Academics as Ambassadors

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?

6 Responses to Academics as Ambassadors

  1. LFC June 1, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    Can’t answer the questions posed, but fyi Ben O’Loughlin’s recent post, here, refers to use of social media by the US amb. to New Zealand.

  2. del2124 June 1, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

    An academic who becomes an ambassador IS a political appointee. Or are you asking if the average academic is a better ambassador than the average multimillionaire campaign donor?

    • Joshua Tucker June 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

      Good point. I guess I was thinking three categories: career diplomats; traditional political appointees; and academics. I guess “political appointees” is a pretty vague category, so here I would simply say either career politicians or else your typical large campaign donors. So I also want to draw a distinction between McFaul and say, Gary Locke, the current US Ambassador to China. Neither is a career diplomat, but nor is either one a multimillionaire campaign donor.

  3. EmilyKennedy June 1, 2012 at 6:11 pm #

    Maybe it’s because I work in research and go to school at a midwestern public university in a very republican state, but I have always felt that professors have to be extremely diplomatic and careful about what they say. They are speaking to a large cross-section of adults when they teach, so they must have good evidence to support their claims, they have to be clear and concise, and then must know just how far their claims can go. Also, choices of research topics are in relationship with available funding, so it often pays to be conservative (referencing the argument in the 2009 NYT article by Kolata about why there’s no cure for cancer yet).

  4. Thomas Brambor June 2, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

    I am glad that Mike McFaul is not selling out his soul to the Washington circus. True, it is a bit surprising that he openly talks about the Russian involvement in the Kyrgyz revolution, but I prefer his truth telling over the usual diplomatic deceit anytime. And to Emily: I have sat in McFaul’s classes and been his Teaching Assistant and only partially agree. Yes, he always presented a balanced case supported by evidence. Yet, there was also never any doubt that he supports democracy promotion. No need to kiss up to autocrats just for making a balanced argument.

  5. Tony June 4, 2012 at 12:24 pm #

    Only tangentially related, but fun book: