MISSOULA – Dr. Michael McFaul is many things ̶ a Montana native, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, best-selling author and Stanford University professor.
McFaul will be at the University of Montana to deliver the final installment of the President’s Lecture Series on Wednesday, April 10.
After serving five years as special assistant to President Barack Obama and later as senior director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council at the White House, McFaul was posted in Moscow as the U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2012 to 2014.
Ahead of his lectures, McFaul shared his insights with UM News about learning the Russian language, foreign service career opportunities for students and competing in high school speech and debate with Sen. Steve Daines.
UM News: We’re in the middle of a complicated national discourse about foreign interference with America’s democratic electoral process. What do you make of this?
McFaul: Russian President Vladimir Putin approved an aggressive campaign to interfere in our 2016 presidential election to influence voter preferences and also more generally to exacerbate polarization in American society. Nothing of this scale has ever happened in American history. It was not President Trump’s fault that Putin orchestrated this influence campaign, but now it’s time for the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress to act to prevent future attacks from Russia and other hostile countries. Because of polarization in Washington, as a country we have not taken the necessary steps to protect our voters, media and electoral infrastructure from new attacks. Now that the Mueller report has been completed, I hope we will pivot to working on necessary prescriptive measures.
UM News: Your trajectory from being a kid from Montana to serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia is impressive. What might you say to today’s Montana students about foreign service career opportunities and possibilities?
McFaul: If you have the chance to serve our great country as an ambassador, do it!
I loved the job, and I hope UM students will consider the State Department as a career option. I met some of the most talented, most dedicated, most patriotic people in the foreign service when I worked at the White House and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Working at the State Department offers a unique and diversified career path in that you get the opportunity to serve in Washington, as well as several overseas posts. And to prepare you to work abroad, the State Department will pay you to learn foreign languages. You also have the opportunity to work on multiple issue areas over the course of your career, including (for me); arms control, trade, business development, public diplomacy, regional security issues and human rights. I highly recommend this form of service to our country.
UM News: When did you first begin studying Russian, and why is it a language students should pursue in this decade?
I first became interested in U.S.-Soviet relations while on the debate team at Bozeman Senior High School in my junior year. My high school debate partner that year was Steve Daines, now Sen. Daines. We were a pretty good team! I then started studying Russian fall quarter of my freshman year at Stanford and took my first trip to Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg) the summer after my sophomore year, again to continue to learn Russian. It took me a long time to become comfortable speaking the language. Russian is an important language because Russia is still one of the major powers in the international system. After Chinese, I’d say it’s the most important language to learn for anyone interested in foreign policy or national security affairs.
UM News: You’ve dedicated your scholarship to studying the impact of advancing democracy. What are your grounding beliefs about the power of democracy to elevate humanity?
McFaul: First, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst system of government except for all the others tried before. Democracies are better at securing people’s human rights, they’re good at producing economic wealth, public opinion polls show that most people around the world still desire democracy and democracies do not go to war with each other. And finally, the U.S. has a national security interest in advancing democracy since every country that has attacked us in the past was an autocracy. Every country that threatens our security today is an autocracy, while some of our most loyal allies are democracies. It’s also really hard for the United States to promote democracy abroad. Military intervention rarely works. So for me, I focus on education – trying to transmit ideas and research about democracy around the world as the best way for Americans to help promote democracy around the world. To be more credible when trying to promote democracy abroad, we have to start first by getting our own house in order.
UM News: Stewarding great power relations on the global stage sounds very challenging. How do you go about getting people from all walks of life, languages and priorities to engage proactively?
McFaul: When I was a student in Bozeman Senior High School, I had a theory about great powers relations. I believed we could reduce tensions between countries by getting to know each other better. I still believe this, but with some nuance. At the beginning of the Obama administration in 2009, we tried to reset relations with Russia and found a partner in Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. But then Putin became president of Russia again in 2012 and cooperation halted. As one of the chapters of my book is called, it takes two to tango and Putin wasn’t in the mood to dance with us. He sees the United States as Russia’s enemy. That said, I still believe that diplomacy must be pursued even with adversarial countries so, at a minimum, we can avoid conflicts because of misperceptions or misunderstandings. More engagement between global societies and not just our governments can create common causes between countries.
UM News: How much do Montanans and Russians have in common, besides boreal resiliency to long winters?
McFaul: I love Russia. I have many Russian friends and admire a lot of Russian culture and history. I find many similarities between Montanans and Russians who don’t live in Moscow or St. Petersburg (however, New Yorkers and Muscovites have a lot in common). In smaller Russian cities, people are friendly, non-nonsense and very hospitable. And out in Siberia, hunting, fishing and camping are central activities. I think most Montanans would feel very comfortable hanging out with non-urban Russians; so long as you’re prepared to drink vodka instead of Moose Drool.
Presenting “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia,” at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilma in downtown Missoula, McFaul will draw from years as an accomplished scholar of great power relations on the international stage. That same day McFaul also will present “U.S. Foreign Policy in the Trump Era” at 3:30 p.m. in the UC Theater. Both events are free and open to the public and doors will open one hour before each event.