On the morning of April 11, President Donald Trump tweeted on U.S.-Russia relations, saying: “Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War.”
A few hours later in Robertson Hall, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul responded to the President’s sentiments.
“The Cold War for me was a fundamental moment in my life,” McFaul said. “Growing up as a young kid in Montana, I was scared to death … that the Cold War was going to become a Hot War.”
He explained that despite the fact that he has now grown to admire former President Ronald Reagan’s policies, at the time McFaul was “so scared that [he] took [his] first trip abroad as a young sophomore at Stanford University to Leningrad USSR.”
McFaul said his time spent abroad completely changed his perspective on future U.S. relations with Russia.
“It was the reason why I got interested in what I am doing today, and therefore, for me, this was a glorious moment,” he said of his time in the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
McFaul said that at that time, he felt like he was witnessing a turning point in history unfurling before his eyes. Today, he is dismayed by the current attitudes towards the situation between Russia and the United States, as echoed in President Trump’s tweet this morning.
“So that’s why this conversation about the new Cold War … depresses me,” McFaul said in reference to President Trump.
Having dedicated five years of service to the Obama administration, first as special assistant to the president and senior director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council, and later as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia in 2012, McFaul adds a unique voice of authority, scholarship, and expertise to current dialogues about Russia. His book, “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia,” which will be released on May 8, looks at both his personal experiences working in Russia as well as the historical roots of the political state today.
“It’s part autobiographical, and it’s part analytic, and part historical,” McFaul said about the book. While many of the deeply political and complex topics that the book extensively explores were touched upon in his talk, McFaul made clear that his main focus was to proffer a concise yet strong explanation for how Russia has come to be the country it is today and how its relationship with the United States has evolved.
“I deliberately use that phrase ‘Hot Peace’ to echo the past … because there are some similarities, and there are some important differences,” he said. “But what I want to just convey to you is that it’s pretty bad, and most certainly some elements of our moment today are worse than some of the more cooperative periods during the Cold War.”
“I just want to explain what happened,” he added.
McFaul’s involvement with the Obama administration’s 2009 “Russian Reset,” which attempted to ameliorate U.S.–Russia relations through cooperative efforts, grants him a special vantage point to discuss what happened. While the reset did have significant positive results, like bringing down the number of nuclear weapons allowed in the world by 30 percent, the period of cooperation was ephemeral.
According to McFaul, the demise of this progress can be attributed to two pivotal events: In 2011, Vladimir Putin announced to then-president Dmitry Medvedev his intention to run for president, and mass demonstrations occurred in Russia that same year. There have also been several factors at play since the Cold War, such as shifts in power, Russian domestic politics, and strict U.S. policies, among others.
Following the talk, McFaul took questions from the packed hall. While some students asked for elaborations on matters McFaul previously mentioned in his talk, many audience members used this portion of the event as an opportunity to ask about aspects of the Russian-U.S. narrative in the news today, such as allegations of Russian interference in U.S. presidential elections and the recent expulsion of diplomats following the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.
Sakari Ishetiar GS said he was surprised at the tone McFaul used during the talk, prompting him to reconsider past historical assumptions and to ask more questions.
“There’s no criticism to it, but the level of optimism, especially regarding the Medvedev years, I did not expect to hear that from a former U.S. diplomat,” he said.
He noted that while McFaul supported most of his claims dealing with Medvedev with first-level evidence, there was still some deeper proof left to be desired.
Ishetiar was primarily responding to an answer McFaul gave to an earlier question about Medvedev.
“I believe — and this is going to be controversial in the book and controversial when I say it now,” said McFaul, “I do think that Medvedev thought of himself as a modernizer, thought of himself as a liberal.”
“That’s what he wanted to do, he just failed to achieve those objectives,” he added.
Yet Ishetiar recognizes the uniqueness of the relationships McFaul has with these political figures and sees how the general audience member might perceive the situation differently than the former ambassador would.
“I think we have to give some credit to Ambassador McFaul, who is the one out of us who actually has a relationship with former President Medvedev and some of the other figures involved here,” Ishetiar said. “I’m not saying he’s wrong, I’m saying he might have access to information that we don’t have, and maybe some of that is even in the book!”
Ishetiar is a first-year MPA at the Wilson School studying international relations, with specialties in Russia, Syria, and communication.
The event, titled “Up to the Minute: Russia,” took place at 4:30 p.m. in Robertson Hall.