The relationship between the United States and Russia is both important and complex and requires a flexible expert to help it to progress.
Following the conclusion of the Cold War many observers felt that the United States and Russia would finally be able to overcome their differences and change from competitors into partners. However, as the Russian economy collapsed in the 1990’s and with the cession of power by Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin and a hawkish Bush Administration, relations have significantly cooled. While it is the case that the United States and Russia are no longer adversaries, it is difficult to see them as partners. This relationship remains important because Russia and the U.S. still maintain the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, and Russia continues to have a significant presence in both Europe and Asia. The United States, for its part, has made conciliatory gestures towards Russia, such as the unilateral abandonment of the ballistic missile defense system based in Eastern Europe, and the ill-fated Clinton ‘reset button’ diplomatic mission. As this relationship continues to develop, President Obama has appointed a new Ambassador to Russia, who is not a typical diplomat. We are optimistic that if the Senate confirms him, Michael McFaul may be able help change the Russian-American relationship from tense to productive.
Michael McFaul is not a product of campaign fundraising or of the diplomatic corps, as are many ambassadors, but instead is a highly trained academic. Of course, we recognize that not all academics are well suited to the statesman role, in part because the administrative skills required to lead an embassy are not necessary learned as a scholar. Nevertheless, it appears that Dr. McFaul may indeed be that rare combination of expert and administrator.
Dr. McFaul has a broad background with a wide ranging number of associations . Academically he has worked with the Center for International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) both as pre-doctoral and post-doctoral fellow as well as at Moscow State University and Stanford, where he currently is a member of the faculty. Furthermore, he has worked as a Foreign Policy advisor for Pres. Obama since his campaign, while at the same time working with the conservative-leaning Hoover Institute, as well as the Freedom House. The sheer number of Dr. McFaul’s publications is staggering for any scholar and stunningly so for one so regularly engaged with the political process.
It might seem that as academics we are merely being taken in by one of our own, but that is not the case. While in some cases it is advisable to have a political appointee in a position of power, such is rarely the case when political relationships are unclear and divisive. In those cases, a regional and political expert may be a much better choice, such as Zalmay Khalilzad (a University of Chicago Alumnus). Dr. McFaul has shown that he is well versed in the issues that Russia faces, and is knowledgeable about the challenges of the international system. Furthermore, Dr. McFaul’s background working with wide ranging groups of all ideological stripes shows that he is probably not an ideologue, dedicated to a single interpretation of the world system. While such dedication is a good way to make a career as an academic, it may not be advantageous as a bureaucrat.
Ultimately, the American-Russian relationship is still evolving. At times, Russia appears prepared to accept the status of a non-great power. Nevertheless, it was only three years ago that Russia and Georgia fought a destructive war. Furthermore, Russia continues to seemingly pursue traditional balancing strategies, such as the establishment of a customs union which will compete with the E.U., and the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, which seems to counter-balance the strength of N.A.T.O. Hopefully, someone who has thought long and hard on the issues facing these two nations can help them to arrive at a destination which is beneficial to both sides.