war on the rocks

Russian Elegies: Candide Goes to Moscow

June 13, 2018

Michael McFaul, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).

“We pressed some of these ideas, albeit not as forcefully as I would have liked, but the Egyptians – both in and out of government – had their own ideas.”

                                                            –Michael McFaul

Candide, the hero of Voltaire’s 1759 satire, was educated in Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh’s castle in Westphalia. There, Dr. Pangloss taught him to believe that ours is the “best of all possible worlds.” Candide leaves the castle and travels the globe, testing the merits of his philosophy. He has his adventures in Europe, on the high seas, in the New World, and in the Ottoman Empire. Over time, he is subjected to torture, travesty, and disappointment. Chastened but unvanquished, he learns to moderate his ambition. By the novel’s end, he is reunited with Dr. Pangloss and resigned — not unhappily — to “cultivate his garden.”

This famous parable bears a remarkable resemblance to Michael McFaul’s new memoir, From Cold War to Hot Peace. Born in 1963, McFaul was educated at Stanford in California. There he was taught the excellence of democracy. He journeyed to the Soviet Union and to the United Kingdom for further study. Between 2009 and 2014, he had the privilege of serving as senior director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs on the National Security Council staff and as the U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation. While in Moscow, he was subjected to harassment, to the travesty of Putinism and to the disappointment of witnessing Russia’s slide from faltering democracy into outright authoritarianism. Chastened but unvanquished, he learned to moderate his ambition. At the end, he returns not unhappily to Stanford to cultivate his academic garden.

Bliss Was It in That Dawn to Be Alive

From Cold War to Hot Peace is a generational story. It narrates the rise and fall of a certain liberal sensibility within the United States and on the international scene, a sensibility with origins in Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Its annus mirabilis is 1989, followed by a long, heady run from the Clinton to the Bush to the Obama administrations. Its annus horribilis is 2016, by which point much had already begun to go wrong. Russia lies at the center of this tumultuous story. The Soviet collapse opened an era dominated by the United States, by democratic possibility, and by optimism about technological change. The era lasted from late 1980s to 2014, and Vladimir Putin put an end to it.

Candide-like, McFaul’s life and career span the full geography of the U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russian relationship. Having grown up in Montana, McFaul first visited the Soviet Union in 1983. He left a fan of “peace through engagement.” He happened to be living in Moscow when the Soviet Union experienced a “democratic revolutionary movement” and cracked apart. Throughout the 1990s, McFaul was working to establish democratic institutions in Russia and to translate what saw into scholarship. He was “a committed democracy promoter” and “an academic specialist on democratic transitions.” In his memoir, he wonders whether he was “an activist or an academic,” so intertwined were these vocations in his curriculum vitae. In 1991, McFaul’s hope was for a Russian “return to the international community,” a curious phrase given Russia’s vigorous advances into Europe, the Middle East, and Asia since the 18th century. Modern Russia has been persistently internationalist, if not especially community-oriented.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the creation of a Russian Federation, “my guys won,” McFaul felt. The good-guys motif suffuses From Cold War to Hot Peace. McFaul’s guys are the democrats and those who seek Russian integration into the West. Democracy and Russia’s integration into the West are exactly what the good guys in Washington wanted too. From Reagan to George W. Bush, American presidents had “aspired to integrate Russia into international institutions and the global economy.” Put differently, “Obama’s Reset and Western strategy of Russian integration started thirty years ago,” as McFaul writes, when Ronald Reagan came to office.

After 1991, the good guys rallied behind the Boris Yeltsin who “wanted to join the West.” McFaul opened the National Democratic Institute office in Moscow in 1992. His was an articulate voice in “our triumphal pronouncements about the superiority and inevitability of worldwide democracy.” A best-case scenario for McFaul’s good guys would have been Yeltsin’s appointment of Boris Nemtsov as his successor. The charismatic Nemtsov was a democratically minded proponent of cooperation with the West. In 1997, Yeltsin did name Nemtsov his First Deputy Prime Minister, and in the 1999 conflict with Serbia “momentum seemed to be on the side of the West and democracy” — momentum in Europe, that is.

The years from 1995 to 2000 reflected the winding down of conciliation. The 1995 parliamentary election had been a “shocker” for McFaul. It was the outcome — not procedural irregularities — that shocked: Out of a total of 450 seats the Communists took 99, the populists 50, the party behind Yeltsin 45 and the liberal Yabloko party took 31. McFaul notes that “the liberals, or ‘democrats,’ performed well below expectations for the second time in two years.” Those who were not our guys were performing above expectations. NATO expansion and the Kosovo War, among other internal forces, were detaching Yeltsin from the West. Confirmation of this trend was Yeltsin’s promotion of an unknown functionary to take his place. In August 1999, Yeltsin made Vladimir Putin his prime minister.

Putin and Bush

McFaul offers a 30-year arc to American Russia policy. All of it was “the project of Russian integration into the West.” Even so, he describes himself as locked in “combat with U.S. government officials about America’s Russia policy” in the years between 2000 and 2010. Though pragmatism could dictate dialogue, integration into the West required that Russia become a democracy. McFaul was asked to meet with President George W. Bush in May of 2001 and he used the opportunity to outline a Freedom Agenda before the fact: “I urged the president to consider integrating Russia into our liberal international order as the central task ahead,” he recalls. Our liberal international order: The terms were American and the agency was American, and Russia was supposed to accept and even to appreciate this arrangement.

The September 11 attacks transformed the U.S.-Russian relationship. Various plot lines diverge at this point. Putin and Bush could be partners after September 11. As the United States went to war in Afghanistan, Russia gave real help. Disagreements over Kosovo might be bygones yet. The NATO-Russia Council was established in 2002. At the same time, the Iraq War divided Putin and Bush. Within Russia, Putin did not behave like a proto-democrat. He was an incremental authoritarian, jailing his political opponents, placing the media under the government, and using petrodollars to build up the Russian state and military. The West, Putin indicted at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, was a West he did not want to join.

In the waning months of the Bush presidency, the United States and Russia found themselves on the opposite sides of a military conflict. The Russian-Georgian War quickly devolved into stalemate, eliminating the little trust that remained between Bush and Putin. As McFaul notes, by 2008 “American and Russian officials were barely talking to each other.” Then came the election of 2008.

The Reset

In 2008, McFaul was a Stanford political scientist preparing Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can for publication. McFaul the scholar had two working assumptions. One was the “positive relationship between economic development and democracy.” Another was “‘democratic peace’ theory.” The theory, well-grounded historically, is that democracies do not go to war with other democracies. Democracy promotion, in McFaul’s assessment, was not philanthropy. It was hard-nosed realism.

McFaul held one another, considerably more radical foreign-policy tenet — that only democracies were truly sovereign states. “Dictators forfeited their right to international sovereignty when they did not respect the sovereignty of their citizens.” McFaul was critical of George W. Bush, but his views on democracy and sovereignty harmonized with Bush’s second inaugural address and its promise of “ending tyranny in our world.”

After working on the Obama campaign, McFaul was appointed to the National Security Council in 2009. Obama’s election must have seemed like the second revolution to which McFaul had showed up. First the collapse of the Soviet Union and then the arrival of Obama’s America. In a 2009 speech to the United Nations, “Obama made it clear that the United States was getting out of the business of imposing democracy on other societies.” A break with the thinking that had enabled the Iraq War, this speech was a gesture of accommodation toward countries like Russia.

But continuity and discontinuity formed complicated patterns in Obama’s first term. McFaul paraphrases the 2010 National Security Strategy as “standing up for universal values.” Standing up for democracy was the national security strategy of the United States, though “imposing” is not the same as “standing up for.” Can Washington stand up for democracy where it is under threat without undemocratic governments experiencing this as an imposition? A long-term strategy of realizing “the promise of Russian integration into the West” certainly equaled standing up for democracy. Could it be done without imposing democracy? At the beginning of Obama’s first term, the issue was not whether but how Russia was to be integrated into the West.

It was to be integrated by a reset of relations, a noun and verb associated with computers and therefore with modern times. McFaul describes himself as “the author of the Reset.” He had the support of Secretary Clinton as well as of the president whom McFaul characterizes as neither an idealist nor a realist. Obama was, rather, a “liberal institutionalist.” He wanted democracy to flourish over the long term and be embedded in strong institutions.

The reset would have been unthinkable without the 2008 rotation of Dmitri Medvedev into the presidency and of Putin into the prime ministry. Medvedev’s stated aim was to modernize Russia and to do so in partnership with the West. The reset encouraged repeated presidential meetings. Behind the hope for a positive agenda was the refusal to sweep human rights under the rug. “Principled engagement” or “dual-track engagement” were the means of “defending what we called ‘universal values.’” Global peace and prosperity would flow from Russian democracy. Medvedev may have been a flawed democrat. In the long run, however, he could still be helped or prodded into guiding his country in the right direction.

The reset yielded tangible results. A major arms control agreement went forward, and Russia lent logistical aid to the American war effort in Afghanistan. As an incentive to deepen the reset, Russia was welcomed into the World Trade Organization in August 2012. As McFaul concludes, “we all agreed that the Reset was one of the biggest successes of our young administration.”

The fledgling reset collided with the Arab Spring. A Russia hand, McFaul was quickly drawn into high-level discussions of the uprisings. In his opinion, “several senior government officials responsible for the Middle East did not know how democratic transitions work.” They had not studied the theory of democratic transitions. They had not learned the flow chart whereby protests dismantle an autocracy, an aspiring democracy consolidates itself, and the path to peace and prosperity is secured. These ill-informed officials were prone to caution. McFaul was able to disabuse them of their ignorance. McFaul implies the moral support of the president, for whom the Arab Spring was “among the most important events in his lifetime, right next to the civil rights movement, the end of the Cold War, and the release of Nelson Mandela.”

McFaul pushed Obama to place the United States on the side of youth and democratic change. “In the battles under way between autocrats and democrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen we were taking sides,” he proudly writes, and there was only one side to take.

Geopolitical considerations might have favored sticking with Mubarak. But McFaul had a bigger vision. The superiority and inevitability of worldwide democracy pointed the way forward. Elated, McFaul “floated the idea of establishing the ‘Foundation for Universal Values in the Middle East,’ or a ‘Public Policy School for Democracy, Human Rights, and Universal Values’ or more modestly a ‘Virtual Library for the Study of universal values.’”

The foundation, school and library of universal values were not to be. Instead, the NATO campaign in Libya, assisted by Russia’s abstention from a U.N. Security Council vote, proved “the beginning of the end of the Reset.” Cracks in the Reset had already appeared. In 2010, Obama was not hesitant about “dismissing Medvedev’s sectoral plan” for European security: made public in 2009 this plan was presented as an alternative to NATO and the OSCE. In 2011, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon angrily asked McFaul who had allowed “Russian officials to be sanctioned.” Unbeknownst to his boss, McFaul had sped passage of the Magnitsky Act sanctions by working with sympathetic members of Congress and doing so without orders from the White house. In retrospect, McFaul laments not having done more to shore up Medvedev’s internal support. Behind the scenes, Putin was attacking an increasingly isolated Medvedev for enabling Western perfidy.

In McFaul’s summing up, “our alleged support for revolutions in the Arab world generated special attention [in Russia], as did our military intervention in Libya and alleged military efforts to overthrown Assad in Syria.” Standing up for democracy in Washington was imposing democracy to Moscow. McFaul’s moral imperative was a threat to Putin. The four years between 2008 and 2012, driven by chaotic events in the Middle East, had redrawn the political landscape.

President Putin Redux

Putin unceremoniously terminated Medvedev’s political future in 2011. Preordained elections were to follow a year later. A sizable number of Russians responded to Putin’s self-coronation with street protests. Medvedev’s demotion was a blow to U.S.-Russian relations, whereas protests suggested an alternative path. McFaul was not one to take in the cascading events of 2011 and 2012 with indifference.

Upon McFaul’s confirmation as ambassador to Russia in January 2012, Kevin McDonough sent him a jocular email: “Huge win for the good guys,” he continued, “[t]ake that, Putin. We are all McFauls today.” McDonough’s email is revealing. McFaul’s opposition to Putin was American policy (take that, Putin); and in American eyes this opposition was not geopolitical but moral (huge win for the good guys). If it did not anticipate Putin’s actions once he was installed as president in May 2012, McDonough’s casual email framed the American response to his actions.

McFaul had never previously been a foreign service officer or an ambassador. He came to Moscow from the world of think tanks and academia. He would be the point man for dual-track engagement, which he could do directly through social media. “Digital diplomacy was brand-new in 2012,” McFaul remembers. Gone were the days of the dour, pin-striped diplomat who says little in public and walks the halls of power on tiptoes. McFaul could go over the head of the Russian government via the online public sphere. There was “the wrong side of history,” and there was digital diplomacy.

Upon arrival in Moscow, McFaul received several of the protestors at the U.S. Embassy. He used a Fourth of July Embassy party to trace “a very subtle criticism of Putin’s regime” in a speech. He bantered with Russians over Twitter, signaling the openness and availability of American democracy and of U.S. government officials, a state-society relationship that was foreign to Russia. According to McFaul, “most of my Russian followers were supportive of my efforts.” He had some 70,000 followers on Twitter, and one of them was not supportive. This was Russia’s president: Take that, Putin! Or in McFaul’s words: “that he feared me — that Putin feared me — made me think we were doing something right.” Instilling fear in Putin was not a byproduct of the American engagement with civil society. For McFaul, it was a part of the core strategy.

McFaul had a low opinion of Putin. He pegged the Russian president as intellectually backward looking, having “developed his theories about American foreign policy years earlier, when he was a KGB agent in East Germany.” Putin held “fixed and flawed views about the world and about the United States in particular.” One of these views was his support for “modernizing autocrats,” the kind of ruler Putin wanted to be at home and the kind of ruler Putin wished to succeed outside of Russia. This agenda would be a lynchpin of Russia’s post-Medvedev foreign policy.

Both the Syria and Ukraine conflicts revolved around Putin’s support for autocrats and around Western opposition to autocrats. In May 2012, Tom Donilon came to Moscow with a list of agenda items on which the United States and Russia might cooperate. Putin was not interested: In McFaul’s account, “he wanted to talk about Syria,” and lectured Donilon about the evils of regime change. In Washington’s view, Assad was losing the war in 2012. Syria would eventually have a new regime, and Assad might soon be going the way of Mubarak. In June 2012 the United States, Russia and other powers met in Geneva to discuss Syria. Putin supported a version of the status quo, while the United States sought a “democratic transition.” Diplomacy in Geneva could not paper over these differences.

U.S.-Russian differences intensified in 2013. For McFaul, the problem was Putin’s leadership per se and not some indigenous authoritarian streak or a misalignment of interests that mandates conflict between Russia and the West. “In our support for the aspirations of those Russian advocating for universal values,” McFaul observes, “we have a threat to Russia’s increasingly authoritarian regime.” By 2012, Putin was projecting authoritarianism outward. “While Putin ruled Russia, strategic partnership was impossible,” McFaul concluded. He advocated more circumscribed engagement. The reset had run its course.

In 2013, McFaul found himself staffing John Kerry. Secretary Kerry energetically engaged Russia on Syria, and when he met Foreign Minister Lavrov “the two men clicked.” Reading between the lines of McFaul’s memoir, one can see how much the ambassador disagreed with the new secretary. “I admired Kerry’s tenacity,” McFaul writes politely, but he “predicted failure for his mission.” Arrestingly, McFaul deems it a mistake to have made “Russia a central player in our Syria strategy,” forgetting that Russia had been Syria’s main patron since the 1970s. McFaul wished for Russia’s absence in Syria. American strategy had to deal with Russia’s presence.

Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy staff in Moscow suffered harassment, and McFaul himself became the victim of a vicious Kremlin propaganda campaign. When Snowden was given asylum in Moscow in 2013, McFaul was at the end of his tether. “I had joined the Obama team to do things … Now, however, we weren’t doing much at all. We were barely even talking. It was time to go home.” He left for California in early 2014. Although the Ukraine crisis was to begin a new chapter, the strategy had already been set — “sanctions and isolation” for bad behavior balanced by working with Putin “when our vital interests overlapped.” This was selective engagement with ever less engagement to select.

The final piece of McFaul’s extraordinary chronicle is Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency. McFaul details the Clinton strategy circa 2016, the road not travelled: “new sanctions on Russia, the creation of no-fly zones in Syria, stronger support for democracy and human rights, and more expansive efforts to push back on Russian propaganda from around the world.” Dual-track engagement had been simmered down to single-track engagement. Support for democracy and human rights would be elevated. Doing anything with Putin’s government was off limits.

This very government had intervened in the U.S. election on Trump’s behalf, an act of revenge against the secretary of state and U.S. ambassador whom Putin blamed for staging the 2011 and 2012 protests against him.

McFaul’s Accomplishment

From Cold War to Hot Peace is a spry and lively book full of new information. From the Russia of the 1990s to the Arab Spring to the Ukraine crisis, it recounts some of the largest events in contemporary history with an insider’s acumen, charting the intellectual labor behind policy formulation. It will join the ranks of Richard Pipes’ Vixi and Strobe Talbott’s The Russia Hand, both of which capture the historical and political alertness that drives high-level government deliberation. Pipes, Talbott and McFaul allow us to peer inside American Russia policy, a writerly legacy that extends back to the king of the Russia hands, George Kennan, and to his many books on the agony and the ecstasy of diplomacy.

Additionally, From Cold War to Hot Peace is a superb defense of the reset. Medvedev’s presidency was an opening, as was Obama’s. It made complete sense to see what could be accomplished in the time allowed. It made sense not to regard Russian-American tensions as intractable, as it did to widen the channels of diplomatic engagement. The partnership that emerged gave Obama more options, which is the sine qua non of good foreign policy.

It makes no sense to lament the reset for being impermanent. All political constellations are impermanent, and many of the contingencies that demolished the reset were beyond Washington’s control. One was the Arab Spring. Another was the Putin-Medvedev arrangement (whatever it was). A further contingency was the spontaneous reaction to a third Putin term and the Russian protests that broke out in 2011. Snowden’s sudden appearance in Moscow was another contingency, a diabolical accident — perhaps — that drove a lasting wedge between Putin and Obama. The reset was sound policy, and McFaul’s ability to reconceptualize the U.S.-Russian relationship in 2009 was both creative and humane. From Cold War to Hot Peace confirms the value of his work.

McFaul’s Blinders

From Cold War to Hot Peace exposes three distinct limitations on McFaul’s part. One relates to democracy promotion. Another stems from the failure to recognize in Putin the statesman who could change Russia’s place in the world, whose claim on the future was more important than his fixations on the past. A third limitation involves the diplomat’s essential calling, which is not to reform the host country and to instill fear, but to manage relations with that country’s government and to report back on what that government is likely to do.

Regarding the first limitation, McFaul skims over the Iraq War, the epochal event of the 21st century as far as American power is concerned. It was a catastrophic war fought in the name of democracy. Few Iraqis experienced it as a war of liberation. Despite herculean effort and expense, the United States proved unable to master the local and regional politics. A simple lesson of the Iraq War was that well-intentioned and reasonable policies in Washington were assimilated in unpredictable ways abroad. They were perceived differently. Somehow McFaul does not apply the simple lesson of the Iraq War to Russia. Moscow’s hostility to Washington consistently baffles McFaul. The honorable intentions behind American policy should have invited Russian acquiescence. Instead they garnered an unforeseen hostility.

Such is the cost of celebrating oneself and one’s in-country allies as the good guys. For 40-odd years, Russians endured a Cold War against the United States. NATO expansion had been egregiously unpopular in Russia from its inception. Gorbachev and Yeltsin deplored it no less than Putin does. Kosovo illustrated to Russian foreign-policy elites the price they would have to pay for an assertive NATO in Europe. Then the Iraq War reduced the efficacy of the U.N. Security Council, a key instrument of power for Russia. In 2008, NATO released murky statements about Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO. Less and less was our liberal international order Russia’s international order. “Putin irrationally might have believed that” Ukraine would join NATO, McFaul writes. The irrationality is in the eye of the beholder.

Russia’s post-Cold War grievances are hardly objective. They are not universally held in Russia, but they have one ironclad consequence for Russian politics. The United States is not a neutral actor in and around Russia, not because it is a democracy but because its national security interests are not the same as Russia’s and because the United States since 1991 has been vastly more powerful than Russia. Hence, American democracy promotion does not register primarily as benevolence in Russia. It evokes the geopolitics of the U.S.-Russian relationship. Because of long legacy of competition and because of the warm relations the United States enjoys with so many of Russia’s neighbors, from Georgia to Ukraine to the Baltic states that joined NATO in 2004, U.S.-Russian relations are supercharged in Moscow. McFaul seems oblivious to the resonance of what the United States does in Russia. His talk of good guys and bad guys, however light-hearted, is a disastrous starting point.

No one has been less keen to designate American democrats the good guys than Putin. McFaul underestimated him. Since 2007, Putin staked his claim on defying the West, and this is the basis of his popularity in Russia. Putin poses the Russians themselves and their anti-democratic Soviet ancestors as the good guys, the ones who defeated Hitler and whose grandchildren against the odds regained great-power status by annexing Crimea and by owning the geopolitical fate of Ukraine. Putin’s ambition is to reorder the international system and not to enter into what he perceives as an American-dominated and largely fictitious international community. This grand strategy goes beyond Putin’s KGB training, and it is not tied to winning elections, which since 2000 has not been major worry of Putin’s. McFaul notes a Putin “unrepentant about his foreign policy actions in Ukraine, Syria, or the United States.” To whom would he repent? His foreign-policy actions will be the foundation of his political legacy in Russia

As a scholar of democracy, McFaul should have more to study in Putin. Putin has commanded Russia for eighteen years. He has comrades in China and Turkey. He has imitators in Poland and Hungary. Authoritarian nationalism is not a trivial 21st-century phenomenon: it was embraced by the winning candidate of the 2016 election in the United States. McFaul criticizes some of his NSC colleagues for not knowing how democratic transitions work, but he seems incurious about the transitions away from democracy, of which Putin and Putinism are emblematic. When recalling his 1992 triumphal pronouncements about the superiority and inevitability of worldwide democracy, McFaul may be a touch nostalgic or a touch ironic – the ardor of youth. Yet he still seems to believe that if only leadership could change hands in Russia, the march of democracy could be restored. Then this once and future Russia would rehabilitate the U.S.-Russian relationship. It is an appealing prospect and an incredible long shot, one that cannot erase the fact of Putin’s Russia.

McFaul characterizes his optimism circa 2014 as Kennan-esque. “Like Kennan, I was confident that victory was certain,” he writes, victory being a democratic Russia and a healthy U.S.-Russian relationship. This is a misappropriation of Kennan. Kennan was a skeptic about democracy and an absolute skeptic about Russian democracy. Kennan labeled the hunger for unqualified victory, inherited from World War II, a pathology of American foreign policy. He opposed NATO expansion as, among other things, an iteration of the triumphalist and maximalist mindset.

Kennan argued for a diplomacy that eschews ultimate victory, for a diplomacy that begins in an awareness of human limitation, error and misperception. Diplomats should work with political leaders on managing tensions and adversities that are eternal. To a much greater extent than McFaul, Kennan perceived political power as modulated by culture and psychology, history and geography, and as innately tragic. If anything, it was the failures and the defeats rather than the victories that were inevitable. The possibility of failure turned Kennan’s attention to the domestic affairs of the United States, an angle of vision absent from McFaul’s memoir. What Kennan achieved with his often intemperate pessimism about American life was his humility as a diplomat. He was scrupulous about not superimposing idealized American realities on the Russian people and polity.

Like McFaul, Kennan had a tough time of it as an American ambassador in Moscow. He was sent home in disgrace. Kennan would go on to cultivate his academic garden at Princeton, but as a diplomat McFaul did not try to retrace Kennan’s footsteps. He was the pioneer of digital diplomacy and the practitioner of dual-track engagement, a practice that would have been impossible in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Whatever McFaul may have achieved for democracy by standing up for it in Russia, which he valiantly did, he paid for in his relationship to the Russian government. Unavoidable as the collision may have been, the ambassador’s winks to the opposition and the social-media activity cut off an important channel in the very years that the U.S. and Russia were figuring out what to do about Syria and Ukraine.

Was dual-track engagement worth it? Probably not. In McFaul’s own analysis, “the United States was always going to be a marginal player in the fight to shape Russia’s political system.” For the opposition of Putin’s third term, the best thing Washington could have done was to stave off geopolitical conflict. To do this an effective working relationship with Putin would have been necessary. Single-track engagement with Putin, coupled with benign neglect of the public sphere, would have worked better.

Finally, McFaul invested too much theory in his diplomatic and policy work. That democracy can generate wealth and peace — that it is good — does not make it more likely to proliferate than other forms of government. Nobody knows how democratic transitions work, especially on the battleground of the former Soviet Union. (As for the claim that dictatorship eliminates the guarantees of state sovereignty, Obama should have thought twice about sending a proponent of this theory to Putin’s Russia.) Not having a theory of social and political change is a diplomatic asset. Diplomats should be observers first of all, novelists more than scientists, with an eye for character and for the machinery of power in all its peculiar and local manifestations.

Between 2012 and 2014, Putin fashioned a new foreign policy for Russia. It followed from the military modernization Putin administered while Medvedev was Russia’s president. This was the story Washington needed to understand together with the place of the United States in Russia’s evolving foreign policy and national-security strategy. This was the story diplomats were there to figure out. Theory and especially the theory of worldwide democracy destined to arise were obstacles to the telling of this crucial story.

From the evidence of the past sixteen months, the Trump administration and its diplomats will swing too far in the other direction, substituting a cynical, transactional approach for the democratic enthusiasm McFaul had once embodied. Having skipped the rigors of a Reset, the Trump administration appears to be blithely moving toward no-track engagement with Russia. Take that, Putin! Hopefully, then, Professor McFaul will not get too comfortable cultivating his garden in Palo Alto. Hopefully, he will do what he is so transparently gifted at doing. He will add his two cents. He will argue for his ideas. He will argue for his ideals. In fact, he has done so already in From Cold War to Hot Peace. The publication of this book has been perfectly timed.

 

Michael Kimmage is professor of history at Catholic University. His next book, The Decline of the West: An American Story, is forthcoming with Basic Books.

Image: State Department