Michael McFaul in Moscow in 2013. (Image courtesy to McFaul's website)
Carnegie Mellon University

An Interview with former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul

Walking on the campus of Stanford University, you might spot Michael McFaul in one of its Romanesque buildings or somewhere along one of its well-curated paths. At Stanford, he is a professor of political science and a senior fellow at both the Freeman Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution.

Living a relatively quiet life in Palo Alto with his family, McFaul is an ocean and a world away from Russia, where he had spent years of his life. Born and raised in Montana, McFaul first went to Russia when studying abroad in St. Petersburg State University (then called Leningrad State University).

Eventually his life became much more deeply intertwined with Russia as he and a close friend co-founded the Moscow Carnegie Center, a think-tank on public policy, where he played an advisor role when Russia was attempting a transition to democracy in the 1990s.

Because of his expertise on Russia, he was given an opportunity to join Barack Obama’s campaign as a foreign policy advisor, a role that carried over into the initial years of the Obama presidency. Eventually, he was appointed United States Ambassador to Russia.

mcfaul obama An Interview with former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul
Michael McFaul briefs President Obama in 2010. (Image courtesy to McFaul’s website)

During his time as a senior presidential advisor, McFaul was an architect of Obama’s “Russia Reset” policy — an attempt to increase engagement with Russia and improve U.S.-Russia relations to advance U.S. national security interests.

In 2012, McFaul arrived back in Russia as President Obama’s representative in the country, around the same time as massive protests erupted against Putin’s government. Perhaps because of McFaul’s outspokenness about promoting democracy in Russia, McFaul became an enemy of the Kremlin, along with Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Kremlin, through their state-controlled media outlets, accused the trio of “seeking to foment revolution against the Russian government” and accused the US of giving money to the opposition. 

Responding to this accusation, McFaul made it clear that not only was it not his assignment to do any of these things, but also noted that “Russians are perfectly capable of mobilizing without any outsiders [telling] them what to do.”

He also pointed out that despite any Kremlin accusations to the contrary, he is not anti-Russian. Instead, he describes himself as “anti-hypocrisy [and] anti-oppression.”

“President Putin has done a lot of [hypocritical and oppressive actions] against his own people, and I would describe that as anti-Russian,” McFaul said.

Far from being against Russia, McFaul said what he loves about Russia is the people — the “intense intellectual and emotional relationships that [he] was able to develop with Russians,” he said. 

He left the ambassador post in 2014 to move back to California, but he never stopped being engaged with current events, both online and in media appearances. At some point after he left Russia, he was banned by the Kremlin from entering the country at all. 

McFaul was back in the news last year as it surfaced that at the Helsinki summit, Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin had discussed making a quid pro quo deal between the two governments: having the US interview 12 Russians under indictment in the U.S. for election interference-related activities in exchange for allowing Russia to question 11 US citizens, including McFaul.

The fact that President Trump called the offer “incredible” and that he did not reject it immediately was widely panned as another example of Trump being unusually soft on Putin.  

Given McFaul’s previous work on promoting democracy abroad, he has plenty to say about election security and Russian interference here at home. For him, the Mueller report is “sober[ing]” to read, as it describes just how much the Russians violated US sovereignty — even talking of how they wanted to manipulate the vote on election day.

Although the contents of the Mueller report have been cherry-picked by members of both parties to fit their desired narratives, McFaul emphasizes that Russian interference like in 2016 is an attack on all Americans, not just members of the party the Russian government happens to be working against in a particular election cycle.  

Against this backdrop, McFaul co-authored a Stanford study on election security with a wide-ranging list of policy initiatives that would help defend ourselves against foreign interference.

These include shoring up cybersecurity rules to protect voter information, increased protection for voting machines, backing up all electronic vote records on paper ballots, and greater transparency for the sources of spending behind online political ads.

He cited two pieces of legislation currently pending in Congress — the Honest Acts Act, which codifies transparency for spending behind online political ads, and the Deter Act, which requires the federal government to impose new sanctions on Russia should they interfere in our elections again — as steps in the right direction, but laments that they are both being held up by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. 

An active commenter on Twitter, McFaul frequently criticizes the president online, especially in regards to Trump’s often erratic behavior and comments in the area of foreign policy, using sarcastic and biting — albeit still fairly diplomatic — words to match what he sees as the absurdity of the political situation the nation finds itself in.

Recently, McFaul has been criticizing everything from Trump’s attempt to buy Greenland (and his insulting the Danish prime minister in the process), to Trump’s escalation of a trade war with China, to Trump’s musings that Russia should be readmitted to the G7 despite the Russian occupation of Crimea and the lack of expressed desire from Putin to join the group. 

Underlying all of that, McFaul believes that many of Trump’s policies and his fiery rhetoric, in McFaul’s words, “undermine American democracy.” McFaul is also critical of Trump’s frequent lying, calling the president’s relationship with the truth “abusive” and pointing out that this type of lying is not normal for a president at all. 

More generally, McFaul acutely sees the need for more fact-based arguments in political discourse today. He emphasizes that rather than just “arguing [one’s] opinion louder,” one should “[marshal] evidence” as a way to win debates.

As a professor and researcher and as someone who has been the target of government-sponsored smear campaigns, McFaul especially understands just how critical facts and having a fact-based discourse are.

“It’s incumbent upon all people to believe in the facts and to keep pushing it,” he said. “You can’t constrain free speech, but you can speak more loudly about what is factual.”

According to Mcfaul, the number one skill he hopes his students acquire is the ability to think critically using facts and data. To be able to understand the difference between fact and opinion, and between evidence and hypotheses as well as the ability to appropriately question the validity of other people’s claims.   

Yet, despite a political environment many see as dreary and hopeless, McFaul is heartened by the institutional pushback for what is right and the high levels of citizen engagement in politics today, citing the massive protests and mobilization against some of Trump’s policies, the uptick in readership among major newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the victories for Democrats in the 2018 midterms.

“I couldn’t be more optimistic about the long-term resilience of these [democratic] institutions in the face of these challenges [presented by this political environment],” he said. 

To citizens who are dissatisfied with or concerned about the current political moment, McFaul tells them to speak up for their values and participate in politics by staying engaged and voting.

He wants people, especially young people who traditionally participate less in politics, to understand that there is “no excuse” to “sit on the sidelines [and] complain about what these. . .allegedly stupid or idiotic people are doing” if they aren’t willing to make the effort to participate in the process.

“I hope that from crisis and tragedy comes engagement,” he said. “Don’t just complain about [an issue], do something about it! Don’t just lament about the current state of affairs, vote!” 

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