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From Cold War to Hot Peace

The last presidential election was 17 months ago but we are still picking out the shards. Last May, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump”. Like a hunter, Mueller has since bagged a passel of guilty pleas and indictments.

Caught in his net are 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities. They stand accused of “violating US criminal laws in order to interfere with US elections and political processes”. John le Carré never spun a tale as wild as this. Once again, Russia sits atop America’s political front burner.

Michael McFaul is a Russia specialist by way of Stanford, and a primary architect of Barack Obama’s Russia reset. During the 2008 presidential campaign, McFaul advised candidate Obama, and then joined his national security council staff. Between 2012 and 2014, McFaul served as US ambassador to Russia. An academic, his latest book, From Cold War to Hot Peace, doubles as a personal memoir and an overview of US-Russian relations over the past four decades.

The book strives to be a Baedeker on how we arrived at our present inflection point. McFaul succeeds, shedding needed light on the most geopolitically competitive relationship of the last 75 years and attempting to explain the “why and what” of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

From Cold War to Hot Peace begins with the promise that was Mikhail Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika, but sadly ends with an epilogue that has both Trump and Putin in its header. Suffice to say, it’s a dark and downward trajectory.

A Montanan, McFaul is an idealist and an unabashed fan of America, its promise and its culture. In his own words he is a “true believer”, one committed to the proposition that liberal democracy could be transplanted and then take root in Russia’s cold soil. To put things in context, however, much time lapsed and much blood was spilled between Runnymede and Magna Carta and the emergence of Queen-in-Parliament and parliamentary democracy. Centuries, to be exact.

As a visiting scholar in the early 1990s, McFaul worked on bringing democratic government and finance to Russia in conjunction with the National Democratic Institute, a Democratic party affiliate. In Moscow, McFaul witnessed democratic anti-government demonstrations, and his sympathies clearly rested with the protesters. McFaul asks: “Was I an activist or an academic?” He confesses that he remains haunted by this “dilemma”.

Fortunately for him, he was able to fuse those two impulses into a career, one that brought him to the Obama White House. Unfortunately for the US, things did not work out as McFaul or his boss had hoped or planned.

As McFaul describes things, during George W Bush’s presidency the two countries’ commitment to engagement and cooperation “zigged and zagged”. It ultimately “died” in the Caucasus with the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Against this fraught backdrop, McFaul went to work at the national security council with an eye toward salvaging bilateral US-Russia relations. Like much else in life, good intentions were not necessarily enough.

For the Obama administration, the hoped-for reset meant a realistic re-engagement with Russia, preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and renewing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start) that was scheduled to lapse in 2009. Still, as McFaul saw things, improved diplomatic ties were not an end in themselves. Rather, the success of the reset could be measured by tangible results.

In McFaul’s telling, the reset worked until it no longer did. While the Obama administration succeeded in renewing Start, by the spring of 2012 the reset was no more. On 7 May 2012, Putin again became Russia’s president. McFaul candidly admits: “I had believed in the possibility of Russian democracy and integration with west … now we were done. Our efforts had failed.”

Indeed, they had.

From Cold War to Hot Peace flows well and discusses the major foreign policy events of the Obama presidency. Yet it also gets over its skis. To blunt criticism that Obama’s foreign policy was insufficiently idealistic and instead was an admixture of George HW Bush-like realism, McFaul mistakenly claims that Bush 41’s National Security Presidential Directive 58 naively “defined ending tyranny in the world as the ultimate goal”. Actually, those words belonged to Bush fils, a policy enunciated amid the ashes of Iraq.

Beyond that, on the first Bush’s watch America and democracy were ascendant. George HW Bush saw the Berlin Wall fall, and left a foreign policy legacy surpassed by few presidents.

McFaul is on firmer ground when he points to the rise of blood-and-soil nationalism as a rival to the liberal postwar order, and to the similarities between Trump and Putin. Cries of “fake news” and “Lügenpresse” (lying press) are the unmistaken hallmarks of authoritarian regimes. McFaul rightly expresses concern over America’s diminished standing and the vitality of democracy on the world stage.

On the one hand, McFaul is mindful that unmet economic expectations may have discredited liberal democracy in Russia. Yet he doesn’t draw the necessary connection between the failure of the establishment, the Great Recession and Trump’s rise. In the end, Putin, Trump, the UK’s Nigel Farage, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and France’s Marine Le Pen are cut from similar cloth.

While McFaul is confident in the strength of democracy in the US, it is worth remembering that even here democracy is only as strong as the trust it elicits from the governed. Let’s hope McFaul is right.

Lloyd Green