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Is Michael McFaul a Realist?

Despite Vladimir Putin’s acknowledged position as one of the world’s more right-wing leaning leaders in the world, many individuals on the opposite side of the political spectrum often seem eager to manufacture excuses, apologies, and explanations for an exceptional status.  Hence there have been some confusing exchanges over those perceived as “hardliners” on the Obama administration.  Here Matthew Yglesias blogs about whether or not we should really be calling Michael McFaul of Stanford a foreign policy “realist.”  If you’re curious about how we see realists, see this post.

Someone was asking me to characterize McFaul’s views a couple of weeks ago and likewise was coming from the default assumption that he’s a hardliner of whom I would disapprove. I think I said in response that that’s definitely his reputation, but I’m not sure it’s really correct. Or, rather, I think it tends to illustrate some of the artificiality of some of the foreign policy line-drawing. McFaul has a strong scholarly and policy interest in democracy promotion. And you never see him cosigning realist manifestos. And you sometimes do see him cosigning these kind of manifestos. That said, with regard to both democracy promotion in general and Russia in particular, McFaul’s a bona fide expert who really knows what he’s talking about, not a bullshitter who thinks it’s good to “be tough” or whatever. Consequently, he has, I think, a very measured and reasonable take on these things. I’d be hard-pressed to disagree with anything in his article on “Should Democracy Be Promoted or Demoted?” co-written with Francis Fukuyama.

Or take his long fall 2005 article with James Goldgeier on “What To Do About Russia”.I would say it takes more of a hostile tone about Putin than I would,but that the difference of opinion is really a disagreement about howwe should understand Boris Yeltsin and the merry band of thieves whopreceded Putin, rather than a disagreement about Putin. And the policyprescriptions are, again, measured and sensible. Indeed, the mainpolicy argument is that we need to engage with the Russian governmenton an essentially realpolitik basis regarding nuclearproliferation and counterterrorism issues. They also argue that Russianconduct in Chechnya is harming U.S. interests in the broader fightagainst al-Qaeda, which I think is correct, but which relies on abasically realist assessment of the al-Qaeda issue. On the democracyfront, they call for “[d]irect personal engagement with Russiandemocratic activists” in which we emulate Ronald Reagan who “accorded[] human rights activists the same respect that he showed for hisSoviet counterpart” and for about $100 million in FREEDOM Support Actfunds for Russian civil society programs.

On the whole, this is a modest, realistic, and somewhat realistagenda. And I think that reflects the fact that people who understandwhat they’re talking about understand that the world isn’t crowded withextremely sharp trade-offs between democratic and humanitarian idealsand American interests. Real hard-liners are people who just don’t wantto cooperate with Russia at all, and who use the brutality of the Putinregime as a pretext for a highly confrontational security agenda onnuclear weapons, missile defense, and all the rest. But the people whowant those things wanted them when Yeltsin was in power and would wantthem under any conceivable Russian regime, just as any Russiangovernment would oppose them. If you genuinely interested in Russiandemocracy, you don’t crowd the US-Russian bilateral relationship withcounterproductive hostility. And if you’re genuinely interested inU.S.-Russian cooperation, I think you do need to want us to try to findways to exercise influence at the margin to push Russia back on ademocratic path–cooperation could be deeper and easier with a moreliberal, more democratic government in Moscow.