Russia is in the news nearly every day and many Montanans are bombarded with information about the relationship the United States now has with a country which was once the cold war enemy of the nation.
With so many perspectives on the politics and history of the issue, readers can look to a lifetime of insight from a fellow Montanan who is not only a preeminent scholar on the subject but also the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia.
Michael McFaul was born in Glasgow, Montana and graduated from Bozeman High School. Although he went on to achieve advanced degrees at Stanford University in California and the University of Oxford in England, McFaul also received an honorary doctorate from Montana State University in 2015. During his studies, McFaul attended Leningrad State University and the Pushkin Institute in Russia and went on to help inform the beginnings of democracy in the Soviet Union while working for a variety of non-governmental organizations promoting democracy around the world before beginning a teaching career at Stanford University.
McFaul was appointed US Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and worked for the U.S. National Security Council as Senior Director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs before returning to his teaching profession at Stanford following his service in U.S. foreign relations.
He is the author of a new book about his studies and experiences From Cold War to Hot Peace (Houghton Mifflin, 2018), a revelatory account of U.S. and Russian relations from 1989 until the present. The book is a New York Times Bestseller and has propelled McFaul to the national spotlight as a commentator on NBC News and other national news outlets.
Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State under George W. Bush, gives McFaul’s new book high praise: “Mike McFaul has lived history. In this terrific book, he recounts a pivotal time in U.S.-Russian relations, bringing the perspective of a central participant and one of America’s finest scholars of Russian politics. This book will be valued by students, experts, historians and diplomats for years to come.”
McFaul currently works as a professor of political science, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University in California. He describes himself as, “A specialist on democracy, anti-dictator movements and revolutions.” He is currently on the Kremlin sanction list of people who are not allowed to enter Russia.
McFaul spoke to the Montana Press on January 17, 2019 about his new book, his roots in Montana and the complicated international politics between the U.S. and Russia.
Montana Press: How did your upbringing in Montana prepare you for a life in practice as a scholar and educator?
Michael McFaul: Well, that’s a good, big question. I was born in Glasgow. I then moved to Bozeman, then to Butte and then back to Bozeman, so I know many parts of Montana abstractly. I guess at the biggest level, I’m very proud of my Montana roots. I go back to Montana twice a year and my family still lives there.
I think people in Montana are pretty sensible, pretty practical, not as polarized politically as many places I have to deal with and I think that kind of mentality has helped me in both my academic and diplomatic career.
Specifically, my interest in Russia started when I moved from Butte to Bozeman in my junior year and I registered at Bozeman High School. My English class during fall quarter of that year was debate. It was in that class that I decided to join the debate team. The topic that year was about improving U.S. trade policy and my partner and I ran a case about doing more trade with the Soviet Union at the time.
It was that moment and through that experience that I got interested in Russia and foreign affairs. Two years later, I ended up as a freshman at Stanford and registered in first year Russian. So my interest intellectually started in that class at Bozeman High. Adam Roberts was my teacher then and I thank god for fantastic Montana teachers like Adam Roberts.
By the way, my debate partner in that class was somebody many Montanans know. His name was Steve Daines, now Senator Daines.
Montana Press: In your new book, From Cold War to Hot Peace, you describe personally witnessing the birth of democracy in Russia and the counter-revolution that followed. Are you fundamentally optimistic or pessimistic about future hopes for democracy in Russia?
Michael McFaul: Well, it was an incredible time to be living in the Soviet Union in those early years of independent Russia at the end of the 80s and early 90s. I did live and spend quite a bit of time there and witnessed the democratic revolution. I had studied democratic revolutions including the American Revolution. In fact, I now teach a course on revolutions here at Stanford. To be there in real time in history was absolutely exhilarating for me as somebody who strongly believes in democracy.
I’ve been on a book tour now for several months. I travel all over the place and I often get asked this question. I have a kind of academic answer that I can give but I also sometimes say that I’m optimistic maybe just because I’m a Montanan and I think that we are just optimistic people. Maybe there’s not a scientific reason for my optimism but I most certainly think that there is a more democratic and free future in Russia. Probably not while Vladimir Putin is president, but Putin won’t be president forever and I’m optimistic that there will be a turn back to a freer society and a more western-oriented society.
Montana Press: Speaking of Putin, in your opinion, how do you explain the growing admiration for a strong man like Putin on the right in American politics?
Michael McFaul: I don’t understand it, to be honest. It’s because of President Trump and his admiration for Putin which is inexplicable to me. He pits everyone against even his own administration by trying to ingratiate himself with Vladimir Putin.
What’s equally striking is how so many members of the Republican party now have gravitated that way. This is the party of Reagan. Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire and traditionally, the Republican party has always been strong on national security and has not supported dictators. I just see this swing as being part of the Republicans following President Trump. I think a lot of people are going to regret that because I don’t think history will be kind to them.
Montana Press: Can you address the paranoid style in American politics, going back to McCarthyism and Masons, the Illuminati and other conspiracy theories, in contrast to the paranoid style you witnessed during your experience with modern Russian politics?
Michael McFaul: Well, it’s a legacy of the Cold War in modern Russian politics and they most certainly, from Putin on down, were irrationally paranoid about American influence in their politics and including me, right? They thought that I was sent by Barack Obama to foment revolution against them. I mean that’s just not true. It’s crazy. We never had that strategy and yet that was a big part of what I had to live with when I was Ambassador working in Russia from 2012 to 2014.
We now have some of that here as well in our country because of the investigation, Mr. Mueller’s investigation, and all of these weird, strange contacts that the Trump team had with various Russian officials. I would just say two things about that. One, we need to investigate what these contacts are and I’m 100 percent behind the Mueller investigation. I used to work with Bob Mueller when I was in the government and he is a straight shooter. This is not a witch hunt. We need to know the truth about what happened.
At the same time, we need to be careful not to make illegal every interaction with every Russian citizen or going back to that McCarthy era. That was a very dark time in our history and every now and then I just get a feeling we might be creeping back to that, and that would be a huge mistake because not all Russians are spies and not all contacts with Russians are against the American national interest.
Montana Press: In your opinion, do you think Russia has co-opted American politicians and media to sow discord in the US?
Michael McFaul: Yes. Well, co-opt is a strong word, but are they are working with various politicians, non-governmental organizations to sow discord? The answer to that is yes, and I think the evidence is overwhelming, and I think we need to be smarter about how we deal with that. I think because of our political polarization in Washington today, we’re just not thinking strategically about American national security interests.
I worked at the National Security Council for three years at the White House. It’s called the National Security Council. It’s not called the Democratic Security Council or the Republican Security Council. When I took an oath of office to do that job and then to be ambassador to Russia, I took an oath to the United States of America, not to Barack Obama and I just think we’re missing that we’ve got to come together on this. These are bipartisan issues. They shouldn’t be partisan issues.
Montana Press: You noted earlier that you and Montana Senator Steve Daines were debate sparring partners while both at Bozeman High. Do you maintain a relationship with Daines?
Michael McFaul: I talk to him from time to time, and over the summer in particular when Vladimir Putin wanted to interrogate me and President Trump said that was a good idea when they met at the Helsinki summit, I really appreciated the support that I got both from Senator Daines and from Senator Tester. I talked to both of them. I really appreciated that. It was important what they said on the floor.
There was just a vote in the U.S. Senate yesterday and the day before. It was a complicated measure, but it was basically a resolution to continue sanctions on several Russian companies owned by a Russian oligarch. I supported that decision. I see no reason to lift the sanctions now because Putin hasn’t changed his behavior. Senator Daines was one of the 11 Republican senators that joined with the rest of the Democrats and supported that resolution. Eventually, it didn’t get 60 votes so it failed but that kind of bipartisan support for national security issues is something we need to get back to. For Daines to make that vote, to go against the Trump administration because he thought it was in the national interest, I respect that.
Steve and I disagree on a lot of policy issues. But I want to underscore that I always respect his perspective. Over the years, well before he was a senator, I always enjoyed talking with him and interacting with him. He used to live in the neighborhood where my sister lives in Bozeman. So I’d see him from time to time.
Montana Press: You note in your new book that you struggle with whether to be an activist or an academic in your career. Do you think it’s possible to be both?
Michael McFaul: Well I’m still trying. I’m a professor at Stanford University and I love this institution. Stanford is just a fantastic university in so many ways and has been so good to me. Vocationally, what I love about the academy is that facts matter every day here. We have a commitment to the truth and to data and to hypothesis testing in the academy that I respect. I lament that in other domains, more political domains, that it’s not the case.
I think there should be more academics involved in talking about politics and talking about policy because there’s too much data-free conversation that goes on in our country these days.
Having said that, I also want to be engaged in the world and I don’t just want to analyze it. Finding that balance has been tricky but I feel pretty fortunate that I’ve been able to play in both fields from time to time.
Montana Press: What advice would you give to young Montanans today interested in studying Russia or the future of democracy outside of America?
Michael McFaul: Read and engage! I think there’s just so many more opportunities for Americans, including Montanans, to travel. I was just speaking to some young Montanans over the Christmas holiday about this and told them to just do it. Nothing changed my life more than that first trip abroad I did as a sophomore in college where I went to the Soviet Union. It changed my view. It changed my perspective. You can read about a country all you want, but going there and experiencing it, there’s nothing equivalent to it. I would also just encourage Montanans to educate themselves and read. Don’t just read Instagram and Twitter but read books written by scholars because there’s a difference. Then, get out there and experience the world. It changed my life and I think it could do that for all young people today.
Former Ambassador McFaul will be coming to both University of Montana in Missoula and Carroll College in Helena this spring to lecture and discuss his new book “From Cold War to Hot Peace” on April 10 in Missoula and April 11 in Helena.