A Nice Idea While It Lasted

With the administration's Russia engagment policy in shambles, Amb. Mike McFaul heads for home.

Earlier this week, Mike McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, announced on his blog that he would be stepping down after the Sochi Olympics, barely two years after taking the post.

Though for the first few months after his arrival he and his family were harassed by journalists and activists apparently associated with the regime of President Vladimir Putin, McFaul was not run out of town; three of his friends confirmed that he had promised his teenaged sons that they could return home, and commuting between Moscow and California proved impossible. Nevertheless, McFaul did not have the tenure in Russia either he or the White House had hoped for. Did he fail? Did administration policy towards Russia fail?

I have known Mike, as I will call him hereafter, both as a scholar of democracy promotion and as an official in the White House, where he served before leaving for Spaso House. In Washington, he was a leading figure in an informal democracy caucus pushing back against State Department traditionalists and hard-headed realists; he was proud to have helped insert strong -- well, not weak -- language on democracy in President Barack Obama's 2009 Cairo speech. At the same time, he was both an advocate and a chief author of the administration's "reset" policy towards Russia, which required finding shared interests with an authoritarian state.

Mike, in effect, incorporated the twin poles of the Obama administration's collective worldview -- the transformative vision of American power as a force for human rights and democracy and the pragmatic recognition that globalized problems required the U.S. to work effectively with powerful autocratic states. That sounds like a contradiction. Mike emphatically insisted that it was not. The administration, he said, could pursue, and mostly was pursuing, a "dual-track" policy in which common interests could be explored without sidelining American values. He had lifted this phrase from the memoirs of former Secretary of State George Shultz, who described how President Ronald Reagan had sought arms control agreements with Russia while still denouncing the Communist regime as "the evil empire."

The paradigm of the dual track constituted a critique both of classic realism and of President George W. Bush's reckless and unsustainable insistence that American global policy would be driven by the goal of "ending tyranny in the world." Mike's colleague, Samantha Power, liked to say that "we are all consequentialists now" -- that is, wised-up practitioners prepared to hold their tongue in order to advance national interests. Mike was of two minds on consequentialism: He believed that much of the gladiatorial rhetoric which pundits and human-rights activists clamored for was mere vanity, while he also argued that sometimes American policymakers had to publicly stand up for American values, even if doing so accomplished nothing.

Mike's tenure in Moscow was thus a working experiment in the dual track and the consequentialist balance. The ambassadorship almost always went to a career foreign-service officer -- very few bundlers lobbied for a post in Moscow -- but Mike was a leading Russia scholar. As one former administration official involved with the region said to me, "No one really cared about the difference between career and political appointee with someone like Mike." For him, it was the fulfillment of a dream.

Mike had a disastrous start in his new job. On his first week, he met at the U.S. Embassy with leading activists; the arrival was filmed by pro-regime journalists who claimed that the dissidents were "receiving instructions" from an ambassador sent to promote regime change. (The meeting had been scheduled to occur before the new ambassador's arrival.) From there on, it was open season on Ambassador McFaul, leading to several ugly confrontations. Mike continued to provoke the regime by using Twitter and giving occasional provocative interviews. Owing in part to his own un-diplomatic style, he had a rockier time in Russia than a professional foreign service officer might have had.

But Mike's diplomatic style had no real effect on U.S.-Russia relations. When he was dispatched to Moscow in early 2012, Russia policy offered the single greatest vindication of the administration's stated goal of "engaging" autocratic regimes. With President Dmitry Medvedev as a willing interlocutor, Obama succeeded in signing the New START arms control agreement, gaining Russian acquiescence on tough sanctions against Iran, and getting Moscow to allow equipment bound for Afghanistan to transit through Russian territory. But the Medvedev presidency was only a brief interval in Vladimir Putin's drive to consolidate power and to stake a new claim to Russian greatness. The achievements of the "reset" were real, but they could not last, since Putin did not share Medvedev's drive to make Russia a "modern" state which could compete as an equal in the global economy. Putin engineered his return to power less than two months after Mike reached Moscow. It was not propitious timing for dual track.

What, then, should the Obama administration, and its man in Moscow, have done? My colleague Michael Weiss writes that the reset "codified the lie" that the United States and Russia could work together, that Mike's American-style enthusiasm helped propagate that fiction, and that his finest moment was when he told the truth "about what it was like to live under the thuggishness and tedium of Putinism" by yelling at his own persecutors. In short, Ambassador McFaul should have behaved like Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he was Richard Nixon's ambassador to the UN, telling off the petty tyrants and standing up for American principles.

That would have been satisfying, at least for those of us watching from the safety of home. It also would have accomplished nothing; but, as Mike himself admitted, consequentialism has its limits. Putin had, in effect, guaranteed the failure of the reset, and thus of the dual track. Why not admit it -- even if it gets you run out of the country? Isn't it pusillanimous to keep smiling in the face of such naked ugliness?

It's a common complaint among neoconservatives, as well as moralistic pundits, that Obama's engagement policy, whether with Russia or Iran, codifies a lie about brutal regimes. (Just read any issue of The Weekly Standard.) Proponents of the dual track  would answer that you can tell the truth and do business at the same time. It's a pretty straightforward argument when it comes to say, China or Saudi Arabia, where diplomats routinely soft-pedal the truth in order to transact indispensable business. But is that true of Russia? What about Egypt, where a budding military dictatorship now cynically exploits anti-American feeling? Is it time to stop smiling there?

There's a reason why pundits don't make foreign policy. Diplomacy is a perpetual balancing act, and balancing is morally and aesthetically unappealing. It's not satisfying to confront a bully with firm admonitions that we return to the negotiating table. Obama's engagement policy runs the risk of appearing both naïve and cynical about adversaries, as Weiss insists it is. I don't think either Mike McFaul or White House policymakers were naïve about Vladimir Putin, as George W. Bush was when he said that he had looked into his eyes and seen a partner. They tried to find areas of overlapping interests; they'll continue trying. And Putin will continue frustrating them. There is no good solution to the zero-sum leader who believes that you must lose in order that he succeed -- especially when he is sitting on an ocean of oil and gas.

Putinism is bound to fail; it is, as widely noted, already failing. Twenty-five years ago the United States had the good sense to help the Soviet empire fall as gently as possible. Some time, perhaps not long from now, the United States will have to engage in the same act of deft diplomacy. It won't be satisfying; it will be necessary.



Ukraine's False Choice

There are no winners in the geopolitical tug of war between Russia and the West.

The recent headlines about the alleged leaked recording of U.S. officials discussing the crisis in Ukraine are all focused on an expletive spoken in a moment of pique about the European Union. The press seems to have faithfully done the bidding of the most likely suspects behind the leak -- one assumes either the Russians themselves or pro-Russian elements in the Ukrainian government -- and focused on the alleged U.S. dissatisfaction with a supposedly weak-kneed E.U.

That such tensions exist even between the closest allies during a difficult crisis is hardly shocking. What is surprising about the conversation, if it did in fact occur, is that the United States still believes it can unilaterally create sustainable political outcomes in Ukraine while keeping Moscow in the dark. Lost in the reporting is that most of the alleged conversation is about cobbling together a political compromise and sealing the deal -- before Russia has time to react.

Ironically, the E.U. seems to have already responded to the implicit call to action in the period since the recording was allegedly made and its publication today. On Monday, Feb. 3, the E.U. announced that it is considering a new financial aid package for Ukraine. Given Moscow's recent suspension of its own $15 billion unilateral aid package and distraction with the Sochi Olympics, Brussels has apparently decided to strike back against Russia's previous moves to block Ukraine's E.U. Association Agreement. (Details about the E.U. package are apparently still being finalized.) While a decision to extend assistance to Kiev, if taken, might answer the call to "do something" about Ukraine, in the long term it would almost certainly backfire -- as the plans discussed in the leaked alleged call between U.S. officials already have.

It is precisely this 20-year tradition of geopolitical one-upmanship that led to this crisis in the first place, by allowing a parasitic political-economic system to bargain its way out of reform, and by sharpening the existing divisions in the Ukrainian polity. The fact that neither the West nor Russia seem ready to accept is that one side acting alone cannot resolve the crisis. In fact, unilateral action is likely to make it worse. The dysfunctional, deeply corrupt political-economic system that caused so many Ukrainians to take to the streets depends for its very survival on the absence of Russian-Western substantive exchanges about Ukraine policy. All Ukrainian governments since independence have been able to defer the structural reforms needed to change that system thanks to mastering the art of triangulating between partners who are chronically incapable of mutual dialogue. Kiev's success in playing the two sides off of one another in order to reap ever-greater geopolitical rents is a direct function of both sides acting alone, and keeping each other in the dark.

The pattern of unilateral action and lack of dialogue also sharpens the regional divisions that are currently threatening to tear asunder the delicate fabric of the Ukrainian polity. Both Russia and the West have themselves to blame for the highly divisive, widespread perception in Ukraine that the country faces a binary choice between Europe and Russia. While many in western Ukraine -- and a large number of those still protesting on the Maidan -- might support a move toward Europe that entailed cutting ties with Russia, clear majorities in the economically-dominant south and east of the country do not. The nine regions there account for 21.5 million of the country's 45 million population; whereas about 7 million live in the seven western regions.

So when José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said on Monday that "most Ukrainians ... want to come closer to the European Union," one has to wonder where he gets his polling data. A USAID-sponsored survey released in December 2013 shows the percentage of Ukrainians who say that the country should have closer economic relations with Russia statistically equivalent to the number who say it should have closer economic relations with Europe. Thus, it's simply not politically sustainable for any Ukrainian government to decisively move toward Europe in such a way that threatens ties with Russia.

By the same token, a definitive alignment with Russia and a severing of ties with Europe is also not a viable option. After all, even President Viktor Yanukovych to this day proclaims his intention to pursue Ukraine's "European integration," if on different terms than the E.U. is currently offering.

In short, either side acting alone can succeed in scoring points in the geopolitical tit-for-tat, but in so doing they deepen the structural drivers of Ukraine's troubles --bankrupt governance and a divided polity. The only international mediation effort likely to foster a viable long-term solution to Ukraine's crisis is one that both Russia and the West can support. Such common ground seems like a pipedream given current tensions. But the alternative is perpetual crisis. And in the short term, even greater mutual transparency would be a major improvement over the status quo, under which, as we have learned, signals intelligence is apparently the only way to understand what the other side is planning.

The pattern of Russia and the West refusing to talk about, let alone cooperate on policy in their so-called "common neighborhood" has deep historical roots. In the eyes of many in Moscow, the United States and the European Union have long been engaged in a strategy of neocontainment in Ukraine, striving to minimize any and all Russian influence. They see no need to talk openly to Western counterparts whose mission, they believe, is to undermine their interests.

On the other side, Western decision-makers' resistance to dialogue is driven by an assumption that any dialogue with Moscow about Russia's neighbors would inevitably involve imposition of outcomes against their will. It evokes a lingering revulsion at the Yalta Agreement, the deal that gave the Soviet Union free rein to impose Communist regimes on the states of Central and Eastern Europe. These historical associations explain U.S. and E.U. officials' constant repetition of support for the principle that the former Soviet countries should freely determine their own foreign-policy orientation. This is certainly a fine principle, but it has become a trope for reasons besides its inherent virtue. As a result, both Russian and Western decision-makers view each other's actions in Ukraine as inherently hostile to their respective interests. That might explain the current state of non-dialogue. But it's no excuse.

Indeed, simultaneous to their studious avoidance of engagement on Ukraine's crisis, Russia and the West have been in regular, intensive dialogue on the crisis in Syria. Despite serious disagreements, their diplomacy culminated in a first-ever face-to-face meeting between the Syrian parties after three years of horrific civil war. Of course, getting to that point was not easy, and the results of the so-called Geneva II process leave much to be desired. But Russia and the West demonstrated an ability to work together constructively regarding Syria. They should begin the process of trying to do the same about Ukraine, a crisis that is far less severe but far closer to home.

Reaching a consensus might prove impossible due to accumulated mistrust and resistance from hardliners on both sides, but if common ground can be found on Syria, surely Russia and the West can at least have a substantive dialogue about the crisis brewing in the heart of Europe. The time to start talking is now.