The contrast between Russia’s democratic promise and current deterioration will be all too evident to the National Security Council’s Michael McFaul (left), who, having worked on democracy assistance there in the 1990s, more recently emerged as an architect of the re-set of US-Russian relations.
President Barack Obama’s decision to nominate McFaul, his principal Russia counsel, as the next ambassador to Moscow, is “an inspired choice,” writes Will Inboden, especially given his longstanding commitment to democracy and human rights promotion:
That last quality will be of particular importance, as Russia’s grim and deteriorating record on democracy will be in the international spotlight with its presidential transition in 2012. “Transition” is a more accurate word than “election,” as the question of Russia’s next president will not be settled by Russian voters at the ballot box but rather by the opaque intra-Kremlin maneuverings between current President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The re-set reflects McFaul’s conviction that it is possible to pursue a twin-track strategy by engaging Russia on vital strategic interests, while reserving the right to advocate democratic reform and express support for beleaguered human rights and civil society groups. The history of the later stages of the Cold War, notably the dual-track diplomacy practiced by U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, would seem to bear him out.
But New York University’s Stephen F. Cohen insists that promoting democracy should not be part of the equation.
“Revising the reset to include so-called democracy-promotion policies—intrusions into Russia’s domestic politics that offended the Kremlin for years while doing more to undermine democratic prospects than to promote them—has only rearmed US opponents of the reset and further demoralized its Moscow supporters,” he writes.
To the contrary, says Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. McFaul personifies the Obama administration’s determination to blend idealism and realism, he suggests, rejecting crude notions of a zero-sum trade-off between principles and pragmatism.
Some Russian democracy advocates criticized McFaul for co-chairing a civil society working group with Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, yet he speaks candidly on civil society and democracy in Russia, including attacks on journalists, prison conditions and the fate of former Yukos executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
“He speaks with as much candor as anyone in the current or previous U.S. administrations,” writes Trenin. “This is the hallmark of the scholar-turned-official — to be intellectually incisive and precise and to stay focused on what is practically achievable“:
Before he joined the Obama administration, some took McFaul for an ideologue; after he had spent 2 1/2 years at the National Security Council, he sometimes passes for a realpolitiker. In fact, he is neither. McFaul is a person who is clearly wedded to his values, norms and principles, but who is equally mindful of the real world out there and of U.S. national interests in that world.