It’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for Michael McFaul. He is extraordinarily qualified for his job–perhaps among the most qualified American ambassadors to any country. He has found himself in trouble recently for speaking “undiplomatically” too often, which means he lacks the PC-filter that dumbs down so much of our public diplomacy. And he has been treated with such suspicion by the Kremlin and the FSB precisely because he has been writing books for decades on establishing democracy in the post-Soviet space. And now the man who was once the darling of nearly every ideological subgroup in U.S.-Russian relations finds himself doubted or criticized by those same groups.
That is because of McFaul’s handling of the U.S.-Russian “reset,” about which McFaul opens up in an interview with GQ Russia, in which he offers some surprisingly frank assessments of the policy. The reset got off to a famously clumsy start, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov a red button on which the State Department thought they had written the Russian word for reset. They had not; the button said “overcharge.” Clinton, apparently unaware of the mistake, said to Lavrov: “We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?” They clearly had not worked hard to get the word, as there should be a Russian speaker or two at Foggy Bottom.
But apparently Clinton’s awkward, sheepish question was meant to hide the fact that the State Department already knew the word was wrong–they had shown the button to McFaul too late to be changed. McFaul recounts this episode in the 6,000-word profile for GQ Russia, which was then translated into English and reprinted by Foreign Policy. The latter seems to have omitted this story (among other things) from the English translation, but it’s a shame, because it is actually something of a metaphor for McFaul’s time in Russia–at least as he recounts it in the interview. McFaul is harassed mercilessly, causing him to lose his temper repeatedly. That leads to the following exchange in the interview:
Given all that’s happened, does he feel that the reset is stalling, or dead? Or, given the extent to which simple spite and wounded pride factor into Russian foreign policy, that it was a naïve endeavor to begin with? “Our policy is that we think it’s in our national interest to have governments that are open, more transparent, and more accountable to their people,” he says, citing the widely held theory that democratic countries are more likely to be at peace with each other.
The obvious takeaway from this is that had there been any way to claim that the reset was still extant, McFaul–the architect of the reset and the ambassador charged with carrying it out–would have made it. Instead, he didn’t even answer the question. Thus, the argument now pits those who believe the reset is over against those who don’t believe it ever got off the ground.