Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Speaks at Ath

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul visited the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College on Wednesday, April 16 and delivered a speech entitled “Does the End of the Post-Cold War Era Mean a Return to the Cold War Era?”

McFaul was the ambassador to Russia for two years. Before that, he served as a special adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama and as the senior director for Russia and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council. He was brought to the Athenaeum for a series on diplomacy and international security in honor of George F. Kennan and supported by the Craig and Valerie Richardson fund, according to Athenaeum Director Bonnie Snortum.

"George F. Kennan was a diplomat, political scientist, and ambassador to Russia in 1952," Snortum wrote in an email to TSL. "Having somewhat parallel careers, Michael McFaul seemed to be the perfect person to inaugurate this series."

Although McFaul left the ambassadorship weeks ago, his speech at the Athenaeum on Wednesday night was his first on-the-record appearance since leaving the diplomatic corps, and he delivered it to a room so full of attendees that there was no space for late arrivals.

"In an engaging talk that was equal parts personal, academic, and policy-oriented, Professor McFaul provided insights into the scope and rationale of the US's efforts in post-Cold War Russia," politics professor Jennifer Taw wrote in an email to TSL.

She emphasized the importance of students hearing a practical perspective on real-world problems such as U.S. foreign policy.

"That CMC can bring someone of Dr. McFaul's status to the Ath is so valuable for our students, who get to hear first-hand stories of how US foreign policy is conceived and implemented and the kinds of challenges American diplomats face in promoting US interests abroad," she wrote.

Nadeem Farooqi CM '15, who attended the talk, noted that U.S.-Russia relations are important not only for international relations students but also for anyone who wants to understand global politics.

"US policy towards Russia should be of concern to every Claremont student since it may shape the future of the international landscape for the foreseeable future," he wrote in a message to TSL.

In McFaul’s hour-long Athenaeum speech, he focused on three main questions regarding U.S.-Russia relations: “How did we get here?” “Where is ‘here'?” and “What are the implications for U.S. foreign policy?” According to McFaul, both social science and diplomacy should inform the answers to those questions.

Instead of delving straight into Russia-Ukraine relations and a potential military move, McFaul began a conversation rooted in the history of U.S.-Russia relations, offering background on Russia’s post-Cold War order and a discussion of Putinism. He described Russia as “competitor at times, enemy at other times.”

As to what brought U.S.-Russia relations to its current state, McFaul listed a series of sources of major policy disagreements including Libya, Syria, and demonstrations in Russia in 2011 and 2012.

McFaul also stressed that dual-track engagement with Russia—in which U.S. diplomats aimed to engage with the Russian government on some issues while engaging with its people on others—should not be considered the mistake that harmed relations with Russia.

“Putin needs an enemy and no matter what we did … this was what was going to happen,” McFaul said at the talk.