President Obama recently nominated Michael McFaul B.A., M.A. ’86, political science professor and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) to the United States ambassadorship to Russia.
McFaul, who has served as special assistant to the president on national security affairs, director of Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law and senior director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Security Council, is an academic expert on the transition to democracy in developing countries–including in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union–and has written over 20 books on the subject.
After completing a dual bachelor’s degree in international relations and Slavic languages as well as a master’s in Slavic and East European studies at Stanford, McFaul received a Rhodes Scholarship for his Oxford doctorate in international relations. He has been studying U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and subsequently Russia ever since.
“This is one of the most important ambassadorial appointments in the entire realm of U.S. foreign relations,” said political science professor Larry Diamond B.A., M.A. ’73, Ph.D. ‘80 and a colleague of McFaul’s. “I think it’s a great tribute to him–his skill, his knowledge, his performance at the National Security Council–and the confidence that President Obama has in him that he has been tapped for this very important position.”
McFaul declined to comment until his ambassadorship is confirmed.
McFaul has been affiliated with the Obama administration since the 2008 presidential campaign when he advised the then-candidate through the tension surrounding Russia’s invasion of Georgia that summer.
“He is undoubtedly one of the best prepared individuals to be ambassador to Russia, certainly in the post-Cold War history of America’s relations with Russia and probably for several decades,” Diamond said. “He has been studying post-Communist Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union…I don’t think anyone would dispute the fact that he’s probably one of the top-three or four academic specialists on Russia in the United States.”
McFaul is also widely seen as the architect of the Obama administration’s “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations after a period of strain.
“In terms of his background for the appointment, he is extremely well prepared,” said Stephen Krasner, professor of international relations and a senior fellow at FSI. “He spent a lot of time in Russia in the 1990s when Russia was transitioning to democracy, and he has now spent more than two and a half years in Washington with the Obama administration working on Russian issues. So he has both government experience in Washington and academic experience.”
However, critics have questions about whether McFaul’s “reset” precedent is a solid foundation for his ambassadorial duties.
“Any solution which would end the continuing imbalance and tug of war within Europe and would bring the military and political potential of Russia within NATO would impact greatly on the entire global security situation,” wrote Gilbert Doctorow, a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European Studies, in an email to The Daily. “And none of this potential has been tapped under ‘reset,’ for which Dr. McFaul is generally given paternity rights.”
According to Diamond, McFaul’s key role will involve balancing two main concerns.
“On the one hand, [there is] the need for the United States to have an effective, pragmatic set of relations with Russia that can continue to bring it into the international community and have it be a responsible player on global security issues, whether those be the Middle East or arms control or wherever,” Diamond said. “And on the other hand, he will be playing a role in trying to advance American values and principles and in trying to give support and encouragement to a variety of different political and social forces in Russia that are trying to extend constitutional rights, affirm political pluralism and create a more open society.”