul is not the best choice for this role. That much can be inferred from his political and ideological convictions as a champion of democratization, an independent civil society, and human rights and, perhaps more importantly, his friendly relations with the Russian opposition – both literally and figuratively. It is no secret that his appointment as the president’s special assistant and senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs did not come as a pleasant surprise for many leading Russian politicians, especially those who associate themselves with the so-called “Putin regime.” McFaul has been their adamant critic for many years.

These convictions were revealed in McFaul’s activity as senior director of Russian affairs and in his concept for U.S. policy towards Russia in the wake of the “reset.” It is enough to mention the formation of the U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission’s Civil Society Working Group, which is co-chaired by McFaul from the American side, and the organization of “civil society summits” in parallel with bilateral talks at the top official level, or the White House’s general rhetoric on the need to promote dialogue not only with the Russian government but also with civil society. For the sake of fairness, however, it must be said that this was by no means the primary agenda of the “reset.”

Apparently, McFaul’s arrival in Moscow will only enhance this component of U.S. diplomacy. He will do more than anyone else to invigorate the U.S. Embassy’s contacts with Russian opposition groups, human right champions, and other civil society representatives. His relations with Russia’s political leadership, especially if Putin again becomes president in March 2012, are bound to be difficult. The consolidation of the so-called second track of American diplomacy (dialogue with civil society) may take place at the expense of the first. If Russia chooses a new road in March 2012, it would be hard to imagine a better ambassador than McFaul, but, for the time being, that scenario remains highly unlikely.

Valdai Club - August 1, 2011