The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is off to Moscow yet again this week as part of the Fletcher School’s Russia and Eurasia program. Even though winter is ending, I suspect it will not feel like spring in Moscow, either meteorologically or politically. I know this because, well, that’s what I do. Smart readers should not take my word for it, however. They should take the word of two recent books by two former U.S. ambassadors to Russia that have just been published. It seems fitting, to recommend them today.
The first, by William Burns, is “The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal.” Now the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Burns is a living legend in diplomatic circles. He served presidents of the two major parties, including as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, eventually retiring after serving as deputy secretary of state in 2014 (an extremely uncommon appointment for a career Foreign Service officer). “The Back Channel” is not just about Russia, but also about his arc of diplomatic service.
Of course, Russia gets plenty of play, much of which was excerpted in the Atlantic recently. In an interview with the Atlantic’s James Fallows, Burns’s observations about China and Russia sound spot on to me. As he notes, “The Chinese are less focused on undermining that order than on adapting it to fit a change in power realities.” On the other hand, “Putin’s view is much more that of the disrupter, in a sense akin to Trump’s. That is why there’s a kind of weird marriage of convenience between the two of them, in trying to disrupt the current order.”
The second, by Michael McFaul, is “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.” McFaul tells his story of growing up during the Cold War and maturing into a Russia scholar who eventually served in the National Security Council and as U.S. ambassador under President Barack Obama. McFaul was one of the chief architects of the “reset” strategy and argues that it delivered more tangible benefits for the United States than is appreciated today.
Now banned from returning to Russia, McFaul paints a pessimistic portrait of the future of the bilateral relationship. He pushes back against the notion that U.S. overreach on NATO was what triggered Russian revanchism. For him, the causal mechanism is Russian domestic politics, particularly Putin’s reaction to December 2011 protests. Putin’s fear of color revolutions, the Arab Spring and the fall of Yanukovych in Ukraine further hardened his hostility toward the West (for more on this point, see McFaul’s Foreign Affairs essay from the summer). McFaul suggests that the two countries are not fated to be enduring rivals. That said, they are likely to be that way for a long time: Putin will be president until at least 2024, and the Trump administration is ... well, you know.
As with Burns’s book, McFaul touches on non-Russia themes, including the Arab Spring and his use of social media as an ambassador. They complement each other nicely; buy both of them!