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We had a dream

A review of From Cold War to Hot Peace. By: Michael McFaul. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

It goes without saying that the United States and Russia are facing a new reality in bilateral relations. The cause behind this is not only the lack of common values but the fact that both sides seem to hold different visions of the world. In the case of the current Trump administration, this vision is not clear to read or understand. Yet not that long ago when relations between the old enemies were different, co-operation was closer. All this was taking place within the framework of the reset which was pursued by the Obama administration. Reflecting on this new opening today, a few questions arise. Namely: what was behind the change in US policy towards Russia, and why was it implemented?

January 2, 2019 - Jan Brodowski - Books and ReviewsIssue 1 2019Magazine

A scholar and a diplomat

Some answers can be found in a recent book by Michael McFaul – a renowned US scholar and former diplomat (between 2012 and 2014 he was the US Ambassador to Russia). Titled From Cold War to Hot Peace, it is a combination of personal memoir and political analysis of US foreign policy. In the latter parts, McFaul presents, among others, the history of US-Russia relations since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Thus the book can be read on three levels. First, it is a history of relations between two states which were enemies for more than four decades and then, after the Cold War ended, moved forward to establish a new order.

As a young scholar, McFaul studied Russian in the Soviet Union during the late 1980s and later witnessed the breakthrough events which took place in Russia in the 1990s. He was, at the time, doing his research on Russian politics and worked as a volunteer for the National Democratic Institute. In his later capacity as a Stanford University professor, where he taught political science, McFaul was invited to join Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He became an advisor on Russian affairs. After Obama’s victory, this assignment translated into McFaul’s appointment as a member of the National Security Council. He became one of the main shapers of the new US-Russia policy.

The two other levels at which the book can be read, and which reveal McFaul’s large influence on US policy towards Russia, include a personal memoir and an analysis of decisions taken by the Obama administration. With regards to the latter, the most important excerpts are those that shed light on all aspects of the reset policy since its beginning. As expected, the author wholeheartedly advocates and defends the idea of strengthening ties between the two states, which he sees as the best way to create a new quality in bilateral relations. Such a policy was mostly derived from the recognition of similar interests and universal values. However, and most importantly, it was based on the idea that integration and “deeper incorporation of autocratic states into international institutions would have a positive influence on democratic development in those countries”, which convinced McFaul that “direct engagement with autocratic governments could sometimes but not always be useful in pushing them in a more democratic direction”.

Mr Revolutionary

McFaul’s argumentation fits into a wider discussion on the differences between two major theories in international relations and their implementation as foreign policies. In that light, McFaul argues that the reset was not pursued as realism à la Kissinger, but rather as a policy that derives from the doctrine of universal human rights. It was hence an expression of idealism – a kind of a dream that the US and Russia could achieve a mutually beneficial outcome. It worked, or partially worked, during the time of Obama and Dmitry Medvedev.

As McFaul argues, the successful negotiations on the new START Treaty ended with the signing ceremony in Prague in April 2010. For both presidents (Obama and Medvedev), the event was one of the most important results of the reset policy. Significantly, this also illustrates the different approaches that the Medvedev administration took in adopting a more liberal policy and openness in relations with the US, which brought not only the “Burger Summit”, as some called the high-level event in 2010, but also Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organisation. That indeed was another huge success. McFaul argues that Obama succeeded in that where both Clinton and Bush had failed previously.           

McFaul was later appointed as US ambassador to the Russian Federation by the Obama administration. While in Moscow, however, he took off his hat as “Mr Reset” to replace it with the “Mr Revolutionary” one. McFaul writes that what had brought an end to the reset was “Putin’s announcement that he had planned to run for president for a third term and the eruption of popular demonstrations against the Russian government”. True it is, but only in part.

In this context, two things need to be stressed. First, the intentions of the Russians in the reset were not properly understood in Washington. The best evidence of this fact is the so-called spy crisis in 2010 and the US’s response to it. Second, Medvedev’s policy towards the US, which was referred to as cherry-picking, predominantly focused on positive issues and aimed at avoiding confrontation. This approach was criticised not only by Obama’s political opponents in the US, but by some Central Europe states. Last, but not least, Putin, even though in the backstage, played a role, too. While discussing it, McFaul states: “Putin was different from Medvedev – from a different generation, more suspicious of the United States, and less interested in pursuing win-win outcomes with us […] on good days, Putin saw the United States as a competitor, on bad days the United States was his enemy.”

An optimist

Witnessing the end of the reset as US ambassador was a difficult experience for McFaul. He became a popular target of Russian propaganda and numerous accusations were issued against him from the moment he arrived in Moscow. One does not need to have deep knowledge of Russian politics to understand that, without the green light from the Kremlin, there would not be such pressure on the foreign diplomat. Evidently, after Medvedev Russia decided to change its policy towards the US and, more broadly, towards the West. The dire illustrations of this turn included the annexation of Crimea, the military intervention in eastern parts of Ukraine, involvement in Syria or, what is also discussed in the book, interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

All these activities undertaken or sponsored by the Russian government have clearly put into question the existing world order. On top of this, it is no secret that universal human rights and civic liberties have been in retreat in Russia. However, they are also under threat in the US under the Trump administration, as some commentators would argue. Thus, the current lack of a clear foreign policy of the US government towards Russia is to Putin’s benefit. As we have learnt already, from his point of view everything is relative.         

On a positive note, McFaul, in one of the interviews he gave with regards to the book, stated that regardless of the current difficulties he is still optimistic about the long-term perspectives of US–Russia relations. Putin will not be there forever and in the future Russia will have a new leader. His dream of better relations between the two states may thus come true someday. Maybe.      

Jan Brodowski holds a PhD in political science from the Jagiellonian University. His research focuses mainly on geopolitics, modern diplomacy and democratisation in the post-Soviet countries.

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