Michael McFaul’s book From Cold War to Hot Peace is a thoughtful and exhaustive demonstration of how, with limitless idealism and optimism for cooperation, one can sometimes accomplish something only to have it immediately undone by bigger egos and competing interests. McFaul discusses in detail his youthful fascination with democratic revolution in the Soviet Union and, after its collapse, his tireless efforts to work with his Russian counterparts to promote stronger diplomatic relations between the United States and the new Russian government. His idealism and devotion to democracy theoretically would make him an excellent representative of American values abroad, especially in a burgeoning democracy that was looking to the U.S. for support. As McFaul explains through his narrative journey, however, those traits actually undermined him in his diplomatic efforts with Russia and ultimately led to the end of his government career.
Michael McFaul begins his story explaining how he saw the rise of Putin coming and how no one took that threat seriously, equating him with Napoleon and Stalin. McFaul takes big-L Liberal idealism farther than an author attempting to explain US-Russian relations probably should, undervaluing the effects that Realist political ideologies and events have had on his life. He has vast knowledge of political theory and is well-versed on historical precedents, yet he also seemed genuinely confused and frustrated that his Russian counterparts assumed him to be working for the CIA when to a Realist political thinker it might seem obvious that they would. This mixture of intelligence and naivete make for a compelling story as the reader slowly watches McFaul come to terms with the limitations of idealism in government work. He addresses these complexities academically, describing how the democratization process would be difficult and sometimes impossible due to cultural context. This academic understanding, however, did not help him deal with the reality that his intense efforts to promote democracy in Russia had damaged his credibility with the government elites who wanted more autocratic power over the state.
This is not to say that McFaul did not do some incredible work during his tenure. He was instrumental in reopening lines of communication between the White House and the Kremlin during the Obama Administration and did good work repairing the “atrophied” relationship between the U.S. and Russia, to use his word. This again is where he masterfully demonstrates the frustration anyone with strong ideals must feel when negotiating with competing interests and tangling with bureaucracy. Even as he helped accomplish something important, such as establishing a framework for the new START treaty or supporting various U.S. presidents in their dealings with Russian leaders, something else would happen to complicate the situation. McFaul emphasized the importance of both global events and personal relationships between leaders in determining foreign policy, including how Putin had liked G.W. Bush but did not like Obama, and how 9/11 brought the two countries closer together but civil wars in the Middle East drove them apart again. Throughout the book McFaul repeats this narrative of “one step forward, two steps back” regarding recent U.S.-Russian relations.
The true drama of the book comes in the second half when McFaul describes his turbulent tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Russia. He does a good job of making the reader understand how even the most innocuous things, such as boring 60-minutes segments or innocent congratulatory phone calls, can become part of a much larger and more complicated game. He makes his explicitly clear when he discusses how Russia rolled back on the reset between the two countries and attacked him politically as part of a larger plan to portray the U.S. as Russia’s enemy. McFaul demonstrated an interesting but unproductive attitude towards diplomacy: he loved Russia and the Russian people, but was not afraid to confront the Russian government. In an activist that mindset would be admirable and he would probably have been very successful. But as his colleagues rightly pointed out, in diplomacy that kind of thinking made their jobs a lot harder. His embrace of social media and digital diplomacy showed creativity on his part but alienated him even further from the Kremlin and caused them to push harder against his presence in Russia.
McFaul’s ultimate takeaway is that it was not any specific American leader’s foreign policy that failed to sustain or improve U.S-Russian relations, but rather domestic issues within Russia and the U.S. that pulled the two countries apart. A weak economy and constant threat of terrorism caused Putin’s government to become more autocratic out of self-preservation and resisting American regime-changing influence. To consolidate power and stoke Russian patriotism, Putin needed to paint the U.S. as an enemy again. This meant portraying McFaul as a rogue agent inciting revolution rather than a diplomat who supported democracy and human rights. Partisan conflict within the U.S. also limited the Obama Administration’s ability to work with Russia the way they might have wanted to. Antagonistic partisanship in the U.S. also gave Russia the opportunity to meddle in the 2016 presidential elections in favor of Trump and the Republican party because it would prevent Hillary Clinton, a sharp critic of Russia who worked on the reset as Secretary of State, from becoming Chief Diplomat.
This book is a long and frustrating example of how no matter how much you believe in something and want to do something to make it happen – such as bringing democracy to a 1,000-year-old autocracy and protecting global human rights – that there will always be factors outside of your control that make it nearly impossible. But McFaul makes clear he is still optimistic about U.S.-Russian relations, and his book indicates that. This book is the one readers should turn to when they get frustrated with the projects they are working on or the tasks that seem endless. His work inspires readers to believe that even if you fail, the work wasn’t meaningless. The work is good and whatever you accomplish, no matter how temporary, is worthwhile.