Academics as Ambassadors

by Joshua Tucker on June 1, 2012 · 6 comments

in Academia,Foreign Policy

As I have previously noted in the Monkey Cage, a political scientist, Stanford University Professor Mike McFaul, is now the US Ambassador to Russia. One of the distinguishing features of McFaul’s first six months in the position has been his use of social media, including a YouTube video introducing himself to the Russian people, a Russian language blog on the embassy website, and active posts on Facebook and Twitter. McFaul has also been the focus of criticism from the Kremlin, in particular following a confrontation with reporters from a Russian television station and in the aftermath of election related protests.

This week has once again seen McFaul in the cross-fires of the Kremlin for remarks he made while speaking to students at the Higher School of Economics last Friday regarding US and Russian relations with Kyrgyzstan over an air force base (see for example here, here, and here).

In part because I’ve known McFaul for 15 years and consider him a friend, I don’t want to use this post to debate either the content of the speech or the appropriateness of saying what he said when he said it (you can find plenty of this in the blogosphere), but instead want to raise another point that has come up in this discussion, that somehow McFaul’s penchant for comments of this nature (and perhaps even his whole approach to social media and reaching out to the Russian people) is a function of his previous occupation as a professor. The argument goes something like this: academics are used to speaking freely and encouraging discussion; diplomats, on the other hand, need to be very judicious in their choice of language, and especially so in public. Thus, hiring an academic as an ambassador is a recipe for disaster. A kind of corollary to this argument is that if you hire an academic who has specialized in studying the country where she is now the ambassador, she will have left behind a long paper trail of academic writings which may provide fodder for criticism from the host country while serving as ambassador.

As I am not a diplomatic historian, I thought I would throw this topic out to the readers of The Monkey Cage to try to get some sense of whether there is any empirical evidence to back up these assertions. Have academics historically made for bad (or good) ambassadors? Have they been more prone to “speaking their mind” than career diplomats or political appointees? Are these legitimate criticisms to make?

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