An Interview with Michael McFaul, U.S. Ambassador to Russia

Russia Ambassador McFaulMichael McFaul was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation, and confirmed by the Senate on December 17, 2011. McFaul is currently on leave from Stanford University, where he is a professor of political science. McFaul previously served as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council. Before joining the Obama administration, McFaul served as Deputy Director at the Freeman Spogli Institute and Director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law (CDDRL). He was also a non-resident Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. McFaul received his B.A. in International Relations and Slavic Languages and his M.A. in Soviet and East European Studies from Stanford University. He was also warded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford where he completed his D. Phil. in International Relations in 1991.

The Politic: Having begun as an academic, how did you get involved in politics? 

I’ve been an academic for a long time — I teach at Stanford University. I’ve been involved in politics over the course of time in various different ways. The trajectory of how I went from Stanford to this job was unusual but pretty straightforward. In 2006, I got a call from my good friend Susan Rice, with whom I studied at Stanford and Oxford. She asked me to join a group of foreign policy advisors for then-Senator Obama. I agreed because I knew and trusted Susan Rice even though I didn’t know much about the candidate at the time. I worked on the campaign for two years in an advisory role. I then joined the administration on January 21, 2009. The day after the inauguration was my first day of work as a government official. For three years, my title was Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council. I worked primarily on Russia and Central Asia but did some work on other issues as well.

At most universities, there’s a two-year sabbatical you can take for government service before going back. That was my plan, but Tom Donilon, the national security advisor and my immediate boss, asked me after speaking with the President if I’d be willing to stay in government. My wife, however, didn’t really want me to stay at the White House, where I worked long hours that were difficult to keep when we had two kids at home. The President ended up coming up with the idea that I could continue working on policy and remain in the Obama Administration, but as an ambassador.

The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in your country that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?

I can’t think of a particular event that led directly to a policy change, but I guess I can say that we’ve had to react to a series of events both in terms of what happens internally here in Russia and what happens in our bilateral relationship that has led us to change our policy. For instance, the Russian government requested — to use the diplomatic verb — that we close down USAID last year. That was a shock to us and we were rather disappointed. We believe that what USAID used to do in Russia contributed very positively to both U.S.-Russia relations and also to Russia’s own economic and political development.

So we had to react to that, and as ambassador, I had to do that in two ways. First, how do we continue to support our key policy objectives, which were defined way back in the spring of 2009, in the absence of this instrument of foreign policy? And second, in a very practical and, for me personally, heart-wrenching way, I had to oversee the dismantling of a major part of our embassy. We had approximately 70 USAID employees at the time, and I made it a personal priority of mine to find places for everybody, both the American and the Russian employees. This was naturally a very hard process that we are, in fact, still in the middle of.

I think that the broader point I would make is that we have had to react to many things that have happened over the course of the last two years, but we haven’t changed our general approach in terms of our policy objectives and strategy for achieving them. The results of these strategies, though, weren’t quite as ambitious as we had hoped for when I first joined the government. Every day you just have to get up and keep working towards those same goals.

The Politic: How would you describe the state of the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship today?

I’ll give you a sound-bite version. Going back a bit, in January of 2009, we were at a very difficult moment in U.S.-Russia relations. Under the “reset,” we first laid out a set of principles where we sought to find cooperation with Russia on common interests, which the President likes to call win-win outcomes. Second, we sought to develop a multi-dimensional relationship with Russia, so that we weren’t just talking about nuclear weapons but were also talking about economics and societal contacts. Third, we pursued these objectives through a vigorous strategy of active engagement — at the presidential level and through the creation of the “Bilateral Presidential Commission,” where we tried to increase the connectivity between our governments. We now have 21 working groups under the BPC.

Looking at the situation now, I guess I could say that we’ve achieved some very important outcomes. To go through some of them in chronological order, we signed and ratified a new START Treaty. We worked very closely with Russia in developing the Northern Distribution Network, which is a way of supplying our troops and other personnel in Afghanistan and which Russia is now a major part of. Third, we put in place the most comprehensive set of sanctions against Iran in UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which we believe advances our collective objectives vis-à-vis Iran. I would also say that cooperation in the Security Council on North Korea has been very positive. Moving down the line, we worked hard with the Russians to get Russia into the World Trade Organization. These would be some of the top-line items.

I would say that today there are four big issues: (1) Syria, (2) further reducing nuclear weapons, (3) trying to find some way to cooperate or at least find a way to reduce tensions around our missile defense programs, and (4) looking for ways to increase trade and investment. All of these are works in progress. The last thing that I would say is of importance is addressing what we see as some major setbacks in democratic development in terms of human rights here in Russia. We have always discussed this issue, but I think it’s become much more prominent over the past year.

The Politic: There was an op-ed in the New York Times by Job Henning discussing the “reset” in much more negative terms. It argued that Russia supported three rounds of sanctions against Iran prior to the “reset,” doesn’t seem particularly interested in any further nuclear weapons reductions, and allows — what with Alexei Navalny’s conviction and the recent anti-gay laws — truly flagrant human rights violations. Given these problems, what do you think America’s response should be in bringing Russia back to the table and working to promote human rights and rule of law abroad?

It should be what it is. We should advance our national interests: our interests in security, economic matters, and promoting universal values. That’s what we do. We have been very clear about what we think of these new anti-LGBT laws and about the trial of Mr. Navalny. On Iran, we are very clear as to what our objectives are. The President has been very clear as well with regard to our goals on the issue of nuclear weapons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) with former President Dmitry Medvedev
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) with former President Dmitry Medvedev

I think it’s important to remember (and I’m sure many previous administrations would agree) that my job here as ambassador is to advance American national interests. My job is not actually to improve U.S.-Russia relations, which is a means to the objectives that we seek. I think that this is misunderstood. Somehow, people focus a great deal on taking the temperature of the relationship as an end in itself. But when I get up every day, I’m thinking about how we can move forward on the issues we discussed earlier. I’m not sure that as an outsider, before I became the ambassador, I fully appreciated that this is what diplomacy is all about.

I am here to represent the United States and to advance its interests. The probability of success may be 5 percent or 75 percent. As an academic, I was paid to determine probabilities, but my job today is to get up and if it’s 5 percent to try to make it 6 percent. This includes engagement with the Russian government, with the business community, and directly with the Russian people.

The Politic: Do you believe that the US and Russia have fundamentally different approaches to diplomacy and international relations? For instance, some observers note that Russia has a more realpolitik approach to international relations while the U.S. is more idealistic. Do you see any truth to this? If so, how is this expressed in the practical diplomatic interactions between the two countries?

That would be a great question for me when I’m back at Stanford. Theories, as we all know, are designed to oversimplify things. What is striking to me as someone from academia now in the business of diplomacy is how realpolitik impulses and idealistic impulses happen in the same administration and sometimes even in the same individual. That being said, I look forward to answering that question at greater length and maybe even writing about it when I return to Stanford.

The Politic: What is the average diplomatic encounter like with your counterpart in Russia?

I am very deliberately looking to have multiple interlocutors as part of the kind of multi-dimensional objectives we’re pursuing. In my day-to-day bilateral business, my main interlocutor is Deputy Foreign Minister [Sergey] Ryabkov. He is the person at the foreign ministry responsible for the U.S. I see him very often and we talk about everything. I also interact with ministers in the Russian government, such as First Deputy Prime Minister [Igor] Shuvalov. These meetings are relatively narrow, though, and focus on the trade and investment aspects of our relationship.

A big part of my day is meeting with Russian and American non-governmental actors—companies, journalists, NGOs, artists, sports figures, etc. I didn’t appreciate this part of the job before. In this era of technology, when Secretary Kerry can just pick up the phone and call Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov whenever he needs to, we don’t need an ambassador to get into a horse and buggy to carry over a diplomatic note. In this day and age, I believe that engagement with societal actors is a much bigger part of the job than it used to be. It’s especially important in a country like Russia, where I encounter every day what are, in my opinion, misperceptions about our policies and our country on the part of journalists, government officials, and businesspeople.

A part of my job now is virtual diplomacy, where almost every day I am communicating directly to the Russian people something about our policy or our country. I have over 50,000 followers on Twitter and 12,000 Facebook friends and subscribers, for example, most of whom are Russians. Today, much of it is about Mr. Snowden, but it may also be about issues like how many Russians get visas. This is actually a great example because there is a great misperception in this country that you have a 50/50 chance of getting a visa. When I heard about this, I decided to investigate and found that over 90 percent of Russians who applied received visas. I tweeted this information and the tweet got a lot of attention. This was a major diplomatic success correcting misperceptions.

The Politic: What are your interactions like with pro-democracy actors? Have you spoken with [Garry] Kasparov or [Alexei] Navalny, and if so, how does America interact with them?

Part of the policy we first codified in 2009 is called “dual-track engagement.” It means that we engage the government and we engage with society at the same time. We don’t accept the trade-off that you have to do one or the other. When President Obama came here in July2009, he spent his first day meeting with President [Dmitry] Medvedev and then spent the next morning having breakfast with Prime Minister [Vladimir] Putin. Then, for the entire second day, he spent ten hours engaging with the people. He went to a private university, attended a parallel business summit, attended a parallel civil society event with leaders from America and Russia, and met with the Russian political opposition, including Mr. Kasparov, Mr. [Boris] Nemtsov, and Mr. [Gennady] Zyuganov.

A December 2011 Rally at the Academician Sakharov Avenue, Moscow
A December 2011 Rally at the Academician Sakharov Avenue, Moscow

When I came here, I did exactly what President Obama did. The reality is that I actually have never met Mr. Navalny here in Russia, despite everything that’s been written about him being on my payroll. We’ve invited him for events, but he’s never come. Interestingly enough, I tweeted a message to him that I was watching when the verdict was read — which must, by the way, be a diplomatic first. So, we have had some virtual contact, but not in-person contact.

The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?

As to the latter part of your question, we’re all working as a team to make our policy better. We could talk later about my personal views. With respect to your first question, I feel like there are significant misperceptions, factual inaccuracies, and even propaganda about America here. This is disturbing to me as a representative of the U.S. in this country. As I said before, not just in social media but in media as a whole, I’ve taken an active role to counter this. I have a blog, I do interviews here, and I’m on Twitter and Facebook. The number one objective of being in the media is for people to understand our country and policy better. We don’t need to agree, but we need to disagree with an accurate understanding of the facts and not because of a misperception. I do think that this is a generic problem and unique to Russia. It is a problem that we as an administration and country need to address in a more comprehensive and sophisticated way, because I do feel on some days that we are losing the battle.  We need to think more creatively and innovatively about how we communicate the basic facts about our country and foreign policy.


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