U.S.-Russia relations: they’re not great! The last person who made a serious effort to improve them, and by his own candid admission utterly failed, was Michael McFaul, the political scientist who served as Barack Obama’s main adviser on Russia and then as the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow. As the primary architect of the “Reset” policy, McFaul pushed Obama and his then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to pursue what seemed to him like a good-faith effort to forge a friendship with Russia’s (nominal) then-president Dmitry Medvedev. This project collapsed when Vladimir Putin announced he would return to the presidency in late 2011, just months before McFaul took up residence in the U.S. embassy for what proved to be a disastrous two-year stint as America’s public face in Russia. Afterward, things somehow got worse, and then even worse than that, and here we are.
McFaul’s new memoir, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia, traces the thirty-five-year story of his disillusionment with Russia from his early days as a student in the 1980s up through the Trump-Putin era. His experience neatly parallels America’s disillusionment with Russia and Russia’s disillusionment with liberal democracy, and he provides a firsthand account of both. The result is a frustrating book—on the one hand, an accessible narrative of how we got from perestroika to the pee tape, and on the other hand, a glimpse into the distinctly American blend of arrogance and naïveté that McFaul personifies.
Boy, does McFaul love democracy—and boy, does Russia end up disappointing him on that front.
“I was the perfect poster boy for America,” says McFaul of his early days as ambassador. “I looked the part. Some even criticized my blond hair and easy smile as subversive.” But there’s nothing remotely subversive about McFaul, as he takes pains to remind his readers. The product of a tiny town in Montana and an education at Stanford (where he currently teaches), he loves pick-up basketball games, Led Zeppelin, Bay Area weather, and his wife and sons. Oh, and he also loves Russia, sort of.
Like many Westerners given to beholding our own putative virtues in the investment-friendly new world order, McFaul loves a particular idea of Russia. He loves eating blini at Teremok and splurging on front-row tickets to The Nutcracker at the Bolshoi, and he loves kibbitzing with the kind of bright-eyed students and liberals who would happily attend a meet-and-greet at the U.S. embassy. He loves how much they love iPhones and rock music, and especially how much they love democracy. Boy, does McFaul love democracy—and boy, does Russia end up disappointing him on that front.
For anyone who has studied Russia and the former Soviet Union, there’s something heartbreaking about McFaul’s idealism. The future ambassador’s undergraduate years perfectly aligned with Ronald Reagan’s first term. “It was a scary time,” McFaul recalls. “The Cold War seemed like it could become hot. I wanted to do something about it.” Thus began a lifelong commitment to building U.S.-Russia ties and reducing the risk of nuclear war. In 1983 McFaul traveled to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to study Russian and fell in love with the country, and in 1985 he returned and discovered that Soviet communism is bad, actually. “I no longer believed that engagement between our two countries was enough,” he writes. “I started to consider an alternative theory: only democratic change inside the Soviet Union would allow our two governments and our two societies to come closer together.”
Soon enough, he got his wish, in the form of Mikhail Gorbachev, glasnost, perestroika, and the overthrow of the Soviet system via popular protests led by Boris Yeltsin. McFaul had a ringside seat to all of this as a grad student in international relations and a Fulbright scholar in Moscow in 1990-1991, where he ended up volunteering for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and conducting seminars to train Russia’s earnest young would-be democrats. He even met a young Vladimir Putin in this period. “To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of Russian history was at last bending toward justice, freedom, and democracy,” he writes. “That put the KGB on the wrong side of history. Putin’s only chance to survive was to join the democrats, or so I believed at the time.” After the Soviet Union finally collapsed, McFaul opened NDI’s Moscow office. “We were not ‘meddling’ in Russia’s internal affairs, but invited guests of the Russian government,” he reassures us.
“In the summer of 1992, I felt like a rock star,” McFaul boasts. To extend this metaphor, Russia over the next few years resembled Altamont. McFaul acknowledges his team’s failure to secure democracy, noting Yeltsin’s authoritarian strain and self-destructive personal habits, the rise of a corrupt oligarchy, and the growing appeal of far-right nationalism. But McFaul more or less shrugs off the vast scale of human suffering caused by the firesale privatization of Russia’s economy, which he reduces to a few bland sentences about inflation and deficits. “Intellectually, I tended to side with the shock therapists” who blamed privatization for not being audacious enough, “But Russians blamed the guy at the top, Boris Yeltsin.”
Funny how that happens! And funny how Yeltsin, despite his deep unpopularity, somehow won reelection in 1996. At the time McFaul was teaching at Stanford and working part-time at the Carnegie Moscow Center, where he felt the need to insist that he was not a CIA operative to Russians who assumed otherwise. Their suspicions were not exactly allayed by his open support of the Clinton administration’s efforts to secure Yeltsin’s victory—though on balance, there’s no real cause to doubt McFaul on this point. To judge by Hot Peace, he has always been a guileless booster of American-style democracy as the global panacea of first resort—The Loud American, if you will.
Indeed, throughout the book, McFaul constantly shrugs off the KGB (rebranded the FSB in post-Soviet Russia) and the CIA as fringe players at every juncture in U.S.-Russia relations. He is forever convinced that he is an earnest democrat engaging with other earnest democrats—and forever perplexed that anyone might see any nefarious U.S. agenda behind any of his work. There’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. Judging by his high-frequency Twitter account (@McFaul), on which he engages politely on a regular basis with bad-faith egg accounts likely operating out of the Kremlin’s “troll factory,” it seems more likely McFaul believes his own bullshit. He’s not a spook; he’s a dupe, and over decades of in-person interactions with the most powerful figures in both Russia and the United States, he never seems to figure this out.
But even as McFaul acknowledges that Russia’s leadership is mad about missile defense, and NATO expansion, and Kosovo, and Iraq, and Georgia, and Ukraine, and Syria, he never manages to grasp why.
Twitter is not a minor part of this story. McFaul devotes an entire chapter to the social-media platform, which he began using during his stint as ambassador in 2012 as a way to communicate directly with the Russian people. Some comical gaffes ensue, as when McFaul referred to Russia’s fourth-largest city, Yekaterinburg, as “yoburg,” a slang nickname he somehow fails to recognize means “fuckburg.” (This incident also recalls how McFaul personally provided the wrong translation for “reset” to Hillary Clinton prior to her meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, thus embarrassing her and the entire country from the policy’s outset.) But despite this and other hiccups, McFaul enjoyed being a rock star on the Russian scene again, and he especially enjoyed receiving personal endorsements from unidentified Russian Twitter accounts. Here is an actual paragraph from Hot Peace:
In fact, most of my Russian followers were supportive of my efforts. On March 2, 2012, one tweeted, “Michael, u’re an outstanding ambassador Russia have never seen [sic]. Thanks for all your incredible effort&hard work. Reset works.” On February 12, 2013, another wrote, “To my mind you’re the greatest U.S. ambassador we ever had.” I enjoyed such public messages as much as the Kremlin hated them.
McFaul is a prodigious name-dropper (a bad habit I share), addicted to Twitter praise (ditto), full of himself (extremely same), and wildly inconsistent in how he assesses his own abilities in Russian (я тоже). Still, there’s something uniquely silly about showing off generic compliments from online randos. Then again, his term as ambassador was so unrelentingly dismal—he spent much of it being harassed by Russian intelligence and humiliated on state-controlled TV, to his lasting anger—that it’s understandable he basked in whatever praise he could get. By this point, Putin was back in power and the Washington-Moscow relationship was once more openly hostile—a state of affairs that McFaul goes out of his way here to blame almost entirely on Putin. He also repeatedly outs himself in these pages as the unnamed top U.S. official who told various leading media outlets that it was all Putin’s fault at the time.
But was it? By McFaul’s own account in Hot Peace, the moment when the Reset started to falter was when the U.S. intervened militarily in Libya—an intervention he supported at the time and still supports in hindsight, just as he supported and still supports a similar intervention in Syria. McFaul helped secure Russia’s abstention on Libyan intervention in the U.N. Security Council, which Medvedev agreed to in the spirit of good relations, in exchange for Obama’s non-binding pledge that it wouldn’t lead to regime change. One Gaddafi corpse later, Medvedev was sidelined by a furious Putin, and everything unraveled from there.
But even as McFaul acknowledges that Russia’s leadership is mad about this, and missile defense, and NATO expansion, and Kosovo, and Iraq, and Georgia, and Ukraine, and Syria, he never manages to grasp why. Having closely observed U.S. conduct in the world over the past thirty years, he has somehow never internalized that we are not the good guys, not even after we elected Donald Trump president. Through his Twitter account, McFaul still doles out the kind of earnest advice to Trump that he clearly wishes he were offering to Hillary Clinton in a more official capacity. If it were up to him, we’d still be pursuing the same course he admits has failed. In many ways, and regardless of whatever dirt the Russians may have on Trump, we still are.