Faculty Friday: from ambassador to faculty member, a chat with Michael McFaul

Oct. 24, 2014, 9:28 a.m.

The Stanford Daily recently sat down with Professor Michael McFaul ’86 M.A. ’86 to discuss his time as U.S. Ambassador to Russia and his move back to Stanford.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What is it like for you to transition between an ambassador position and an academic position?

Michael McFaul (MM): I was on the faculty here before. I have been on the faculty for almost 20 years now. So, I knew what I was coming back to. I think there are two big things that are different. One, of course, is the substance of the job and the pace of that. As an ambassador and before when I worked in the White House, the pace of the work was more intense. Things here allow you to think more systematically. The second thing is in Moscow, I was a public personality. People would know me if I went to a restaurant or get on an airplane. Here, of course, I am not a public person at all and then there is just the day to day stuff. I used to get in a car with my driver in a Cadillac and bodyguards and three cars. And now, I just get on my one speed twin cruiser. I lived in a giant mansion called Spaso House (in Moscow) with a staff of 14 people. Now, I have no staff and I live in a small house on campus. (In Moscow), I ran an embassy. We had around 1,500 people and a budget of $270 million. Now, I have one half-time person that works for me and no budget at all. So that’s a big change.


TSD: What attracts you to academia and more specifically, what made you come back?

MM: I always planned to come back. I would never leave Stanford. I was an undergraduate here at Stanford, and I consider this to be the best academic institution in the world and one of the best places in the world to live. So, I was never going to leave. The immediate reason that brought me back was because of my children. I wanted my older son to finish high school in United States. That was the thing that pushed us to come back when we did. But the more analytic part of your question, I have always wanted to be a bridge person between academia and policy. In past, I have done that through writings, and now I have done it through service. I believe strongly that our policy can be better if it’s more informed by research, and I also think that our research can be better informed if it has to be tested against reality. So, I believe that the two-way street makes each side better. I had to test my hypotheses and my assumptions in real life all the time in my job as an ambassador.


TSD: You began studying at Stanford in 1981 and while you were an undergraduate, you went to Soviet Union. How did that trip and your time at Stanford impact your views about Russia?

MM: I grew up in Montana. I had never been abroad before until I went to the Soviet Union in 1983. Even as a high school student, I had an interest in international relations but coming here was the event in my life that just catapulted me into this trajectory. Early on, I took First Year Russian and Political Science 35. Those two classes had a giant impact on what I did later. I also had the incredible opportunity to work with two other mentors — Professor Alexander Dallin in the history department and Professor Alexander L. George in the political science department. I was a young kid and they were teaching mostly graduate classes but the seminars I took with them ended up having an effect on me to do this day, in terms of the way I think about Russia and the way I think about social science. I truly believe that had I not taken those seminars with those two professors, my career might have been very different.


TSD: What’s it like to balance Russia, Washington, D.C. and Stanford at the same time, even though you are now here?

MM: I do work for NBC News, and my friends are still all at White House. I guess, for me, I am focused on Stanford right now. I think it’s hard to step down from a policy job and continue to try to be involved. You are either in or you are out. I am trying to reorient for the next phase of my intellectual career as opposed to trying to keep playing the Washington game. I just saw Secretary Clinton last week, and she was a good boss to me and it was great to see her again.


TSD: I am going to end with a tagline about you I found on Twitter, which describes you as “a recovering bureaucrat and an aspiring professor.” Would you describe yourself as that?

MM: What I meant by that is that there are certain ways you talk when you are in a system or a government. You are not just a lone agent and it takes a while to remember that you can speak freely. I don’t want to just be the former ambassador for the rest of my career. I am too young to just rest on my laurels and while I am at Stanford, I want to be an academic again. I want to think in terms of dependent variables and independent variables and think theoretically. I am teaching a course right now on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (INTNLREL 114D). This is a course I taught several years ago but I haven’t taught for a while and I want to absorb what’s happened in my field over the last six years while I was gone. I didn’t have a lot of time to read academic articles and academic books when I was in the government for the last few years.

I think that is part of the renewal process that a place like Stanford allows. It is great to be reconnected with the students again. I went out of my way as an ambassador to do that with Russian students because I was used to it. It is something I enjoyed, and now that I am back here, I find that to be a way to recharge my batteries and think again analytically about things I haven’t had the time to when I was in the government.


TSD: What piece of advice do you have for students at Stanford?

MM: In my own case, for many decades, people told me that I had to choose between being an academic or being a policy maker, and I always considered that a false choice. It was hard to bounce back and forth between those places, but it can be done, and I am evidence that it can be done. The second thing I would say is that you should figure out what you want to do in life not what you want to be in life. That’s a big difference in my opinion. So I think you figure out what you want to do and then the means for doing that are various jobs along the way as opposed to deciding when you are 18 years old, I want to be a professor or I want to be a diplomat. You should define your career as an action verb. For me, that was always a useful way to think about different periods of my career.

This is the first in a continuing series of faculty spotlight pieces. 

Contact Manu Chopra at mchopra ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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