Ambassador McFaul

One of the main goals of The Monkey Cage, the blog for which I write, is to facilitate the use of political science research in our understanding of contemporary political developments and to inform matters of policy debate. One way to do this is to try to make political science research accessible to policy makers. That’s a big part of the function of the blog. However, there is a more direct route to the same end, which is when political scientists actually become the policy makers (continuing, we hope, to draw on what they’ve learned from political science research!).

Thus it is with great pleasure that I note the plans of President Obama to nominate of Stanford Professor Michael McFaul as Ambassador to Russia. This position has usually been held by career diplomats in recent years (with Ambassador Robert Strauss, a George H.W. Bush appointee, the one notable acception.) While most of the media has focused on McFaul as an alternative to a career diplomat as representing the desire of Obama to have one of his inner circle on the ground in Moscow, he is also one of our own!

Here are a few reactions from around the web:

Dmtrii Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow writes:

As the probable next Tenant No. 1 at Spaso House, McFaul will have a difficult task. In what direction will U.S.-Russian relations move now that the reset has been achieved? Changing the very nature of the strategic relationship between the nuclear superpowers by cooperating on missile defense will be an arduous endeavor. Yet this is precisely what is needed — to move away from the still dominant adversarial strategic relationship and toward a cooperative one where neither party will regard the other as a potential adversary. The United States, the obviously stronger partner in the relationship, could be more accommodating, and this would serve its own best interests.

Over at Foreign Policy, Will Inboden notes:

This is an inspired choice. McFaul will bring a compelling set of attributes to the position, including a deep knowledge of Russia, a close relationship with President Obama, experience in high levels of government and national security policy, and a longstanding commitment to democracy and human rights promotion. That last quality will be of particular importance, as Russia’s grim and deteriorating record on democracy will be in the international spotlight with its presidential transition in 2012. “Transition” is a more accurate word than “election,” as the question of Russia’s next president will not be settled by Russian voters at the ballot box but rather by the opaque intra-Kremlin maneuverings between current President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. As Paul Bonicelli has pointed out, as a former and potentially future president, Putin’s intentions and actions are more “neo-Czarist” than democratic, and his relationship with Medvedev will likely grow more and more strained.

In The Moscow Times, economist and columnist Konstantin Sonin writes:

It is logical that McFaul is the architect of the Obama administration’s policy on Russia, which was best articulated two years ago when the U.S. president spoke before the graduating class of Moscow’s New Economic School. No wonder he has been called “no drama Obama.” The call for a reset in U.S.-Russian relations is completely devoid of needless drama or sensationalism. Washington explains its plans objectively and then lets Moscow choose its response from a menu of possible relationships. If the Kremlin wants close cooperation, it can have it. If it wants another Cold War, it will get that as well. Unaccustomed to taking responsibility for its relations with the United States, Russia’s ruling elite was initially thrown off guard by Obama’s Moscow speech. But the record of the past two years indicates that it has regained its footing. Relations with the United States have returned to normal, and that might be better than if they were pigeon-holed as simply “good” or “bad.”

Finally, I want to close with a great quote from Trenin, who writes that McFaul’s time at the National Security Council demonstrates that “scholars can be successful bureaucrats and, given the powers of office, achieve valuable strategic results that they would only dream about in their op-eds.” Here’s hoping he uses his new position to similar effect!

[Cross-posted at the Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.