Shadow Government

Why McFaul as ambassador to Russia is solid pick by Obama

A news item from this weekend is that President Obama intends to nominate NSC Senior Director Michael McFaul to be the next ambassador to Russia. This is an inspired choice. McFaul will bring a compelling set of attributes to the position, including a deep knowledge of Russia, a close relationship with President Obama, experience in ...

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

A news item from this weekend is that President Obama intends to nominate NSC Senior Director Michael McFaul to be the next ambassador to Russia. This is an inspired choice. McFaul will bring a compelling set of attributes to the position, including a deep knowledge of Russia, a close relationship with President Obama, experience in high levels of government and national security policy, and a longstanding commitment to democracy and human rights promotion. That last quality will be of particular importance, as Russia’s grim and deteriorating record on democracy will be in the international spotlight with its presidential transition in 2012. "Transition" is a more accurate word than "election," as the question of Russia’s next president will not be settled by Russian voters at the ballot box but rather by the opaque intra-Kremlin maneuverings between current President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. As Paul Bonicelli has pointed out, as a former and potentially future president, Putin’s intentions and actions are more "neo-Czarist" than democratic, and his relationship with Medvedev will likely grow more and more strained.

In appointing McFaul, President Obama is also departing from recent precedent in bypassing the career Foreign Service for the position. Over the past three decades, all but one residents of Spaso House have been career foreign service officers. But the exception was a notable one: President Bush 41’s bipartisan appointment of Democratic elder statesman Bob Strauss (namesake of the Strauss Center for International Security and Law, where I’m honored to work), who ably represented the U.S. in Moscow during the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the transition of the national identity back to "Russia."

Assuming a smooth Senate confirmation, McFaul will be arriving in Moscow during another time of transition, albeit less auspicious as Russia seems to be consolidating as an autocracy. The relationship between Russia and the U.S. may experience increased turbulence over the next year as well. While the Obama administration deserves credit for maintaining some stability in U.S.-Russia relations and policy advances such as securing Russian permission for increased overflight rights for resupply missions to Afghanistan, the "reset" paradigm has not been as successful as hyped. Among other items on the "reset" agenda, Russia needed the New START treaty more than the U.S. did, Russia’s reluctant cooperation with tightened UNSC sanctions on Iran has not been sufficient to dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear program, and Russia’s bid for WTO membership appears dependent in part on U.S. pressure on Georgia to drop its objections. Which the Georgians are reluctant to do given Russia’s lack of repentance for its 2008 invasion and its ongoing occupation of parts of Georgian territory.

A related transition is the larger strategic question of Russia’s trajectory and role in the world. Is it a once-great power now in irreversible decline? Or is it a great power resurgent after the chaos and disruptions of the 1990s? Those who hold to the latter can point out that Russia still possesses the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, a land mass spanning two continents and nine time zones, a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, and a resource-rich economy that gives Russian foreign policy the use of state-controlled Gazprom as its primary tool, as Anne Applebaum has written. Yet those who see a Russia in decline have considerable evidence as well, including an imbalanced economy almost wholly dependent on extractive industries, a dwindling population in a demographic death spiral, endemic and enervating corruption, a demoralized military that is a shell of its former self, and a paranoid political culture that has alienated many of its neighboring countries to the west, south, and east.

Russia actually has elements of both a declining power and a resurgent power. How else to describe a country that has an economy smaller than Canada and a male life expectancy lower than Mauritania, yet the capacity to stifle U.S. actions in the U.N. Security Council, blackmail Europe with natural gas cut-offs, and project power globally with its nuclear arsenal? In practice this means Russia has little capability to reshape the global order to its liking, but can still resist and block the initiatives of other global powers that it does not favor.

The challenge for U.S. policy is thus to neither overstate nor underestimate Russian capabilities and intentions. As the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, the very capable McFaul will have considerable opportunity not only to observe Russia’s ongoing transitions, but hopefully to help shape it as well, in directions conducive to U.S. interests and the welfare of the long-suffering Russian people.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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