FROM COLD WAR TO HOT PEACE by Michael McFaul

Image result for photos of obama and putin together

(Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama)

Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has chosen a crucial moment in our relationship with Moscow to write his part memoir, narrative history, and analysis of what has transpired over the last twenty-five years between the United States and Russia.  Today, it appears that relations between the two countries deteriorates each day as Russian President Vladimir Putin pursues his agenda, and President Donald Trump does nothing about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.  However, McFaul argues in his new book, FROM COLD WAR TO HOT PEACE that by 2010 it appeared that American-Russian relations were improving as Presidents Barack Obama and Dimitri Medvedev had reached an important accord dealing with the reduction of nuclear weapons.  This optimism came to a quick close as Putin returned to the presidency after four years as Prime Minister.  The question must be raised – why did relations between Russia and the United States reach the depths of the Cold War seemingly overnight?

According to McFaul, the answer seems to lie in the reassertion of Russian power fostered by a new ideological conflict with the United States, one in which Putin’s autocratic government, “champions a new set of populist, nationalist, and conservative ideas antithetical to the liberal, international order anchored by the United States.”  This order is in decline as Russian military, economic, cyber, and informational capabilities have expanded.  Proxy wars in the Ukraine and Syria, and Russia’s audacious intervention into the 2016 election have created a situation that is not as dangerous as the worst moments of the Cold War, but certainly just as tense or more so.

Image result for photos of obama and putin together

(picture captures well the Obama-Putin relationship)

In trying to explain this massive shift in US-Russian relations, McFaul is uniquely qualified to provide insights.  McFaul is a scholar of Russian history at Stanford University, in the past he worked with NGO’s that tried to create democratic institutions in Russia, he was a member of Obama’s National Security Staff, and finally was Ambassador to Russia.  McFaul’s unparalleled knowledge and experience provide the background for his important new book.

McFaul provides insights from his early career as he worked as a “community organizer” in Russia for the National Democratic Institute, an American democracy promoting institution that assisted Democratic elements in Russia going back to 1991, to his later career as Ambassador to Russia.  In between he offers an intimate portrait of the attempted evolution of Russian autocracy toward democracy, the ins and outs of developing national security policy, and the intrusive nature of being an American ambassador in Russia.  Along the way McFaul examines his personal life, how his career impacted his family, and how they adapted to constant lifestyle changes.  His portrait is a combination of his own world view, the theoretical approach of an academic, and the bureaucratic world of diplomacy.  He conveniently offers the reader an escape hatch, stating the book is written in such a way that if certain parts become boring, he suggests that one could skip certain sections and not lose the continuity of the narrative.

Image result for photos of dmitry medvedev

(Russian President Dimitri Medvedev)

McFaul offers a series of meaningful observations throughout the book. For example, as the democracy movement took hold in Russia in 1991 under Boris Yeltsin, the Bush administration supported the more conservative Gorbachev.  Gorbachev would allow the Berlin Wall to come down, withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan, allowed the reunification of Germany, and did not oppose Operation Desert Storm against Iraq.  Despite this, Yeltsin garnered 60% of the popular vote, and Gorbachev position become mostly honorific. Another example is McFaul’s belief that the KGB was adamant that his work with the democracy NGO was a front for the CIA and helps explain Putin’s hatred of McFaul almost twenty years later.  Further, McFaul argues that the United States did not do enough to assist the Russian economy in 1993 and by not doing so contributed to the economic collapse which was then blamed on Russian proponents of democracy.

Image result for photo of michael mcfaul obama

(President Obama and former Ambassador to Russia and author, Michael McFaul)

Once the Obama administration took office in 2009 McFaul oversaw the new policy of a “reset” with Russia as a means of improving US security and economic objectives.   With President Medvedev in power strides were made, but even as progress occurred everyone was aware that Putin was still the “power behind the Russian throne.”  Throughout the book, no matter how intense the material becomes, McFaul does attempt to lighten the mood with humor and how his family was faring.  McFaul describes the almost tortuous detail that went into the preparation of American foreign policy, an approach that does not contrast well with President Trump’s “fly by the seat of his pants” approach.  Obama’s goal was to cooperate with Russia on issues of mutual interest, without downplaying our differences, a fine line to walk particularly after Russia invaded Georgia.

McFaul was always “in the room where it happened” in all the meetings between Obama and Medvedev, and later with Putin.  He was the “note taker” – the memorandum of conversation in all meetings and is a prime source that witnessed the collapse in relations.  Once Putin resumed the Presidency the contempt between him and Obama was readily apparent.  After Obama’s first meeting with Putin it was quite clear the “reset” with Russia was at an end.  Despite the downturn in relations Putin did go along with sanctions against Iran and UN action against Kaddafi in Libya.  But this cooperation was short lived when Kaddafi was captured and executed.  According to McFaul, the overthrow of Kaddafi was too much for Putin who argued he supported UN action to save the people of Benghazi, not regime change.

Image result for photo of russian troops in east ukraine

(Russian troops in eastern Ukraine)

Perhaps McFaul’s most important chapter is “Putin Needs an Enemy-America, Obama, and Me.”  The chapter offers the underpinning of Putin’s disdain for McFaul and the United States in general under Obama.  This disdain would foster Russian actions during the 2016 presidential election as Putin hoped to elect Donald Trump who would then alleviate Obama’s economic sanctions against Russia.  Putin’s hatred of McFaul was unprecedented in that it led to overt harassment, sometimes becoming physical, a media campaign against him personally to disparage everything about him including his sexuality, and being followed and spied upon constantly.  McFaul’s overall theme rests on the idea that American policymakers hoped that Putin’s anti-Americanism would recede after the 2012 Russian elections.  Surprisingly it did not as there was a strategic shift in the Kremlin’s orientation.  It was launched in response to Obama’s actions, his belief that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was responsible for demonstrations against his rule, but more importantly, to increase his personal popularity as a means of weakening his western oriented opponents.

For Putin, the United States was an enemy, not a partner, he saw Washington as a promotor of regime change everywhere, including Russia, and he blamed the United States for everything bad in the US and Russia.  McFaul’s insights seem dead on as we watch Putin’s support for Bashir Assad in Syria, and the regime in Teheran.  For Putin any regime change of an autocratic leader is a direct threat to him.  The United States continued to try and maintain some semblance of the “reset” as McFaul recounts, but this policy was doomed because of Putin’s hardened attitude.

Image result for photo of russian plane over syria

(Russian bombers deployed over Syria)

McFaul spends a great deal of time on the Syrian quagmire that rages on to this day.  McFaul criticizes the Obama administration for not pushing harder for Assad’s ouster in 2011.  We could have armed the moderate opposition in a serious way just as soon as the political standoff turned violent. Obama’s refusal to enforce the red line over chemical weapons made the US look weak and the president allowed himself to be played by Putin who supposedly got Assad to get rid of 98% of his chemical weapons.  We seemed to have overestimated Putin’s influence over Assad, however, for Moscow, Chechnya was the model where Putin supported Ramzan Kadyrov’s brutal tactics in order to remain in power.  We continue to witness this approach in Syria on a daily basis.

Image result for photo of putin and assad

(Syrian President Bashir Assad and Vladimir Putin)

According to McFaul, thirty years of improved Russian-American relations ended in 2010 in part because of balance of power politics, American actions, some of which were in error, and Russia’s inability to consolidate democracy, integrate itself into the west, and reorient its own domestic politics.  No matter the cause of the end of the “reset,” we must deal with the offshoot of that policy in the Ukraine, Syria, and Russian-Iranian relations.  McFaul left Moscow with a feeling of incompleteness as his life’s goal of improving relations had to be put on hold, and it interesting that McFaul left Russia at the same time Putin annexed Crimea and moved into eastern Ukraine.

McFaul’s monograph is an important contribution to the plethora of material that has tried to explain US-Russian relations over the past three decades.  McFaul’s approach is clear, scholarly, and personal and should answer the questions surrounding the down turn in US-Russian relations that began in 2010, and the implications of the Trump presidency as we try and cope with Putin’s continued aggressiveness against American domestic and foreign interests.

Image result for photos of obama and putin together

Advertisements

THE EMPEROR’S TOMB by Steve Berry

Image result for images of terra cotta soldiers

(Terracotta Warrior Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di)

Steve Berry’s sixth novel in his remarkable Cotton Malone series, THE EMPEROR’S TOMB has tremendous resonance in today’s geopolitical world.  For example, Chinese leader XI JinPing recently had his presidency extended for life.  Second, is the US, China, and Russian competition for energy resources and control of new land masses.  Third, the world geostrategic balance is being reoriented through the use of new technologies.  All of these contemporary issues are played out throughout Berry’s novel that opens with Malone, the former US Justice Department Special Agent for the Magellen Billet receiving a computer message from longtime ally, and possible romantic interest Cassiopeia Vitt, that she is in dire trouble and needs his help.  Since in the past she has rescued him, for Malone it was an easy decision to leave his retirement occupation as bookstore owner in Copenhagen to fly off and help her in Belgium and China.

Berry weaves an interesting web whereby Vitt has been asked by a Russian geochemist who lives in China, Lev Sokolov for assistance as his four year old son has been kidnapped.  Sokolov had left Russia years before against the wishes of Moscow to marry a Chinese national.  Sokolov fears his son has been stolen because of China’s one child policy as males are in such demand.  As you will see this is not the reason for the kidnapping, and Vitt immediately becomes involved in a Chinese plot to secure energy independence, and Beijing’s role in the world.  It seems that Sokolov was an expert in abiotic oil- oil that is not a fossil fuel but emanates from deep in the ground and as the ability to regenerate itself, making its supply infinite- “a primordial material the earth forms and excretes on a continual basis.”

Berry creates a number of fascinating characters to carry out his plot as he integrates Chinese history and philosophy to educate his reader.  Karl Tang is the Chinese Minister of Science and Technology and First Vice President of the People’s Republic of China, and second in power to the president.  Tang believes in the ancient authoritarian legalist philosophy pursued by Chinese Emperors for centuries and reinstituted by Mao Zedong.  Tang believes that any further Chinese democratization is against its cultural past.  Tang’s competition to succeed the aging Chinese president is Ni Yong who heads the Central Commission for Discipline of the People’s Republic.  Ni is a practitioner of Confucian values and is the antithesis of Tang when it comes to the exercise of power domestically and abroad.  Another interesting creation is Pau Wen, a rich Chinese emigre who left China, and was the former advisor to Mao, now living in Belgium.  It appears Wen is a leading member of the Brotherhood of the Ba, an organization of powerful eunuchs, who have historically influenced Chinese government policy through advice to the Emperor, a movement that seems allied with Tang.  For the United States the evolution of this power struggle is extremely important because should China gain total energy independence through abiotic oil, and Tang assumes the Chinese presidency, it would pursue an increasingly aggressive foreign policy.

Image result for image of mao zedong

(Mao Zedong)

The issue of achieving unfettered access to energy sources is a key to Tang’s realpolitik as it is today in China. China imports 60% of its oil from Africa, Latin America, and Russia as a means of avoiding becoming dependent on Mideast oil which is such a volatile source.  To this point China has survived by trading technology and financial aid to corrupted regimes to secure its energy needs.  If they were able to achieve energy self-sufficiency, Tang would press domination in the South China Sea, seize Taiwan and possibly Korea, and expand influence throughout South East Asia.  A key component to the plotline is the role of the tombs that house the Terra Cotta warriors in Shaanxi, China.  It seems that all the major characters have an interest in exploring a newly discovered area of the tomb and what may lay hidden could be the key to the future world balance of power.

Berry’s periodic summary of Chinese history is extremely important to the overall story providing context for events.  Berry has the ability to weave aspects of Chinese philosophy and technological advancement, i.e., discovery of salt, drilling techniques, oil, natural gas from previous centuries and how they impact events in the novel.  Berry’s mantra as in all of his books is to blend real historical events and discoveries with a counterfactual plot that approaches contemporary realism, this mantra is firmly met in THE EMPEROR’S TOMB.  As in all of his “Malone” novels, Berry offers a historical essay at the conclusion of the novel depicting what is actual history, and what is fiction in the author’s presentation – a valuable asset for the reader.

Image result for image of confucius

(Confucius)

Other characters who emerge important are Viktor Thomas, a Russian operative who seems to work for all sides in the novel at one time or another.  Ivan, a Russian agent, bent on stopping China’s power play, Jin Zhao, a geochemist who knew too much about abiotic oil and Tang’s plans.  Stephanie Nell, Malone’s old boss at the Magellen Billet appears throughout the plot as do Malone’s many skills that he nurtured throughout his career.  Malone is very distrustful of most individuals in the novel who all seem to have their own agendas which usually do not correspond with his.  What is different about this current rendition of the Malone saga is that there is a vocalization of his relationship with Vitt as each come to realize the importance of their feelings for each other.

THE EMPEROR’S TOMB contains the usual suspense, country hopping, historical education for the reader, strong plot development, and interesting characters that one comes to expect from a Berry novel.  At times the dialogue and background can become a bit long winded, but overall Berry has another success on his hand. If you are interested in continuing with the Malone saga, the next book in the series is the JEFFERSON KEY.

Image result for images of terra cotta soldiers