From the Middle of Nowhere to Moscow
Exclusive with Former Ambassador McFaul
February 6, 2019
Born in Glasgow, he has made his way from the Middle of Nowhere to Stanford, St. Petersburg, Oxford, Washington, D.C., and Moscow. He went from being a student in Russia before the fall of the Soviet Union, to becoming one of the world’s most renowned experts on the country as they attempted to transition from communism to capitalism. He’s been a scholar, an activist, an advisor to a president, and an Ambassador to Russia.
McFaul maintains high-profile, post-public service for many reasons. He was the first American non-career diplomat to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, and he played a central role in “the Reset” of American policy toward Russia following the collapse of Communism. He was one of the first U.S. government officials to appreciate and use social media as a way to connect to the people, not just officials, of the country he served in. He was placed on the Kremlin’s sanctions list and banned from Russia. And, he achieved notoriety when President Donald Trump floated the idea of turning him over to Russian President Vladimir Putin for “questioning.”
Now, back at Stanford University as a political scientist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, Michael McFaul took the time to speak with The Glasgow Courier about Russia’s goals regarding agricultural development; democracy and civil society; and, of course, his Glasgow roots.
McFaul, in his book From Cold War to Hot Peace, draws heavily from his Montana upbringing and connections. He still talks with his high school debate partner, Senator Steve Daines, and with Senator Jon Tester. In both his book and in talking with The Courier, he recounts hosting then-Senator Max Baucus in Russia during his work to get more Montana beef into Russia due to the market’s desire for quality beef in the country.
The former Ambassador believes the market has been disrupted by the sanctions battle the U.S. has been engaged in with Russia, and that export restrictions to the country are hurting American exporters. McFaul voiced disagreement with tariffs as policy in regards to the American approach to both Russia and China, noting tariff wars usually lead to losers on both sides. “I think that there were some legitimate concerns that the Trump administration raised about Chinese theft or improper acquisition of American intellectual property,” he said, “but I think the solution to that should be focusing on preventing that, not punishing American farmers.”
One consequence of the trade war has been improved relations between President Putin and President Xi Jinping. The end of the previous year saw reports on Russia’s gains in world agriculture markets, as Putin has vowed to invest in the necessary infrastructure as part of the goal to be the country that feeds the world.
The diplomat turned scholar expressed doubt regarding Putin’s long-term planning for both agriculture and the country at large. “He has invested in those things [agricultural development], but it is also the case that those are the biggest constraints on the development of Russian agriculture. There’s lots of corruption in the infrastructure business in Russia. So they spend a lot, but they don’t get a lot of return on their investments.”
Putin’s desire to return Russia as a great player in the international system, but also to rule autocratically, further hinders economic development according to McFaul. He notes that the state owns too much while Putin’s government has not done enough to fight corruption. As a political scientist, McFaul assesses economic freedom is served by political freedom. He asserts, “There is no doubt in my mind that if Russia was more free, politically, that the country would be wealthier.”
McFaul further discussed the strengths and weaknesses of American democracy in light of alleged Russian influence in U.S. elections. He acknowledged that we are seeing more polarization than in earlier periods of our history but asserts that America is still more purple than red or blue. The democracy expert advocates programs that engage more citizens in an effort to lessen polarization and get people focused on the national interest, as opposed to partisan interests.
Addressing questions regarding the special counsel investigation and the potential that Russia may have funneled money through the NRA to influence the American electorate, McFaul declined to comment directly. He, like the rest of the public, is waiting for the special counsel to finish their work. Drawing upon his time working with Mueller in the Obama administration, McFaul expressed confidence in the former FBI Director, “He’s an extremely competent guy, that I have no doubt has American interests at heart. And he’s not a partisan guy at all.”
He spoke to the larger issue of civil society, specifically the Citizens United decision, and the need to address dark money in elections to minimize the influence of external actors who seek to “use our democracy, use our openness, our NGOs to influence the outcome of elections.” McFaul sees the need to protect the democratic institutions of America as paramount. “We Americans should choose our American leaders without the help of guys like President Putin.”
The role Putin may have played in the election and the policies put forth by the Trump administration are not yet, and may never be known. But McFaul did say there is no doubt Trump has some autocratic proclivities and sees an “ideological affinity” between the two governments’ members on views of the world about “the dangers of multilateralism, the virtues of nationalism.” Yet, McFaul remains an optimist, “I think the democratic institutions in civil society have been robust enough to check his most authoritarian impulses.”
While he can no longer travel to Russia, McFaul has spent the last six months or so traveling the country on a book tour. He tells The Courier every now and then somebody will mention his father, Kip McFaul, who Valley County residents, of a certain age, may remember was the band director at Glasgow High School, saying, “So you should know people are scattered around the country still remembering my dad and his time in Glasgow.”
The younger McFaul has not been back to Glasgow since his family moved away, but has discussed returning to the Middle of Nowhere for a visit with his kids. Mentioning that his mother is originally from Chinook and returns for class reunions, McFaul says, “We have all decided that the next time she goes, we’re all going to try to get ourselves up there. Stop in Chinook and then make our way to Glasgow.”
McFaul’s book tour is ongoing and he will be returning to Montana in April for two speaking events. On April 10 he will be at the University of Montana and on April 11 he will speak at Carroll College in Helena. Further details on the exact location and time will be released on social media closer to the events.