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Reflections on My First Six Months as U.S. Ambassador to Russia

Ambassador Mike McFaul File Photo
file photo

[DJ: Text with photos here m-mcfaul.livejournal.com/

This week, I hit the six-month mark of my time as U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation­a good moment to reflect on our progress toward meeting the goals we established back in January for the U.S. Mission in Russia, and to plan for how to continue working toward achieving our foreign policy objectives in the next six months.

When I arrived in Moscow on a very cold January day earlier this year, I knew I wanted not only to "be" an Ambassador, but to "do" things on behalf of President Obama, his administration, the entire U.S. government, and the American people. At that time and shortly thereafter, I defined for myself three broad objectives: First, as a former Special Assistant to the President at the White House, and contributor to the development of our policy toward Russia known as the "reset," I wanted to continue to play a role in policy development and policy execution, along with my colleagues back in Washington. I sought to better integrate the tremendous expertise that we have at our Mission in Russia into the policy debates that we have back in Washington, especially at this critical period in U.S.-Russian relations.

Second, consistent with President Obama's priorities in our bilateral relationship, I came to Russia with a special desire to do more to increase trade and investment between our two countries, with a special focus on identifying new areas of cooperation regarding innovation.

Third, early in my tenure as Ambassador, I was struck by the misunderstandings and stereotypes that I often encountered here about American foreign policy and my country more generally. Providing more accurate information to the Russian people about the United States quickly emerged as a priority for me. To help accomplish this task, my public diplomacy team at the embassy in Moscow and at our consulates in the regions developed a new outreach strategy for me, which included the opening of a Twitter account, a social media platform that I had never used or even seen before moving to Moscow. Six months later, I am pleased with the progress that we have made on all three of these goals, though we still have much more work to do.

On policy development and execution, some tough foreign policy challenges have developed concurrent with my arrival in Moscow. First and foremost, Syria comes to mind, as well as the change in government in Russia after the March presidential election, which sparked a public policy debate in Washington about the future of the reset. We in the Obama administration reviewed the key assumptions and principles of our reset policy, first developed in the beginning of 2009. Upon review, we decided that our approach had yielded very positive results for American security and economic interests, and that therefore we saw no reason to change course. You can read about our approach to the reset here.

And we have been encouraged that President Putin and his new government also have affirmed their commitment to the reset. President Obama and President Putin held a productive meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico on June 18, their first since the latter's return as Russia's head of state. The joint statement released at the conclusion of that meeting made clear our shared positive assessment of previous accomplishments, and our joint desire to deepen cooperation on many dimensions of our bilateral relationship, based on common interests and mutual respect.

To be sure, our two governments have struggled over the last six months to find common ground on some critical issues. On Syria, we share common objectives, but have not always agreed on the same means for achieving them. The United States and Russia both firmly support Kofi Annan and his six-point plan. We also worked together to endorse the Geneva Communiqué, which resulted from an important meeting of the Action Group for Syria on June 30. Compared to six months ago, this is progress. Yet, American and Russian officials still must continue to find a common approach to ending the violence in Syria and supporting an inclusive, Syrian-led transition towards a new political order there. The status quo is not sustainable.

Recent new legislative initiatives in both the United States and Russia also have strained our bilateral relations. The Obama administration is most concerned about a package of new Russian laws that may constrain civil society and freedoms of assembly, association, and speech. Most recently, we have been troubled by the false comparisons being drawn between U.S. legislation on registering foreign agents (FARA) and the Russian law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as foreign agents. We strongly endorse the idea of greater transparency about the funding sources of NGOs, but also believe it is both inaccurate, and counterproductive to deepening our bilateral relations, to label as "foreign agents" those Russian NGOs that receive grants from foreign foundations and governments. In the United States, NGOs receive financial support from a variety of domestic and international sources, including from Russia, but are generally not required to register under the FARA and are most certainly not considered to be agents of foreign governments or foundations. (To see who does register under FARA, see here the annual report to the U.S. Congress for 2011.).

Our hope is that these new laws do not lead to a new era of isolation and xenophobia. Especially in the 21st century, where the winners will be those who take advantage of international cooperation and global connectivity, such a development would not serve Russian or American interests.

These examples of new and challenging issues in our bilateral relationship should not obscure the dozens of areas of cooperation that have continued and deepened in the last six months. On such important security issues as North Korea, Iran, and Afghanistan, U.S.-Russian cooperation is impressive. Likewise, our interests and approaches on economic issues, countering terrorism and nonproliferation are closely aligned.

Also, most Americans and Russians know little about our military cooperation, yet the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defense have developed an incredibly robust workplan together, and our top military officers, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Nikolay Makarov, Russia's first deputy defense minister, met in Washington last week to continue our cooperation.

And every day, below the radar screen, Russians and Americans are cooperating on all sorts of issues: from floating hand in hand in the International Space Station to working to bring trade missions to Russia and the United States; from joint work on research reactor conversion and emergency response to reinvigorated collaboration in the global fight against malaria. You can get a sense of all the dimensions of our bilateral cooperation by reading the latest annual joint report of the Bilateral Presidential Commission and the Commission's monthly newsletters. After six months in my new job, I remain impressed by the quantity and quality of U.S.-Russia cooperation today. It is a new era in our bilateral relationship. Personally, I find my job most rewarding when I am engaged in the practical, pragmatic diplomacy that produces these win-win outcomes for the United States and Russia.

The Russian parliament also has taken some important votes, including approval of a historic visa agreement, the final ratification of which will ensure easier travel between our countries and establish stronger ties between our people; the approval of the bilateral adoption agreement signed by Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov last summer, which in itself marks a significant milestone toward better inter-country adoptions and policies; and the ratification of Russia's accession agreement to the World Trade Organization, which will improve market access for U.S. exports of goods and services and Russia's implementation of established, enforceable, multilateral trade rules.

On a personal level, I also am very pleased to have remained a participant in the development of our policy towards Russia, even as I changed jobs last January. New technologies make it possible for me and my staff to participate directly in all major U.S. government meetings on Russia, something Ambassador John Quincy Adams or even Ambassador Pickering could never have even imagined doing. I also was honored that President Obama asked to me join him for his meetings with President Medvedev in Seoul in March on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit.

He also invited me to his meeting with President Putin in Los Cabos, Mexico on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, even though it not customary for ambassadors to travel to other countries for meetings like these.

Visits by Secretary Clinton to St. Petersburg in June and National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon to Moscow in May were also major moments for policy development this past spring. Click here for photos of the Secretary's visit.

It was great to catch up with Secretary Clinton and chat about my time in Moscow so far. She led the U.S. delegation to the APEC Women and the Economy Summit, and has made women's issues a fundamental part of U.S. foreign policy­and thanks to her, the international community is taking note.

In addition, we had a fantastic number of high-level visitors since I became Ambassador, including Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Special Coordinator for Syria Fred Hof, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon, Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, Department of Commerce Under Secretary for International Trade Francisco Sanchez, and Department of Energy Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman. I am proud that our Mission has helped to encourage so many high-profile visits in my first six months here, since these delegations contribute greatly to the development of our bilateral relations. The next big event: accompanying Secretary Clinton to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok in early September.

Regarding my second major objective­enhancing bilateral trade and investment­our most immediate task has been to encourage the ratification of Russia's accession agreement to the World Trade Organization (WTO). In addition, we support the Obama administration's efforts to work with the U.S. Congress to terminate the application to Russia of the Jackson-Vanik (JV) amendment to the 1974 Trade Act, and grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR). Toward this end, we welcomed the visit of U.S. Senator Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, in February, and I was pleased also that his committee unanimously approved PNTR this week. We look forward to Congress's continued attention to this matter.

Later in the spring, we hosted a bipartisan delegation of the senior staff of that committee to acquaint them with the full range of issues related to trade relations with Russia. We also were honored to have in Moscow a group of eight members of the U.S. Congress headed by U.S. House of Representatives member Kevin McCarthy. Another Senate staff delegation also visited in Moscow in July for meetings with Russian officials, experts, and media to assess Russian views and policies on Syria, Iran, missile defense, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, and the domestic situation in Russia. We also continue to provide the White House with information about why and how the lifting of JV and the granting of PNTR will stimulate greater business opportunities for American exporters and investors.

In parallel to these efforts on JV/PNTR, I have devoted a great deal of my first six months to meeting with American companies and Russian government officials in an effort to facilitate trade and investment. In fact, this past May saw the first ever $1 billion month in terms of U.S. exports to Russia! This spring we also hosted successful trade missions to Russia in the automotive and energy efficiency sectors that introduced a total of 25 U.S. companies to prospective Russian partner companies through hundreds of individual meetings in five Russian cities. I was honored to witness the groundbreaking by General Motors in June for the expansion of GM Auto, its wholly owned manufacturing facility in St. Petersburg. The expansion will more than double GM Auto's annual production capacity from the current 98,000 vehicles to 230,000 vehicles by 2015.

I also attended the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) and the Ural International Exhibition and Forum of Industry and Innovations (INNOPROM), at which I had the opportunity to meet with many American business leaders (and do some traveling outside of Moscow, which I hope to continue!).

I have met several times with those involved in Skolkovo, including the impressive inaugural Masters of Scienece (MsC) fellowship program of Skolkovo Tech this week, and want to make sure the U.S. government is doing all that we can to support this important idea. I am particularly grateful for the close partnership that we maintain with the American Chamber of Commerce here in Moscow, and am always eager to meet with the leadership of the U.S.-Russia Business Council (USRBC) when they are in town. At the end of the day, the private sector is the driver of increased economic cooperation between Russia and the United States. But when we can find opportunities to do so, be it a new visa agreement or sponsorship of trade delegations, the Obama administration seeks to help create more permissive conditions for private sector investment and trade decisions. In this area, I think I have a lot more work to do, and I look forward to any concrete recommendations that you might have for facilitating our work in this area.

Finally, regarding my third goal­decreasing stereotypes­I have tried to engage the Russian public in gatherings of press, students, think tanks, and other groups, and, in turn, I see real demand for direct engagement with me. Although I opened an account on Twitter only six months ago, I already have 30,000 followers. On Facebook, I already have reached the limit of friends that I can have­5,000­but you can still sign up as a subscriber there. I allow myself time to engage on these social media platforms only in the evening, so I apologize in advance to those who have sent messages to me and I have not yet responded. During the day, I reserve time to fulfilling my conventional diplomatic duties. But I do find these new ways of interacting with Russians directly rewarding, even if at times, I make mistakes because of my poor Russian grammar or my lack of understanding of Russian slang. But I vow to keep at it. Follow me on Twitter at @McFaul or subscribe to me on FB and engage with me directly. By fostering people-to-people relationships, we are finding ways to bring together Americans and Russians from a variety of walks of life. I hope that both my contact with Russians, as well as greater contact between the people of our two great nations, fosters mutual understanding and combats outdated Cold War stereotypes. I was especially pleased that we combined the virtual with the real when we organized a "meet the ambassdor" meeting at the American Corner in Yekaterinburg by inviting participants for this event through Facebook and Twitter. Early in my tenure in Moscow, someone on Twitter challenged me to meet with the "real" people of Russia. Well, I don't know if the people who showed up for this meeting represented the "real" citizens of Yekaterinburg, but it was a first for American diplomacy in Russia, which we plan to repeat in other cities.

There is perhaps no better tool than cultural exchanges for combating stereotypes, and it has been deeply gratifying to see the warm response from Russians to "American Seasons," our cultural initiative to showcase the diversity and excellence of American performing and visual arts. One of my first public appearances was at the Moscow International House of Music for a concert by the Aeolian Choir of Oakville University from Huntsville, Alabama. I was very moved when the audience of 1700 spontaneously joined the young African-American gospel choir in the singing of "Amazing Grace." It was indeed amazing, and since then it has been my privilege to share American culture with our Russian friends by hosting many other extraordinary American artists in Moscow, including the world-renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Herbie Hancock, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and the Thelonius Monk Institute; Bang on a Can (avant-garde ensemble); Tony award-winning dancer and choreographer Savion Glover; and classical pianist Joyce Yang. In addition, we've enjoyed introducing Russian audiences to the music of some less well-known but very talented performers, including Jeffrey Broussard Ensemble and the Christine Balfa Quartet, Wylie and Wild West (a western swing band from my home state of Montana), R. Carlos Nakai (a native American flutist), Steve Reilly and the Mamou Playboys (Zydeco), and the Eli Yamin Blues Band.

In fact, the Eli Yamin Blues Band even performed at our Fourth of July celebration, by far the largest event I have hosted thus far at Spaso House. In recognition of this important holiday, which marks the birth of the United States as a free and independent nation in 1776, about 2,000 Russian and international guests from all walks of life ­ politicians (both pro-government and opposition), journalists, artists, students, diplomats, businessmen, many others ­ gathered at my residence for an afternoon spent eating hot dogs, drinking beer, and discussing American history and what it means to be American!

Finally, on a personal level, I could not be more thrilled to be in Russia right now. Of course, as a former Stanford professor and former White House official, I have had to learn how to become an ambassador. But I have found the challenge to be stimulating. And most importantly, I am honored and humbled to have the opportunity to represent President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and the American people here in Russia. And my life here is made easier by how well my wife and two sons have adjusted to life in Russia. We look for a new adventure every day, whether it is learning to say "more ice cream please" in Russian or discovering facts about World War II not well known in the United States. I am especially thrilled that my two sons are getting the opportunity to live in Russia. Since 1983, your culture, history, and people have been such a major part of my life. It is special now that Russia has become a new chapter in the life of my entire family.

My time here has truly flown by. We have accomplished a lot over the past half year, but I see so much more potential for ways in which we can fundamentally transform U.S.-Russia relations into a more stable, normal, productive partnership. I am encouraged by the aspirations for U.S.-Russia relations affirmed by our two presidents when they met last month, and look forward to the challenge of helping to turn these aspirations into more concrete outcomes over the coming weeks, months, and years. I will report back with a new assessment when I mark my one-year anniversary in January 2013, but in the meantime will continue with my periodic updates!

Keywords: U.S.-Russian Relations - Russian News - Russia - Johnson's Russia List

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