The reset ambassador

Michael McFaul – the theoretician who turned out to be a good practitioner of the art of the possible. Photo: Kommersant

Michael McFaul – the theoretician who turned out to be a good practitioner of the art of the possible. Photo: Kommersant

Assuming he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the next U.S. ambassador to Russia will not be a career diplomat, but rather a policy wonk with the ear of the president.

If he is approved by the U.S. Senate, Michael McFaul, a chief architect of President Barack Obama’s reset policy with the Kremlin, will become the fourth U.S. Ambassador to Russia in the 21st century.

For a political scientist who only a relatively short time ago was laboring in the academic fields of Stanford University, it is something of a meteoric rise from professor to “Mr. Ambassador.”

Russia has traditionally been a posting for career diplomats, and while some eyebrows were raised in Foggy Bottom, home to the State Department in Washington D.C., McFaul’s nomination makes eminent good sense. As the key official on Russia in Obama’s National Security Council, McFaul oversaw the “reset”—a hard-nosed view that the United States and Russia share interests that should not be derailed by disagreements over political and human rights, although those differences remain.

McFaul is the theoretician who turned out to be a good practitioner of the art of the possible. His deep knowledge of Russia led to a clear understanding of where areas of common interest lay, and what the Kremlin was prepared to do. Russians view him as someone without any ingrained prejudice towards Moscow and close enough to President Obama to have a real heft—a potent set of attributes for an incoming American ambassador. McFaul, as special assistant to the president and senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council, first repaired badly damaged relations after the  Russian-Georgian war of 2008, which came in the last days of the Bush administration. McFaul viewed Russia not as a hostile power, too often a default position in Washington, but as a problematic, evolving giant that can be a U.S. partner on important issues. With McFaul at the helm, the Obama administration dramatically tempered American support for anti-Russian movements and voices in the former Soviet sphere, particularly in Georgia. The United States is seriously trying to support Russian accession to the World Trade Organization. And the United States and Russia have found areas of agreement in the United Nations on Iran and Libya.

As a result of the reset, Russia and the United States were able to coordinate policy in Kyrgyzstan after the violent revolt that took place in the Central Asian country in summer 2010. The United States and NATO were granted an alternative transportation route to Afghanistan through Russia that made the Pentagon less dependent on a volatile and unreliable route through Pakistan. And President Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev signed the new Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (New START) in Prague, a significant foreign policy achievement for both leaders. Obama also used some of his political capital to push the treat through a somewhat reluctant U.S. Senate, a fact that did not go unnoticed in Moscow. The approval of the U.S.-Russian Agreement for Cooperation in the Field of Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, also known as a 123 Agreement, was yet another measure of renewed relations.

At home in Washington, McFaul was criticized for ignoring the human rights situation in Russia—the lack of rule of law; violations of freedom of speech and assembly; and corruption and abuse of power by Russian authorities. McFaul has said in response that the Obama administration has a dual track policy towards Russia, which means cooperation with the government of Russia, when it is in U.S. national interests, and work with human rights and opposition groups to foster greater democracy.

The most difficult issue for McFaul will be cooperation with Russia on the American missile defense system in Europe. In private conversations, U.S. officials see it as essential, and while they are willing to mitigate some of Moscow’s concerns, they are not prepared to sacrifice the system for better bilateral relations. Many in Moscow still hold to the view that the alleged threat from Iran and North Korea is exaggerated, and that any U.S. missile system close to Russia’s borders is actually designed to peer deep into Russia and is, therefore, a threat to the country’s national security.  

The new resident of Spaso House – the home of the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow – will still have plenty to work to make sure the reset sticks. But McFaul seems like a very good match for Moscow.

Peter Cheremushkin is the Washington, DC correspondent for the Interfax news agency. 

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