Talking to Michael McFaul, it's easy to get the sense that he isn't sure if he should bite his tongue, but on Oct. 15, hours before speaking before a packed Jordan Ballroom at Boise State University, he opened up about the differences between his time serving President Barack Obama and what he sees the state of U.S.-Russian relations headed under President Donald Trump.
"When I left, I thought it couldn't get any worse," he said at a roundtable with reporters. "But I was wrong about that. It got a lot worse."
McFaul was the U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2012 and 2014—a stint sandwiched between decades as a professor of political science with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His visit to Boise was courtesy of the Frank Church Institute at Boise State and part of a tour in support of his 2018 book, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin's Russia. Sustained, intense criticism of the President isn't McFaul's habit, but a lot has changed in the age of Trump.
The most serious change is Russian interference in the 2016 election, in which agents trolled social media to foment American political divisions; leaked files stolen from Democratic Party institutions and leaders; and offered the Trump campaign more pilfered information on the campaign to elect Hillary Clinton. More recently, evidence has surfaced that President Trump strong-armed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and recalled the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovich for reasons related to personal political gain. The allegations are serious, but, "ironically," McFaul said, "the White House provided the most conclusive facts."
"This is not a good time for America's image," he said. "That personalization and privatization of foreign policy does not serve America's interests."
During his speech, McFaul played the showman, tracing the arc of U.S.-Russian relations from the end of the Cold War to the present. Vladimir Putin, whom McFaul first met in 1991, played a starring role. Under Putin, Russia and the U.S. have actually reduced their reliance on nuclear arms (the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty saw to that), but conflict between the superpowers remains. After revolutions in the Middle East, Georgia and Ukraine, Putin came to see the U.S. as a purveying revolution and regime change using whatever means necessary.
"We are no longer engaged in a quantitative arms race with Russia," McFaul said. "The bad news is that we have entered into what I would call a qualitative arms race."
The good news is that there's a broad consensus that containment and strategic engagement of Russia and its brand of conservative nationalism are broadly effective.
"There's just one person in this administration who disagrees with this strategy, and he just happens to be the President of the United States," McFaul said.