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 the full transcript of our conversation, and you can read a lightly edited summary of some of my key takeaways here.


Jake Dow: You’ve stated that the key to a strong Ukraine is good governance and low levels of corruption. Achieving this has been difficult for all former Soviet republics, but some have had more success than others. What do you see as the key difference between the countries that have had success and the ones that haven’t?

Michael McFaul: The key is democratic institutions. 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.

JD: In 2014, the big story in international security was Russia and Ukraine, but now it’s shifting to the Middle East and ISIS, especially after the Paris attacks. Now, it seems there’s a desire, especially from the French, for a unified front against ISIS. Do you think there’s the political will to deal with both problems at once?

MM: I know there’s only so many hours in the day for senior national security officials, and obviously what’s happening in the Middle East makes ISIS our focus, but the government is big enough to walk and chew gum at the same time. The people [in the United States government]in charge of Russia and Ukraine are not the same people who are in charge of the Middle East. I think the administration is trying, rather deliberately, to signal that they aren’t going to do that kind of linkage. When I was in government, we very explicitly had a policy of no linkage. We debated it in 2009, starting the Reset [of United States-Russia relations]… it was a very explicit policy…in fact I remember July 2009 we flew to Moscow and had this very positive meeting with with President Mededev and in September of that year 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. It so happens that today, the Vice President is in Ukraine again. I went with him in 2009, not with him now, but his message most certainly is 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.”

JD: There seems to be two narratives about dealing with Russia in Syria: one side says that because Putin is a key supporter of Assad, he’s the key to a peaceful political settlement, and we have to negotiate with the Russians. The other side says Putin wants to negotiate to distract us — he’s not negotiating in good faith — and we shouldn’t negotiate with Putin. Which side do you lean towards? Do you think there’s a potential deal that satisfies both US and Russian interests?

MM: I’ve heard Putin himself say he has no special relationship with Assad. We also said, when I was in the government (and I have no reason to believe the policy has changed) that the United States (at least the Obama administration) is 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.

JD: Is that policy in place because of lessons learned from Iraq?

MM: Partly, partly just learned from more successful transitions. The Chilean transition for example allowed Pinochet to stay in the regime for decades, as a senator. “Assad must go” doesn’t mean the regime must go. The problem is we have never been able to figure out the arrangement by which you can square that circle. There are two or three reasons for that. One is there is no alternative to Assad. If you think about the Egyptian transition — for all of its faults — there was the military who came in: General Tantawi took over after Mubarak stepped down. There’s no figure like that in the Syrian regime, and second, if there might be, I think we tend to overestimate the Russian influence over the Syrian regime. It’s not as if Putin could just call up Assad and say he must go. Assad would say “to hell with you, I’m not your puppet,” and I do think we have tended to overestimate the influence Russia has over the Syrian regime.

JD: There were regional elections in France and the National Front did really well, the latest continuation of a longer term trend of a resurgence of nationalism in Europe. A characteristic of these nationalist forces is they are often less anti-Putin or even pro-Putin when we’re talking about Le Pen. If this nationalism continues, how does that affect European-Russian relations?

MM: Well it’s too early to tell in the long term, but 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 Le Pen in particular, I can’t remember the details off the top of my head, but one of the big Russian banks lent that party millions of dollars. It’s not just rhetorical support; it’s actual support….and of course Putin has a strategic objective to weaken the EU and to dissolve NATO. He’s always wanted to do that.

JD: It’s a tumultuous time in Europe — migration issues, economic problems, terrorism, and Russia. Is there enough political will to take on the Russian challenge given that there are so many other problems at home for Merkel, Hollande, and others?

MM: Generally speaking, I was impressed, even surprised, by how much European unity there was in response to the intervention in Ukraine. There was never a time in history — you have to go back to the crackdown on Solidarity in 1981 to remember there was a time when there were sanctions against Russia/the Soviet Union. I think Merkel should get credit for keeping that coalition together, but I’m nervous of it becoming unraveled because of the forces you just described.

JD: You’ve mentioned a couple times that NATO was an effective deterrence. Putin’s aggression did not extend into NATO territories. In that sense, it’s effective and not obsolete, as some have offered. But it is an old organization that was launched in very different times. How should NATO adapt to new challenges in the 21st century?

MM: I think it’s going back to NATO’s original intent…it’s back to making sure NATO allies are not threatened by external actors and the biggest external actor — it’s not the only one, but the biggest external threat to countries in the alliance — is Russia. That means strengthening deterrence, and that also means going back to the original stuff.

JD: We’re seeing signs of greater Russian-Chinese cooperation. How do you see that relationship evolving? Is this a strategic threat to the US? What can or should the US do to prevent a unified Russian-Chinese bloc?

MM: I spent last summer at the Stanford Center at Peking University, a fantastic place. The main subject I was looking at was the triangular relationship between China, the United States, and Russia. I guess my preliminary take away is that 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 us, and that’s smart; that’s good diplomacy. I don’t know what will happen in the long run, but I think that’s a great position to be in. They fully understand that the management and deepening of their relationship with US is way more important than any other bilateral relationship, including with Russia. Just because trade levels, for economic and security reasons, the bilateral relationship is the most important for them. Russia is peripheral in that respect. Having said that, maintaining good relations with many countries is in the Chinese interest, and that’s what they’re doing.

JD: You’ve said that the legitimacy of the Putin regime initially was [bringing]economic progress and that recently he has transitioned to more of a populist nationalist. Do you worry about greater irrationalism if Russia’s recent economic woes continue or if Putin feels more cornered politically, maybe by economic elites or by what’s happening in the markets?

MM: Yes, I worry about it. I think after he came back as president, he was frustrated he didn’t have an argument for legitimacy. He made us the enemy, he criticized the opposition for being our puppets as a way to consolidate his power base, and it most certainly worked well enough to get him reelected. But he always hovered around 60% in terms of approval rating (which was very low). Therefore after going into Ukraine, this more external argument for why he should be in power has become more important to him. That can be dangerous, that means you have to have perpetual conflict. If you don’t have perpetual conflict, what is the argument? Especially at a time where they’ve probably hit the bottom — a long period of stagnation, maybe 1 or 2% growth but not the 7% growth we’ve seen.

JD: I want to turn back to something you said earlier, about Putin painting himself as the conservative opposition to the liberal world order. Do you think that’s a Putin thing or — because of the origins of the liberal order, NATO/EU/US etc — is there a fundamental distrust of this system woven into the collective psyche of Russia, or is there a future in which Russia is a responsible member of that system?

MM: That’s the fundamental question of the 21st century when it comes to Russia. There have been periods of Russian history where they were moving to integrate and be part of that Western community of democratic states, and that they had those periods suggests that it’s not inevitable that they would be in confrontation with it — it’s more individual leaders and circumstances than these long term cultural differences. Having said that, it’s surprising to me how quickly Putin has been able to mobilize society against the West, and that suggests to me that maybe there are some deeper factors at play here. That suggests it’s going to take a lot longer to undo.

JD: The strategic objectives were very clear for the US during the Cold War. In today’s age, does the US have a grand strategy? What are our ends? What are we ultimately doing in the world? Not necessarily what you think we should be doing, but since the Cold War ended, what are we doing? Is there more than a fundamental incoherence?

MM: I would say the strategy of containment, in retrospect, has been grossly overrated. I think that’s important to remember. First of all, it didn’t work in the beginning. There were lots of critics of it. Communism grew for 30 years, the Chinese fell, and then two decades later Indochina fell, and then the Angolans fell, and the Mozambicans. So the idea that we had this policy in place and it eventually worked, well it didn’t feel that way throughout the time. Moreover, under the guise of containment, you had radically different policies that in today’s terms would sound like totally different policies. Nixon and Kissinger’s policy was basically to accept the new distribution of power in the international system and to engage with the adversaries. Detente meant reaching out to the Chinese, that sounds a lot like Barack Obama today. Whereas Ronald Reagan, Republican, under the guise of containment, had something called the Reagan Doctrine, where he tried to overthrow the regime in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Nicaragua. Both of those policies, regime change and detente were considered part of the same strategy called containment. I think there actually was a lot of variation under containment.

In terms of today, it feels most like — in terms of one word to describe, not to advocate — it’s retrenchment, it’s pulling back. We’re frustrated with our inability to achieve our outcomes, either militarily or in the state construction business, and we’re focusing on trying to get our own house in order.

There’s a great book [Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama] by a guy named Stephen Sestanovich, that talks about these pendulum swings. I think it’s a great book, which suggests there is a rhythm to this; it’s not Democrat or Republican; and it’s not Obama — I think there’s something to that. What I guess I would say, having read that book and thought about this in other forums, is that we tend to look at these moments of retrenchment and think that they are going to last for decades, but they tend not to be.

So I’m pretty optimistic myself about America’s leadership role at least for decades to come. We are in a period now of retrenchment, but we’re still rising. We’re not falling, we’re rising. China’s also rising. Maybe the rest aren’t keeping up. So there’s two rising powers, and actually a Chinese scholar pointed this out to me this summer. That’s the better metaphor. 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. China’s also going up at a faster pace, but it’s not apparent that they’ll keep up that pace for the next fifty years. These other periods of retrenchment worked themselves out.

When I was your age at Stanford, I remember I was a Stanford undergraduate and 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. Now everyone’s learning Chinese. My son is learning Chinese. I just think we’re pretty bad at making these long term projections, and we underestimate the power of renewal of our political and economic system. That said, I’ve never been more pessimistic about our political system than I have been today, and even yet, I think we have the basic infrastructure in place to have this kind of renewal.

JD: You helped launch the Stanford European Security Initiative. Where did that idea come from and what are the goals of the project?

MM: There was a false notion, from myself included, where we believed that issues of European security were over, they’re done, they’d been solved. Europe is whole and free except for the periphery. And that turned out to be a premature assumption. If you look out in the world, in terms of major challenges in international politics, European security has to be on the list of one of the top three challenges. We as a community are not doing enough on the subject. We used to do a ton. We used to be one of the best places in the world on these sets of issues. However, partly we atrophied, partly some of the people who were working on it, like Condoleezza Rice, were doing other things, and so we came together last spring and said we need to have a little more concentrated effort on this: (A) both for our own self nourishment and self awareness, we 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.

JD: You are always asked about Russia and Putin. I want to give you a platform more as a generalist to speak on a topic of your choice. You come from a unique position in that you do media stuff, you have an academic background, and you’ve spent time in government — what is one issue in international security/international relations, that you don’t think get’s covered enough? We only talked about a few things — the rise of China, terrorism, Russia — what’s something that’s underreported that you want to talk about?

MM: There is one very specific, narrow thing that I want to know more about, and I find it hard to find it, which is related to Syria: the moderate opposition. What is the moderate opposition in Syria? Who are they? What’s their relationship to al Nusra? What’s their relationship to ISIL? Sometimes there are 100 of them. Sometimes there’s a thousand of them. I would want to ask the same thing about the struggles in the Middle East more generally. The nuances of the different groups, I feel as a consumer is really underreported, and I’m on TV all the time where I have to use the phrase “moderate opposition,” and I don’t know what it means. The President gave a speech yesterday — we’re supporting “Syrian forces” he said, right? Who are they? What are they? How do they line up in terms of their ideology? I would say the same thing of about a half dozen countries in the Middle East. That’s just an empirical question. That’s not a theoretical question. We don’t have enough nuanced understanding of these groups.

In terms of the big, longer term story, that I hope will still turn out to be true is that basic trends in what I would call modernization theory are still holding. And there’s been more poverty reduction in the last thirty to forty years than there has been in the previous 1000 years.

Today people say, “well the American model has run out and nobody really talks about democracy anymore and there are these challengers.” I’m struck by the opposite, that even the Russians, they don’t say, “we have an alternative model.” They say, “we just have a Russian style democracy.” The Chinese don’t say “we want to be not-democratic.” They say, “just be patient with us, we need to go slow.” And the only radical alternative, the only real alternative, to a democratic system of government is al-Qaeda and ISIS and that kind of set of ideas, and I’m impressed with how little they are attracting people, not how many people are attracted to them.

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. I do think that because we are in this moment where these challenges are rising, we tend to think we’re on the decline, but in terms of this ideological component, I think it’s probably in a better place than most people think. And it needs more work. The thing that worries me is that we used to take it for granted, definitely the ideas about democracy.

JD: The idea of ideological superiority?

MM: Yeah. “The End of History,” that is, the idea that it’s inevitable to go this way. I still think the forces are pushing us that way, but it takes more attention and conscious attention to keep moving us in that direction.

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