Last week, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee began confirmation hearings for Michael McFaul, nominated as U.S. Ambassador to Russia.
McFaul’s statements on U.S.–Russia relations expose the Obama Administration’s failing international strategy as well as disconcerting flaws in the President’s policy toward Russia.
McFaul is the architect of the much-publicized U.S.–Russia “reset.” For the Obama Administration, “reset” is simply another chapter in the doctrine of “leading from behind,” which Colin Dueck, a foreign policy scholar and professor at George Mason University, called “a policy of accommodation.”
On a few occasions, McFaul is reputed to have helped President Obama avoid overly weak, conciliatory decisions (for example, McFaul reportedly convinced Obama not to sign a legally binding agreement not to point a NATO missile defense shield at Russia). However, McFaul’s overall support for the debatable idea that high-profile conversation can resolve major clashes of national interests, as highlighted by the hearing, raises concerns about the damage created by the Obama Russian policy.
The fact is that Obama’s style of “leading from behind” diplomacy has proven to be a failure—not just in Russia and Eurasia, but also in the Middle East. As Dueck writes, despite Obama’s efforts to placate them, Russia and China “continue to view the United States under Obama as a strategic threat to their stature and integrity.” Over-reliance on “soft” power has resulted in an image of weakness and indecisiveness that others are eager to exploit.
In his confirmation testimony, McFaul points out the achievements of the “reset”—negotiating a transit route for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, cancelling the Iran–Russia long range anti-aircraft S-300 missile trade deal, among a handful of others—and calls it a success. However, the claim that these agreements are a direct result of the new style of diplomatic engagement with Russia is a stretch. As David Kramer, president of Freedom House, writes, “[Russia] is cooperating with us on these strategic challenges [in Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan] because it is in their interest to do so, not because they’re doing us favors.”
Unlike Russia, the Obama Administration chose to compromise certain aspects of U.S. national interests to achieve what President Obama considers his priorities, such as “getting to zero” nuclear disarmament. The United States is ignoring human rights violations and democracy clamp-down in Russia to achieve agreement on other issues.
As Heritage’s Ariel Cohen has observed, the reset “requires huge payoffs for small results”—payoffs Obama is willing to make.
From a practical perspective, the policy is problematic because the “reset” has wasted much time on building relations with President Dmitry Medvedev. The recent announcement that Medvedev will yield to Vladimir Putin in the upcoming presidential elections confirms that the Obama Administration made a huge blunder by not recognizing that Putin holds the real political power in the country. McFaul’s efforts to elevate Medvedev may backfire when Putin returns to the Kremlin next May.
Michael McFaul may have a keen vision of U.S. international challenges and goals. He speaks at length about the importance of democracy and human rights promotion abroad, a key issue in U.S.–Russia relations. Unfortunately, the real record of the Obama–McFaul Russia policy reveals a strategy that is ineffective and in fact detrimental. Idealist talk would gain little traction in Russia, the country of cynical realists, especially as the geopolitical macho Putin will add the presidential seat to his “National Leader” mantle come next March.
The United States needs an Ambassador in Moscow who can clearly communicate American interests and beliefs—and is willing to apply effective pressure on the Kremlin when necessary.