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Michael McFaul on Russia

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Michael McFaul on Russia"

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Jason Zengerle links to a worthwhile realist take on Russia from Stepehn Boykewich that, inter alia, engages in the sort of more-sympathetic-than-you-usually-hear-in-the-American-media reading of Vladimir Putin’s rise to power that you’ll often hear from, for example, me. Zengerle says:

Whether Boykewich is right, I can’t really say. But I think it’s an important view to consider–especially in light of Obama’s recent appointment of Stanford’s Michael McFaul (who’s something of a hardliner) as the National Security Council’s top Russia hand.

Someone was asking me to characterize McFaul’s views a couple of weeks ago and likewise was coming from the default assumption that he’s a hardliner of whom I would disapprove. I think I said in response that that’s definitely his reputation, but I’m not sure it’s really correct. Or, rather, I think it tends to illustrate some of the artificiality of some of the foreign policy line-drawing. McFaul has a strong scholarly and policy interest in democracy promotion. And you never see him cosigning realist manifestos. And you sometimes do see him cosigning these kind of manifestos. That said, with regard to both democracy promotion in general and Russia in particular, McFaul’s a bona fide expert who really knows what he’s talking about, not a bullshitter who thinks it’s good to “be tough” or whatever. Consequently, he has, I think, a very measured and reasonable take on these things. I’d be hard-pressed to disagree with anything in his article on “Should Democracy Be Promoted or Demoted?” co-written with Francis Fukuyama.

Or take his long fall 2005 article with James Goldgeier on “What To Do About Russia”. I would say it takes more of a hostile tone about Putin than I would, but that the difference of opinion is really a disagreement about how we should understand Boris Yeltsin and the merry band of thieves who preceded Putin, rather than a disagreement about Putin. And the policy prescriptions are, again, measured and sensible. Indeed, the main policy argument is that we need to engage with the Russian government on an essentially realpolitik basis regarding nuclear proliferation and counterterrorism issues. They also argue that Russian conduct in Chechnya is harming U.S. interests in the broader fight against al-Qaeda, which I think is correct, but which relies on a basically realist assessment of the al-Qaeda issue. On the democracy front, they call for “[d]irect personal engagement with Russian democratic activists” in which we emulate Ronald Reagan who “accorded [] human rights activists the same respect that he showed for his Soviet counterpart” and for about $100 million in FREEDOM Support Act funds for Russian civil society programs.

On the whole, this is a modest, realistic, and somewhat realist agenda. And I think that reflects the fact that people who understand what they’re talking about understand that the world isn’t crowded with extremely sharp trade-offs between democratic and humanitarian ideals and American interests. Real hard-liners are people who just don’t want to cooperate with Russia at all, and who use the brutality of the Putin regime as a pretext for a highly confrontational security agenda on nuclear weapons, missile defense, and all the rest. But the people who want those things wanted them when Yeltsin was in power and would want them under any conceivable Russian regime, just as any Russian government would oppose them. If you genuinely interested in Russian democracy, you don’t crowd the US-Russian bilateral relationship with counterproductive hostility. And if you’re genuinely interested in U.S.-Russian cooperation, I think you do need to want us to try to find ways to exercise influence at the margin to push Russia back on a democratic path—cooperation could be deeper and easier with a more liberal, more democratic government in Moscow.

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