Michael McFaul (@McFaul) is a former US ambassador to Russia, a professor of political science at Stanford University, and author of New York Times Best Seller From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.

What We Discuss with Michael McFaul:

  • What the role of an ambassador in the 21st century entails, how it differs from being a diplomat, and how it changes between administrations.
  • Ambassador McFaul’s creative approach to problem-solving when confronted with relentless obstruction by Putin, and how he developed relationships and recruited allies in this hostile environment.
  • How ambassadors, government officials, and spies conduct their business and keep secrets overseas.
  • The exhaustive preparations and precautions that precede a meeting between two world leaders.
  • How to get inside the mind of another culture when doing business cross-culturally so you can be effective when you need to be.
  • And much more…

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When you’re an ambassador to a nation whose government works to undermine your credibility from day one, you’d better be good at developing relationships, creating allies while under fire, and building trust and rapport in uncomfortable situations.

Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia and author of From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia, found himself in exactly this position when facing off with none other than Vladimir Putin. He joins us for this episode to share how he kept his cool under such daunting circumstances and the details such a job entails — from keeping state secrets to preparing for conversations with world leaders when the stakes are high. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

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If you’ve ever wondered what it is an ambassador actually does, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia author Michael McFaul is the guy to ask. Under the Obama administration, he served as the ambassador to Russia — and learned to deal with resistance by Vladimir Putin’s government from his first day there.

“I think the roles of ambassadors have changed over time,” says Michael. “A hundred years ago, two-hundred years ago, they did a lot of diplomacy and they would get messages from the Capitol and they would negotiate with the government. I still did that; [my] main job [was] to interact with the Russian government on issues about US-Russian relations. I worked a lot on Syria when I was ambassador — mostly arguing with the Russians because we disagreed about it. But you’ve got to remember in this day and age in the 21st century, I could do that with the deputy foreign minister who was in charge of the Middle East, but Secretary Kerry — he was one of my bosses — he could also just pick up the cell phone and call the foreign minister. So that makes things a little more difficult.

“The president — President Trump — he calls President Putin all the time now, so what is Ambassador Huntsman doing when you have that kind of direct communication? So I think that means — and most certainly that’s the way I saw my job — that you have to change the role of the ambassador. And what I did a lot of was to engage with Russian society — not just the government. So that meant engaging with the Russian business community, with the cultural community, with civil society, sports figures…that was part of my job as well. And then the other part was helping Americans interact with Russian society — so helping American business interact. Helping American civil society people, religious people, sports people, too — we hosted the NBA one day at my house! So that’s another part of the job that I think people don’t think of. That’s a big part of being an ambassador in the 21st century.”

But such a job is made especially difficult when the country you’re trying to build a bridge toward rejects your efforts and denounces you as a revolutionary and a spy — as Michael encountered almost as soon as his plane landed in Russia.

“The first hit job they did on me was even before I had showed up,” says Michael. “It was Martin Luther King Day, so it was Monday. I remember it. My first day on the job was Tuesday. So they were ready for me. They had done their homework. But you get into a tricky set of questions. Our policy as the Obama administration, and I would say it’s been shared by most administrations — I don’t know about Trump these days — but Democrats and Republicans had this idea that we meet with the government, but we also meet with society, including political opposition figures.

“So when I first traveled to Russia as a government official with President Obama…we met with President Medvedev, we then had breakfast with Prime Minister Putin, and then the rest of the second day, he met with business leaders, students, civil society leaders, and opposition political figures. That was kind of normal. That’s what you did. But when I showed up, things had changed…there were demonstrations against the Russian government. There had been a falsified election in December 2011 and they were protesting that and it felt very…they were uncertain times. So when we met with the opposition leaders — and by the way, just a footnote to history, it was not my meeting, it was actually the Deputy Secretary of State visiting Moscow, and your job as ambassador is to accompany people when they meet with government officials. So I was just a potted plant! I wasn’t doing anything! I was just going along for the ride.

“But the context had changed. And so what would normally be just a standard meeting that nobody would pay any attention to, because there were these massive demonstrations, it became this explosive issue that the Russian government deliberately used. And that was my fate. I was known as The Revolutionary for the rest of my time as the ambassador. There was nothing I could do to change that. We tried on Twitter and different places to push back, but we were dealing with the Russian media telling a different story.”

Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about the differences between ambassadors and diplomats, how ambassadors can get tangled up in the blurred lines that exist when every country is spying on every other country (without technically being spies themselves), Michael’s youthful foray into the Soviet black market book trade during the ‘80s, how Michael navigated around the Russian disinformation campaign that falsely outed him as — among other things — a pedophile, how high-profile Americans travel and communicate secretly in Russia, and much more.


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