Recalling McFaul: Four Views On Outgoing U.S. Ambassador To Russia
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has announced that he is stepping down and returning to the United States following the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
McFaul has been ambassador since January 2012, serving before that as U.S. President Barack Obama's senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs.
RFE/RL spoke to two former U.S. ambassadors to Russia and two prominent foreign-affairs analysts about McFaul's tenure, which was often marked by acrimonious relations between Washington and Moscow.
RFE/RL's Robert Coalson spoke to former U.S. Ambassadors Thomas Pickering and James Collins and to Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. RFE/RL's Andrius Kuncina spoke to Moscow-based political analyst Aleksandr Golts.
Thomas Pickering: McFaul 'An Unusual And Exceptional Ambassador'
RFE/RL: How would you assess Ambassador McFaul's two years in Moscow?
Thomas Pickering: Ambassador McFaul has been an unusual and exceptional ambassador. He in many ways brought his deep experience from the National Security Council and over the years in working with Russia to the job of being ambassador in Moscow.
He took a strong position on critical issues of importance to the United States, including particularly the treatment of Russians by their own government when that violated or went against international norms and spoke out on those subjects which did not endear him necessarily to the Russian leadership. But it made a strong impression both in Russia and the United States.
He also had deep experience in the arms-control negotiations -- which, over a period of time both while at the National Security Council and during his period of service in Russia, made an important contribution to U.S.-Russian relations and indeed to international peace and stability.
And one can think of many more questions that he's been deeply involved in, including, of course, the value and importance of his close relationship with President [Barack] Obama, who clearly trusted Ambassador McFaul for objective and, indeed, serious and wise advice and counsel.
RFE/RL: McFaul is not a career diplomat and came to Moscow with relatively little diplomatic experience. Does that matter?
Pickering: I think that it's a mistake to believe that his prior service on the National Security Council was devoid of diplomatic experience. Indeed, he was in the center of U.S.-Russian diplomacy for a significant number of years -- I think four-plus -- before he actually went to Moscow. So that would be a mistake.
He also over a long period of years taught and spent time in Russia, but taught about Russia in a major American university. And this also contributed to it. People often raise that question because on a number of issues he was pointed, direct, and straightforward in his public and private statements about his concern about where Russia was going and about its policies in a number of areas, including the treatment of its own citizens. And these particular questions are somehow seen as being undiplomatic. But in many ways they in fact carried out the policy of the United States in a direct and forceful way.
RFE/RL: From time to time, McFaul faced harassment and hounding by Russian media and public organizations that might have been connected with the Russian government. Were you surprised by what he faced in Moscow and what do you think of how he handled the situation?
Pickering: Yes, I was. I thought it was uncalled for and unconscionable. No ambassador should be treated by the host government or allowed to be treated by people in the host country who have concerns and grievances in a way that goes to personal humiliation and efforts to try one way or another to use force and forceful tactics against that ambassador's carrying out of his mission."
Aleksandr Golts: McFaul 'Did Everything He Could' To Maintain Ties
RFE/RL: What is your take on Ambassador McFaul's performance as a U.S. Ambassador to Russia?
Aleksandr Golts: Michael McFaul did everything he could to at least not let Russian-American relations further deteriorate. He was at the wrong time at the wrong place. He found himself in a situation where the Russian government was strongly convinced that the ruthless [U.S.] State Department intends to stage an Orange Revolution in Russia.
When one of the parties a priori believes that the other party has aggressive intentions toward it, any rational diplomacy becomes a tough job to do. Nevertheless, Michael [McFaul] did all he could to keep the [bilateral] relations on a rational level. Specifically, a lot has been achieved in the area of [U.S.-Russian] cooperation in Afghanistan.
His presence in the capacity [of U.S. ambassador to Russia] coincided with the period in which the Russian government, true to its ideological considerations, adopted a radically anti-American stance. On top of that, of course, this entire unbridled [Russian] propaganda campaign [against U.S. policies] was given a major push by the fact that Michael McFaul is the author of a number of books on transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, which the Russian government has taken personally.
RFE/RL: In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service last year, McFaul admitted that the situation around the so-called Dima Yakovlev bill passed in Russia that prevents Russian orphans from being adopted by U.S. citizens was hardest on him. How do you see it?
Golts: This issue was difficult from the moral point of view. As a diplomat he could not express his own human approach to this wild, barbarian law. The Russian Federation adopted a savage and crazy law that condemned hundreds of children to death. [McFaul], who represents the United States of America, had no right to comment on it in any way. This is a very difficult situation from a moral and psychological point of view.
RFE/RL: What is your opinion on the timing of McFaul's resignation? Why do you think it comes at the end of the Winter Olympics in Sochi?
Golts: It is more or less obvious that the situation of human rights and political freedoms will deteriorate after the Olympic Games. It is possible that, finding himself in a complicated moral situation, McFaul chose to quit.
James Collins: Treatment Of McFaul 'Quite Unconscionable'
RFE/RL: What is your assessment of Ambassador McFaul's successes and failures as ambassador?
James Collins: I think, first, the context for Ambassador McFaul's tenure has been a difficult one. He arrived at a time when relations were turning down and he really had to manage relations at a time when the downturn continued. So he has had a difficult period.
I think the ambassador in Moscow, first of all, represents the president and the American people. He carries out our policies and he is being as effective as he can be in explaining them and advancing them in the context of relations with Russia.
I'm not sure I necessarily see a major change in Russia's foreign policy -- it seems to me it has been quite consistent. But the overall context with which Ambassador McFaul has had to work has been one in which there have been a lot of focuses on differences between Russia and the United States and not very much on those things that we are doing in common, which continued, and I think it is important to realize that Ambassador McFaul presided over the embassy at a time when a lot of other programs and treaty implementations and so forth continued without interruption and he managed those dimensions of the relationship as well.
RFE/RL: From time to time Ambassador McFaul was hounded or harassed by various media outlets or organizations that might have had connections with the Russian government. Did you experience anything like that when you were ambassador and were you surprised by what you saw McFaul going through?
Collins: Well, I personally did not. Our relations were not bad during my time. We had our difficult moments and difficult times, and I had demonstrations against American policies in the Balkans and so on. But I never had anything I would say particularly personal directed at me.
I think that some of the things Ambassador McFaul had to go through during his tenure were really quite unconscionable. He was, after all, the representative of the president of the United States. And to treat him as he was treated by journalists and other groups at various times, I thought, was an insult to the United States. And certainly it was difficult for him and his family.
And I think there is absolutely no justification for it. We don't treat diplomats like that in this country and I don't think we should expect our diplomats to be treated in that fashion. I was actually incensed at the way he was singled out and treated by people who should have known better.
RFE/RL: Before becoming ambassador, McFaul worked as President Barack Obama's special adviser on Russia and Eurasia, but he didn't have a lot of direct diplomatic experience, certainly wasn't a career diplomat. Do you think this was a problem for him or, maybe, an advantage?
Collins: I think it is a difficult question and I don't think there is a simple answer to the broad question of whether career diplomats as opposed to political appointees are more effective.
I think he came in at a time that would have been challenging for any ambassador -- career or noncareer. Managing and running and leading an embassy in the Russian Federation is very complex and difficult business. And I'm sure there were dimensions of it that were probably easier to do if you were a career diplomat and had experience running embassies. On the other hand, I think he brought with him the mandate of the president of the United States and the experience of working in the White House, which also enhanced his capacity to speak authoritatively.
I don't think there is a simple answer to this question and I would not try to say that his lack of diplomatic experience was in most respects all that relevant to the difficulties he had in carrying out his mission over two years. That was much more related to the context he had to work in and the policies of the Russian government with which he had to deal.
Nikolas Gvosdev: McFaul 'Salvaged What Could Be Salvaged'
RFE/RL: How would you assess Ambassador McFaul's two years in Moscow?
Nikolas Gvosdev: I think that what we are going to see as the overall assessment of his time as ambassador is that he really was intended to be the ambassador for a second [Dmitry] Medvedev term [as president of Russia]. The assumption was that he would be able to build on the Russia "reset" policy that he helped to oversee and establish in the first Obama term. There was a good working relationship between Obama and Medvedev, and I think the vision was that by sending him to Moscow as ambassador he would be able to deepen and further this cooperation. Unfortunately for those plans, [Vladimir] Putin decided to return for a third term to the presidency.
I think that that disjuncture is really what has characterized his tenure as ambassador in Moscow. The assumption was that he would be able to continue the reset working with the Medvedev administration and he instead found himself coming to Moscow with a returned Putin administration, which had a much different view -- Putin himself and some of the people in Putin's circle coming back in -- having a much different focus on the U.S.-Russia relationship. And this was not helped by the protests that occurred [in Russia] at the end of 2011, which suggested some discontent with Putin's decision to return. And the U.S. response to protests also undermined right from the beginning some of the assumptions that were made about how successful this ambassadorship would be.
RFE/RL: Despite the tough hand he was dealt, did McFaul manage to find some workarounds and achieve some successes?
Gvosdev: Certainly. The emphasis has been on salvaging as much of the reset as possible. If we look at some of the rhetoric we were seeing at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, it really suggested that the reset would be completely washed away, that there would be no gains from it left, that any achievements that had been made would be undone. So I think that given the hand that he was dealt, given the way the politics between Washington and Moscow had moved, given the fact that Congress by passing things like the Magnitsky Act complicated his position as ambassador -- all of those things, I think he should be seen as someone who still was able to salvage a good deal.
The fact that we haven't returned to the lows of the 2007-08 U.S.-Russia relationship that the reset was designed to address I think points to the effort that was made -- and some people might say it was a rear-guard effort -- but it was still a good one to try to salvage as much as possible so that the relationship just didn't simply go back down to zero where it was.
There have definitely been setbacks. We can't look at this and say there haven't been setbacks in the U.S.-Russia relationship, but the setbacks could have been a lot worse. So he deserves credit for being able to salvage what could be salvaged.
RFE/RL: McFaul is a noted Russia expert, but not an experienced diplomat. Do you think that matters?
Gvosdev: I think it certainly matters, not just for Russia but for any country, to have the ambassador to be able to engage not only government leaders, but civil society as a whole. And to be able to do so directly and, as he did, not just simply by the traditional communication methods but by embracing social media and by being accessible in that regard. That is very important -- otherwise, if the ambassador doesn't have that type of experience is generally, not always, but generally going to be less effective in the performance of his or her duties.
I think the fact that he did come with knowledge, with background, with language skills...and that he also came -- and this is important regarding the Russia relationship -- he came from having worked in the White House, having been part of the presidential staff. He came in as an ambassador who would have access to the president, who was still part of the president's foreign-policy team. And I think that matters with regard to relations with Russia and also with other key countries in the world -- to have ambassadors in place in those capitals who do have close and immediate access to the president.
Again, I don't think if people look at his tenure as ambassador and say, "It didn't quite fulfill all the expectations that we might have had for his role in Moscow," I think this has less to do with his background and more to do with the changed circumstances which occurred in Moscow, particularly after 2012.
RFE/RL: Were you surprised by the harassment that McFaul faced from Russian media and public organizations during his tenure in Russia?
Gvosdev: I was somewhat surprised, but given the fact that he was not a blank slate when he came to Russia -- that he had preexisting relationships, he had preexisting views, he had his own contacts -- it wasn't going to be surprising that if he was going to be much more visible as an ambassador and have much more of presence that there was going to be a reaction to that. And so the fact that he was willing to jump into the pool with both feet in terms of being a media presence, being on social media, drew that inevitable counterreaction -- to some extent, from the government side and from others as well, whether they were doing it on explicit instructions from the Kremlin or not.
But I don't see that as a negative as much as I see that he was engaged as an ambassador and was making sure to represent the positions of the Obama administration not only to the government but to society as a whole and that he was willing to expose himself to those things in the pursuit of those duties.
The question that's interesting when they consider who they are going to replace him with, it will be interesting to see what lesson they draw. What I hope they don't draw as a lesson from this is that you need a less-visible ambassador or an ambassador who doesn't speak the language or an ambassador who essentially limits himself to diplomatic communiques, because that isn't as effective. But you'll need to have an ambassadorial candidate that goes there knowing that this is the environment they are going to move in and that it can be a bit rough and tumble. To be prepared for that.
RFE/RL: This is a pretty intense time in U.S.-Russian relations, with issues like Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Ukraine. But politics in the United States are very divided and it might be hard for Obama to get an ambassador approved by the Senate. Do you think it is urgent for McFaul to be replaced quickly and how do you see that process unfolding?
Gvosdev: I think that you are going to see, and there is a long and honorable tradition of doing this, simply to go back into the Foreign Service and taking a senior Foreign Service officer with Russia and Eurasia experience and putting him in. I don't think that the president is in a position to put in someone who might be seen as part of his team politically or as part of his circle because I think that will invite Congressional skepticism. It will identify Russia policy with going after the Obama administration if you have particular issues to pick with the Obama administration.
So my guess, particularly because it is an important post -- we do have a number of irons in the fire such as Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine -- so the idea of getting someone in there quickly and going with someone who is perceived as a nonpartisan professional may be the way that they are going to go.