By An Le Nguyen
President Barack Obama plans to nominate political science professor Michael McFaul ‘86 M.A. ‘86 to the post of U.S. ambassador to Russia. Pending confirmation by the Senate, McFaul will succeed John Beyrle, who assumed the role of ambassador in 2008.
Officials said Obama informed the Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, of his selection last week at a G-8 meeting in France. The decision broke a longstanding tradition of designating career diplomats to serve as envoys to Russia; in the last three decades, seven out of eight ambassadors have been professional diplomats.
McFaul, 47, is a leading expert on U.S.-Russian relations and currently serves on the National Security Council as the president’s top advisor in this capacity. He was one of several Stanford professors chosen for Obama’s transition team in the months after the 2008 presidential election.
At present, the scholar-advisor is a key player in the president’s “reset” policy for U.S.-Russian relations, which, among other things, aims to promote shared economic interests and mutual understanding between the two nations.
Before rising to international prominence, McFaul was formerly the director of the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) and deputy director of the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) for International Studies. He was named the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, but is currently on leave from this position.
Current CDDRL Director Larry Diamond ’73 M.A. ’78 Ph.D. ’80, who has worked closely with McFaul through the years, commended his colleague for being “extremely effective in his current role as the special assistant to the president.”
“He’s managed not only to achieve a very important arms control agreement and to ‘reset’ U.S.-Russian relations…but he’s [also] managed to make a lot of progress in realizing what he has long argued to be a necessary balance in American foreign policy, between pursuing strategic interests and standing up for our principles,” Diamond said.
He added that many proponents of democratization and rule of law in Russia are heartened by McFaul’s expected move to Moscow. Barring all obstacles, McFaul would assume the ambassadorship at a critical juncture in which both the United States and Russia are gearing up for their 2012 presidential elections.
FSI Senior Fellow Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, who first met McFaul as a graduate student in Moscow more than 20 years ago and has co-written two books with him, said the nomination “doesn’t come as a huge surprise.” She pointed to her longtime collaborator’s active role in trying to revive a positive tone in Russian-American relations.
“He’s had some positive results, including the signing of the new START agreement,” Stoner-Weiss said. “And supply missions to be flown over Russian airspace into central Asia to fuel our efforts in Afghanistan are another big, positive development.”
McFaul may also provide policy continuity for President Obama as Russia entertains the possibility of entering the World Trade Organization, she said.
“I think from Stanford’s perspective, it’s great anytime when anyone from here is appointed to such a high-profile position,” Stoner-Weiss added, referring to McFaul’s established ties to the University.
McFaul’s roots on the Farm stretch back to his days as an undergraduate. McFaul received his bachelor’s degree in international relations and Slavic languages and his master’s degree in Slavic and East European studies in 1986. He resided in Phi Psi from 1983 to 1984.
A recipient of the Rhodes scholarship, he pursued his doctoral studies in international relations at Oxford University. Now, McFaul’s diplomatic career will likely extend his hiatus from the Farm.
“For Stanford, it means that when Mike comes back, he will come back with an even stronger record of distinguished service and even deeper knowledge of one of the most geopolitically important countries in the world,” Diamond said. “This will be a tremendous asset.”