There is perhaps no greater American expert on Russian affairs than former Ambassador Michael McFaul. Ambassador McFaul serves Stanford both as a professor and as an alumnus (BA ’86, MA ‘86). He served as Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and as the Senior Director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs for the White House National Security Council from 2009 to 2012. In those capacities, he dealt with the “Reset” with Russia, the New START Treaty, the Ukrainian Revolution, the Russian annexation of Crimea and move into East Ukraine, the flight of Edward Snowden to Moscow, the Sochi Olympics, a ban on American families adopting Russian children, and a sharp increase in anti-Americanism in Russian society, among other issues. During his time in Moscow, McFaul was even personally harassed and painted as a subversive anti-regime figure by Russian media. He returned to Stanford in 2014 and is now the Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, a professor of Political Science, and a key member of Stanford’s new European Security Initiative.

In view of the large, and often conflicting, roles Russia and the United States seemingly play in the world today, I sat down with McFaul on December 7th to chat about some of the big current issues in foreign affairs. The following is a lightly edited summary of some of my key takeaways, and you can read the full transcript of our conversation here.

On the Middle East

1. The US will not sacrifice its support for Ukraine in exchange for greater Russian cooperation in Syria.

McFaul said that the Obama Administration has had a “very explicit policy” of compartmentalizing different issues when negotiating with Russia. Discussions with Russia on a political settlement in Syria will not weaken or change the United States’ stance on Ukraine. The strategy of treating issues with Russia individually rather than linking them together goes back to the early days of Obama’s presidency. McFaul recalled, “In 2009, we very deliberately sent the Vice President to Ukraine and Georgia with the message that we’re not going to do this kind of linkage between issues.” Vice President Biden was coincidentally in Ukraine on the day of my conversation with McFaul, and McFaul predicted Biden’s message to Ukrainian President Poroshenko would “most certainly [be]: ‘We are not abandoning you because of collaboration with the Russians in Syria. All the more so because — so far — Russia is not cooperating in Syria.’ ”

2. “Assad must go” does not mean “the regime must go.”

Secretary of State John Kerry was recently castigated for an apparent gaffe when he said that the United States was not seeking regime change in Syria. This seemed to contradict Obama’s repeated statements of ‘Assad must go,’ and opponents used the apparent change in rhetoric and position as evidence of the feebleness of Obama’s foreign policy. My interview with McFaul occurred prior to Kerry’s statement, but his insights on the Obama Administration’s policy in Syrian nevertheless illuminate a strategy that calls for Assad to leave without regime change:

When I was in the government, the Obama administration [was]not for ‘regime change’ in Syria. That’s an incorrect way to frame it. They want the regime and the state institutions to remain intact but to change the governance structure at the top and to have a coalition of some former Assad people and some opposition figures to form an interim government….‘Assad must go’ doesn’t mean ‘the regime must go’.

3. There are clear obstacles to a political transition deal in Syria.

First, McFaul believes a major roadblock to a political transfer of power in Syria is that there is no clear substitute for Assad. He argues that the Egyptian transition, while it had its faults, had “the military to come in” and the head of the Egyptian military, General Tantawi, took over after Mubarak stepped down.” A transition in Syria will be tough without an obvious alternative to step into power.

Second, McFaul suggests that even if the United States does find a figure to replace Assad from within the regime, a Russian-blessed agreement would not necessarily resolve the situation. We “tend to overestimate the Russian influence over the Syrian regime,” McFaul noted, “It’s not as if Putin could just call up Assad and say he must go.” While certainly dependent on Russia in many respects, Assad ultimately decides what he will or will not do.

On Russia

4. Putin wants to be the global figurehead for a conservative movement against the Western liberal order.

From Poland to France and even to Sweden, the populist far-right in Europe had a very successful 2015. McFaul sees this development as troubling, suggesting that the anti-liberal, anti-EU nature of these parties aligns with Russia’s interests.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Putin himself, for several years, has been positioning himself ideologically as the leader of a worldwide conservative movement — small ‘c’ conservative. Both on the social conservative side, being close to the Church (the values stuff), and he has for a long time considered that’s his role in the world against the decadent liberal parties of the West — Europe and the United States. And with Marine Le Pen [head of France’s right wing National Front party]in particular, one of the big Russian banks lent that party millions of dollars. It’s not just rhetorical support; it’s actual support. Putin has a strategic objective to weaken the EU and to dissolve NATO. He’s always wanted to do that.

5. The “fundamental question for Russia in the 21st century” is whether it will stay hostile towards or integrate into the liberal West.

McFaul noted that Russia hasn’t always been so hostile towards the West, and there have been periods when Russia moved towards integrating into the “Western community of democratic states.” McFaul believes the fact that those periods happened suggests that there isn’t inevitable confrontation between the West and Russia, and the problem is more “individual leaders and circumstances” than “long term cultural differences.” McFaul’s thoughts here echo his frequented stated belief in the power of individual political actors to overcome the forces of geopolitics or culture in shaping international relations.

On the other hand, McFaul is troubled by the increasing anti-Western nationalism in Russia. He remarked that he was surprised by “how quickly Putin has been able to mobilize society against the West,” saying that it suggests that “maybe there are some deeper factors at play here” and that “it’s going to take a lot longer to undo.”

On Europe

6. NATO original mission is newly relevant.

The idea that NATO is “obsolete” in a post Cold War era has been a popular argument in foreign policy circles for years. The argument is that without the Soviet Union on Europe’s doorstepthere was no clear rationale for the alliance’s continued existence. In light of Russia’s actions in East Ukraine and Crimea, McFaul thinks NATO’s mission has become quite clear:

It’s going back to NATO’s original intent, back to making sure NATO allies are not threatened by external actors. It’s not the only one, but the biggest external threat to countries in the alliance — is Russia. That means strengthening deterrence and going back to the original stuff.

7. The European response to Putin’s actions in Ukraine has been surprisingly strong and unified.

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into East Ukraine, there were fears that Europe wouldn’t respond strongly enough because it wouldn’t want to sacrifice its economic ties with RussiaEurope relies on Russia for 30 percent of its petroleum imports, and for some countries that figure is over 50 percent. Russia is also a major importer of German and French manufactured goods, and Russian investment is important for the powerful financial sector in the city of London. However, despite all this, McFaul said that Europe has held strong:

I was impressed, even surprised, by how much European unity there was in response to the intervention in Ukraine. You have to go back to the crackdown on Solidarity in 1981 to remember there was a time when there were sanctions against Russia.

Nevertheless, he remains worried about Europe’s endurance:

I think Angela Merkel should get credit for keeping that coalition together, but I’m nervous of it becoming unraveled because of [the growth of European right-wing nationalist movements].

8. Democratic institutions are the key to eliminating corruption in Ukraine.

The post-revolution government in Ukraine has faced serious challenges in the loss of Crimea and the Russian-backed separatist struggle in the Donbass. But according to McFaul, perhaps the greatest challenge to the success of the Ukrainian government in the long run is the systemic corruption that has plagued the country since the fall of the Soviet Union. Corruption has been a major problem for all for all of the former Soviet states, but some countries have proven more capable of eliminating it than others. McFaul says the key to anti-corruption campaigns is the development democratic institutions, including a multi-party system of government, an independent press, and independent courts.

The places that have gone the farthest the fastest with democratic reform also have the lowest levels of corruption in the region. Why is that? Who is most motivated to show corruption? The opposition party. What does an independent press do? It exposes bad things that happen in society. Independent courts expose corruption.

On China

9. While it may seem that China has an increasingly close relationship with Russia, China values its relationship with the United States even more.

McFaul thinks that despite the appearance of closer cooperation between Russia and China, the United States does not need to worry about the two countries forming an anti-western bloc to counter American interests:

China is running a brilliant foreign policy right now. They have convinced the Russians that they have a strategic relationship when in fact the most important bilateral relationship for them is with the US, and that’s smart; that’s good diplomacy. They fully understand that the management and deepening of their relationship with the US is way more important than any other bilateral relationship, including with Russia, because of trade levels and for economic and security reasons.

Big Picture

10. The United States is in a period of retrenchment, but that won’t last very long.

McFaul described the current era for the United States as one of “pulling back.” He believes that the United States is “frustrated with our [in]ability to achieve our outcomes, either militarily or in the state construction business” and people want to focus on fixing America’s domestic problems.

But McFaul explained that this retrenchment isn’t as much a result of Democratic or Republican political choices as it is a result of a cyclical process of engagement and retrenchment. Referencing Stephen Sestanovich’s 2014 book, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, McFaul noted that America’s international engagement is like a pendulum swing, and he warned against looking at “moments of retrenchment and think[ing]that they are going to last for decades [when]they tend not to.” He noted, “other periods of retrenchment worked themselves out,” suggesting ours will likely follow suit.

11. America’s preeminence will continue for the foreseeable future.

McFaul indicated that he is “optimistic about America’s leadership role for decades to come.” He doesn’t buy into fears of American decline, pointing out that while China is certainly rising, the United States is, too. “If you look at our GDP rates, our military spending, our education — whatever your metric of power is — we’re not declining; we’re still going up.”

McFaul recalled as an undergraduate: “everyone was learning Japanese because they were the rising power, and they were going to translate economic power into military power, and thirty years forward that turned out not to be such a good bet.” McFaul acknowledged that China is rising now, but “it’s not apparent that they’ll keep up that pace for the next fifty years.”

12. Democracy’s challengers are not what they used to be.

McFaul is struck by how even America’s most prominent geopolitical challengers don’t preach a rival political ideology. He says even Russian leaders try to use democratic norms to legitimize their rule, calling it “Russian-style democracy,” while the Chinese don’t promote an anti-democratic ideology, they just say “be patient with us, we need to go slow.” McFaul’s analysis is that the only current ideological alternative to liberal democracy is the theocratic ideas of ISIS. Because they are democracy’s only ideological challenger, McFaul says he is “impressed with how little they are attracting people not how much they are.”

McFaul seemed to recognize that his view on the enduring strength of liberal democracies was more optimistic than others, commenting:

I know that other people have a different view but I don’t see this. It’s not like communism in the last century where literally half the world was (and at times half of Stanford campus) was interested in this alternative way of setting up a political system and an economic system. I just don’t see it that way. In terms of this ideological component, I think it’s probably in a better place than most people think.


13. European security issues aren’t over, and Stanford needs to refocus on their study.

McFaul believes the world made the premature assumption that issues of European security were over, and argues today that they are “one of the top three challenges” in international politics. Stanford “used to be one of the best places in the world on these sets of issues,” so to renew that focus, McFaul recently helped launch the Stanford European Security Initiative to “examine the long term policy issues and trends in Europe’s changing geopolitical landscape.”

We came together last spring and said we need to have a little more concentrated effort on this: (A) both for faculty members, to talk to each other again, bring people in to talk to us, and then (B) over the long term to create interest among undergraduates in these sets of issues because they have also faded in terms of course offerings and student interest, for good reason.

Jake Dow, a freshman studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.