Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, Michael McFaul has been one of the most vocal advocates for U.S. and NATO support to the Ukrainian government to combat Russian aggression. As the former U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, McFaul has witnessed history being made firsthand, from the White House Situation Room to President Vladimir Putin's dacha in Moscow, and has experienced the complexities of decision-making in U.S. foreign policy at the highest level. A professor of political science at Stanford University, where he is the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, McFaul is the author of several books, including most recently From Cold War to Hot Peace: The Inside Story of Russia and America. He is a leading expert on Russia and an acute observer of the rise and fall of democracies and autocracies around the world.
"I worked at the White House during the Arab Spring. I was in the camp that was pushing for us to support democratic movements, especially in Egypt," he says in a wide-ranging interview with Democracy in Exile. McFaul explains the struggle different U.S. administrations have had in balancing stated interests and values, and the "hypocrisy" and "double standards" of supporting democracy and human rights in some countries but not others, which "undermines our arguments about democracy in other places," he adds. "There is a lingering hangover from the Arab Spring when it comes to at least the way I think that the Biden administration thinks about the Middle East."
McFaul also discusses the course of Russia's war in Ukraine, the continuities and contrasts in U.S. foreign policy under Joe Biden and Donald Trump, and why the Biden administration "is not the first American administration to be schizophrenic about values and interests." He believes that the world is entering a new Cold War, pitting democracy against autocracy in a form of great-power competition that echoes the old Cold War, with key differences.
"We in the West, and most certainly small-d democrats, irrespective of governments, have to be more creative in nurturing ties with those that believe in democracy around the world," he says. "We got out of this business after the end of the Cold War. We got lazy. We thought everybody was becoming democratic and thought it was just a matter of time until everybody joined the liberal democratic world. That turned out to be a big miscalculation."
The following transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
More and more analysts say that on U.S. foreign policy, President Biden acts like President Trump. For instance, on July 24, New York Times diplomatic correspondent Edward Wong wrote that "the Biden administration has charted the same course as the Trump administration on strategy priorities like China, the Middle East and U.S. military deployments." How much do you agree with this statement? What does it say about Biden's bold declarations that originally made him stand out during his presidential campaign, and where we are now?
That's a great question. Hard to answer, but I have a couple of ideas. I would say philosophically when we're talking about grand strategy or approach to the world, I actually think Trump and Biden disagree more than they agree. Now, I'm talking about the presidents; I'm not talking about the administrations. I'm going to get to that distinction in a minute, because I think that's an important distinction with the Trump folks. But President Trump fundamentally was an "America First" isolationist and didn't care about multilateral institutions. And so, on that dimension—isolation or engagements, unilateral versus multilateral—he was an extremist in the unilateral position. Whereas President Biden believes in multilateral institutions and believes that they strengthen America's national interest. On that philosophical dimension, they're quite different.
Secondly—and I hate that these terms are cartoonizations, but they're kind of shorthand for very complex things—on the realists versus liberals, interests versus values, if you think about that as a two-by-two matrix, that's another axis Trump himself did not care about, in supporting human rights and democracy abroad. He did almost nothing on that front. He said disparaging things about other countries and embraced dictators very openly with no sense of guilt or remorse. He liked them—in the Middle East, in Russia, in North Korea. Whereas Biden, on that dimension, he speaks about values, and he frames our competition with China and Russia in ideological terms. That's radically different from Trump. However—and we can go in different places when you want to dig into it—when you look at concrete policies towards concrete countries, there are some overlaps and continuities.
I think you see some continuities and some differences; it gets more nuanced. So, for instance, in terms of continuities, I think there's quite a bit of continuity in their strategy vis-à-vis China. There are some nuance differences, but I see more continuities there than differences.
"It is naive to believe that we have long-term, stable autocratic allies and partners. History does not say that. I think we make a grave mistake in thinking about autocracies as being stable systems when we know over the course of hundreds of years that they're not."
- Michael McFaul
With respect to Russia, I would say there's more differences. Trump was a friend of President Putin and he didn't even criticize the initial invasion [of Ukraine]. And of course, President Biden's commitment to strengthening NATO when President Trump was not interested in NATO, that's a big difference there. And obviously how they deal with Ukraine is a big difference. Remember, President Trump was impeached because of his policies towards Ukraine. Biden has a very different view.
In the Middle East vis-à-vis Iran, the Biden administration has said they wanted to get back into the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran nuclear deal is officially known], but aspiration and results are two different things. So far, there's continuity there. And I think the greatest striking moment of continuity, of course, was President Biden's recent trip to the Middle East, his meetings with the crown prince in Saudi Arabia, where during the campaign, he said he was going to make him a pariah. And now as president, you see much more continuity in terms of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
You mentioned President Biden being different from President Trump in embracing dictators. During the past almost 18 months, we have seen that the Biden administration has continued the same type of relationship with Egypt, a repressive country with more than 60,000 political prisoners, very much like President Trump. That goes on to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Much less care about values, Biden has continued U.S. military aid and weapon sales. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that human rights would be one of the pillars of this administration's foreign policy, but they continued the same relationship with all these abusive governments.
I agree with your analysis. I think the difference is, and maybe it's just in the margins, but it seems to me that the Biden administration and President Biden himself does care about democracy and human rights abroad. They speak in very different tones than the Trump administration, especially President Trump. They held a global Summit for Democracy. But when it comes to those concrete bilateral relationships that you just discussed, there's only very marginal change.
The Biden administration is not the first American administration to be schizophrenic about values and interests; I served in the Obama administration. But I do think it is glaring, especially because they promised that they were going to do so much with respect to democracy. And sometimes it's better not to declare that you're going to do so much, beforehand, because then you create expectations that you can't deliver on.
As an academic and during the time you served in the Obama administration, you have continuously supported democratic values and human rights. What happens when politicians say something, but when it comes to action, they cannot fulfill these promises and they cannot stand up to these values that this country is built on?
A couple of things happen. One is when you're running for office as a candidate, you have your campaign team and there's no cost to anything you say, and you're seeking election. When you become president, then you have to think about multiple interests, not just the one interest of getting elected. And when you do that, then you sit in the White House Situation Room, as I did, and suddenly in your government are representatives of other interests besides the ones that you started off with as a campaigner.
So, with respect to the conversation we're having now, when you're running a campaign, you might just be surrounded by human rights activist types. When you're sitting in the Situation Room, the defense secretary is there, the director of the CIA is there, the energy secretary is there, the team that's in charge of the economy is there—those who have other interests that are represented are in the room.
It is always this way. I don't think there's ever been a case, in at least the last hundred years, where there's not some tension between promoting American values and democratic values, and human rights, and short-term economic and security interests. There's always a tension. The question is how different presidents manage those tensions and how that varies.
I think today, with respect to the Middle East—if we're talking about Russia, we'd be having a very different conversation—you have two big fundamental tensions that are facing the Biden administration. There are more, but I think two really big ones. One is the economy: inflation, energy prices. That's the number one concern for the American people. Polls show that, unequivocally, that is true. So, if you actually believe in democracy, you can't ignore the will of the people you're representing in the name of something that they don't care that much about. I think that's an important thing that I learned very bitterly as a former U.S. government official. I might have my views about why we should be promoting democracy in the Middle East, which I've supported for decades, but as it turns out not everybody in America agrees with me. If you believe in democracy and representing them, and the thing they care most about is inflation, is it democratic for you to say "No, actually I'm going to do this other thing"? I think that's a big philosophical dilemma that they face.
So, that's the first one. Then the second one, of course, is about the Iran nuclear deal. They made a pledge that they were going to get back into the JCPOA. By the way, I support that, I think that is exactly the right policy. But they haven't achieved that goal. When you look at the things they pledged, those are the two issues that are hovering over their heads.
The other thing I would say on this, however, is if you're going to make the decision to go bump knuckles with MBS, that is a huge gift that you're handing the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They know that. All he cared about was the visit. If you decided you have to do it for national security interests—and I could understand why they may make that argument; I would disagree with it, but I could understand their argument—you should get something for it. You should get something big for that because you gave the crown prince something big. And therefore, when you think about these tradeoffs, make sure that you're getting real things for them, and not just a good meeting or a happy summit. To me, good relations with any country is only a means to an end. And I mean this about democracies as well as autocracies. And I would hope that moving forward, that would be the framework that the Biden administration, and whatever administration would come later, would take.
The other thing I would say on this: I think it is naive to believe that we have long-term, stable autocratic allies and partners. History does not say that. For every year longer that an autocracy exists, that means it has a higher probability of collapse. For every year longer that a democracy lasts, it has a probability of consolidation. That's social science. That's not my opinion. I think we make a grave mistake in thinking about autocracies as being stable systems when we know over the course of hundreds of years that they're not. There are way fewer autocracies today than there used to be a hundred years ago. I think even when you're pursuing your short-term security or economic interest, the United States has a long-term interest in pushing in evolutionary ways for political democratization and reform. Because someday, if you don't do that, if you don't push for evolutionary change now, you get revolutionary change later. And those revolutionary changes rarely lead to the construction of new regimes that advance America's national interest.
On considering American democracy and what people want—cheap oil, no inflation—if they have to bend over backwards for countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran because of oil prices or inflation at home, this same logic can apply to Ukraine and Russia. If the American people wanted to put economic issues first, then we wouldn't have started supporting Ukraine in the first place. But we did it for the same reason that we have been advocating for. However, we are doing something for Ukrainians that we don't do for Syrians, or Palestinians, Iranians, Venezuelans, Russians, Chinese. America is not consistent when it comes to values and interests. What is the implication of having this double standard, having these two different approaches toward allies and foes?
Well, it's hypocrisy. It's double standards. And it has implications in that it undermines our arguments about democracy in other places. When I was ambassador in Russia, it was always whataboutism. You say this and they say, well, what about that? Our invasion of Iraq was a particular favorite of the Putin administration when I was there. There's no doubt about that. So that's a problem. I would also say that there is a lingering hangover from the Arab Spring when it comes to at least the way I think that the Biden administration thinks about the Middle East.
I worked at the White House during the Arab Spring. I was in the camp that was pushing for us to support democratic movements, especially in Egypt. We had that debate and President Obama was on the right side of that debate, in my opinion. But then, for a variety of reasons—partly to do with regimes, partly to do with mistakes of the opposition, partly to do with the United States making mistakes—things didn't work out. Tunisia is barely hanging on. And so, as a result of that, I think you have people in the United States government today—and here I wouldn't even say it's Democratic or Republican, I would say these are just people that think about the Middle East in certain ways—they feel like the experiment failed and do we really want to go down that path again? Again, I'm explaining; I'm not excusing. But I think that's an important perspective that permeates this kind of foreign policy establishment. I disagree with it. I think it's too short-term. I think with other policies, we may have helped to nudge, especially Egypt, in the right direction. I think that's where we made the biggest mistakes, personally. But as a result of the outcomes in Libya, in Egypt, in Syria, there is less appetite to be promoting democracy again.
"There's this ideological dimension of autocrats versus democrats that does remind me of the Cold War. We in the West, and most certainly small-d democrats, irrespective of governments, have to be more creative in nurturing ties with those that believe in democracy around the world. We got out of this business after the end of the Cold War."
- Michael McFaul
I'm going to move toward Russia. Some analysts have said that Putin's strategy is to prolong the war in Ukraine in hopes that the Western alliance would not have the strength to endure the consequences of the war—for example, a potential energy crisis during the winter. Is that where we are headed now? And how strong and durable do you think the Western alliance, led by the U.S., is?
I don't know. I honestly don't know. And I don't trust anybody that says they think they know. I mean, I'd say a couple of things. So far, Putin has failed on most of his strategic objectives. If you go back and you look at what he was saying in February, he was very explicit about what he wanted to do in this invasion. He said he wanted to reunite Ukrainian people with Russian people because he thinks they're one nation—they're just Russians with accents. That's the way he talked about Ukrainians. He failed to do that. He's divided those two nations more than he's brought them together. He said he was going to "denazify" Ukraine. That's a code word for regime change, overthrowing President Zelensky and his regime. He failed at that. He said he was going to demilitarize Ukraine. He's obviously failed at that. Ukraine is way more militarized today than it was before. He tried to take Kyiv and Kharkiv, the two biggest cities in Ukraine. He wanted to occupy and control the entire country. He failed at that.
So now he's focused on a smaller objective, which is seizing control of Donbas and uniting Donbas with Crimea through this territory that they call Novorossiya, which is a territory that used to be part of the Russian Empire back in Catherine the Great's time. But that's a pretty big objective too, and that's a lot of territory. I don't foresee him quitting until he has seized that territory, and that could take months. It could take longer than that. But you're most certainly right to imply that he thinks time is on his side, that the West will fray. You already see signs of that in Europe, and with new elections coming in Italy, you might see Italian politics change if some more pro-Putin people are elected there. More generally, the cost of this war is enormous, not just in military assistance, but financial assistance to the Ukrainians, and you see evidence that within societies that are supporting it, their support is waning. So Putin thinks time is on his side.
I would add that he's incredibly pleased by how little the non-Western, non-European world has criticized Russia and come to the aid of Ukraine. Not just governments, which are all standing on the sidelines, but not a lot of solidarity for the Ukrainian democrats, small-d democrats, from other societies. "This is not our war. This is just another war in Europe." And when [Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov travels, including in Africa, you can see that they're winning this debate in the developing world, in the global south, and that gives them confidence that they can stay the course.
What do you think about the Russian-Iranian alliance? Russia has had enormous influence over the nuclear talks between Iran, the U.S. and other world powers. Iran is now providing drones to Russia in its unprovoked war against Ukraine. Whether there is a nuclear deal with Iran or not, how would Iran's Russia alliance play in relations to the U.S.?
Well, there's no question that Russian-Iranian relations are becoming closer and closer. That was true before the war, but Putin's invasion of Ukraine has accelerated that for sure. I think it is an incredible irony that Putin is so weak that he needs military assistance from the Islamic Republic. That is a very striking thing to me, because he's supposed to be a great power; he's supposed to be giving weapons to Iran. That's what he used to do when I was in the government, and so the reversal of that is very striking to me. But you do have this autocratic alliance of Russia, China and Iran. Again, it was there before Russia's war in Ukraine, but you see it accelerating and the world being divided between the free world and the autocratic world, with some of our autocratic friends in between in the Middle East. Vietnam would be another country where you have this hypocrisy in American foreign policy—that we're really afraid of Communist regimes, except in Vietnam, because they are aligning themselves with us vis-à-vis China. But that axis, the Russia-China-Iran axis, is strengthening considerably.
With all the new realignments in the region—Iran-China-Russia, and the U.S on other side, as well as the Abraham Accords, and other agreements that we are seeing—are we entering a new Cold War globally?
Well, tragically, I think yes. Although there are some real differences with the old Cold War, there are some similarities. It's actually the topic of my next book. This great-power competition is not as solidified in blocs, it's a little more fluid. On the autocratic side, China and Russia cooperate in some places but in Central Asia, for instance, they compete.
In the Middle East, you have this very strange new situation where Putin is developing close ties not only with Iran, but also with the Gulf states and with Saudi Arabia and with Israel—that's different from the Cold War. Of course, the number one difference is that in the Cold War, the Soviet and American economies were pretty disconnected from each other. Today, the Chinese economy and the American economy are heavily intertwined and heavily connected. Decoupling, as it's called, will be very expensive to both countries. How you manage that difference is one of the central challenges, but there's also this ideological dimension of autocrats versus democrats that does remind me of the Cold War. We in the West, and most certainly small-d democrats, irrespective of governments, have to be more creative in nurturing ties with those that believe in democracy around the world. We got out of this business after the end of the Cold War. We got lazy. We thought everybody was becoming democratic and thought it was just a matter of time until everybody joined the liberal democratic world. That turned out to be a big miscalculation.
My own view is that the Biden administration especially, but other countries maybe too, are spending way too much time being anti-this and anti-that—anti-disinformation, anti-China and anti-Russia. We need to have an alternative that we're offering, something that we're for—that we're for liberal ideas, that we're for democracy, that we will connect with those around the world, even in places where we have friendly relationships with the autocracies. We did that during the Cold War, and I think we should think about creating ways to do it again.
Taking into consideration all you've said about the Cold War and alliances, do you think that the U.S. has picked the right allies?
Well, it depends on how you're counting allies. Would you rather be China or the United States at this moment right now? China has only one formal ally, North Korea, and they're not really that close. Russia, Iran—they're not allies. I don't think Russia would go to war for China. I don't think China would go to war for Russia. You're more expert in Iran than I am, but I think those are precarious, transactional partnerships. They're not based on enduring values. Whereas the United States, most certainly in Europe and Asia, have very strong allies with democratic countries that have been around for decades.
In the case of Europe, we're about to add two new allies, Finland and Sweden. So I actually think when you look at the balance of power between democrats in this new Cold War, alliances are one of America's greatest assets, compared to China.
The countries you were mentioning are more complicated, but you have to look at the holistic picture. In my view, we are in a much stronger position in Asia and in Europe. The Middle East is more complex. The Middle East makes me more nervous. It's much more fluid, and American resolve to be committed there is much weaker. That's true in the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. You know the phrase "forever wars" is one that Democrats and Republicans cite. I personally think it's a strategic mistake for us to withdraw. But those currents of pivoting out of the Middle East and focusing on Asia—and now because of Putin's invasion of Ukraine, focusing more on Europe—those are strong currents in American lead circles and societal circles. We have to think of a better argument for why we should be engaged in the Middle East, because I don't think right now our politicians are offering a great argument to the American people.
On the Iran-U.S. front, what you can foresee happening if Tehran continues scaling up uranium production and the International Atomic Energy Agency's cameras and inspectors are removed? Do you think there is a possibility of a military confrontation with Iran?
There are most certainly signs of it, because President Biden has threatened it already. He made very clear that it's a last resort. But the use of force is on the table should the Iranian regime—let's be clear, not Iran, the Iranian regime, the theocrats in charge—make the incredibly irrational decision to keep moving towards obtaining a nuclear weapon. There's no greater threat to the Iranian people than obtaining a nuclear weapon. The process of obtaining that weapon threatens the lives of innocent Iranians. I would hope that the mullahs governing Iran today would understand that.
Second, I want to be clear, in my own view, arms control is a necessary thing we do with dictatorships around the world; we did during the Cold War, for instance, with the Soviets. But in the long run, in my view, our security issues with Iran will only be permanently resolved when Iran becomes a democracy. There's just no doubt in my mind. We have to develop strategies that help to achieve that outcome, and I personally think that arms control could be one of them. I think going to war with Iran consolidates the regime. I don't think that helps the democratic forces that I know inside of Iran.
It's a delicate balancing act that Biden is playing. I wish they would be more aggressive on arms control, but also more aggressive on democracy support. I think you can do both things at the same time. I think Ronald Reagan did that very well vis-à-vis the Soviets in the 1980s, and I would like to see more effort in both of those tracks.
—Sophie Holin contributed to this interview.