Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | February 20, 2014

More on Ambassadors

First, Jon Stewart had a segment earlier in the month (I missed it at the time) on the topic of the current Administration’s appointments of ambassadors. (“Is there a rule ambassadors can’t have set foot in the countries they are going to ambassador?” [sic]) He covers Sen. Baucus’s mission to China, among other items.

Jay Ulfelder at Dart-Throwing Chimp has a post on the resignation of U.S. ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul (a story that Stewart mentions at the end of his segment). Ulfelder:

McFaul had never served as a diplomat before taking this post, and his two years on the job have drawn polarized reviews. Many observers hold McFaul at least partially responsible for the slump in U.S.-Russian relations, and some of those critics point to his inexperience in diplomacy as one cause of that slump. Others praise McFaul for his dogged and open pursuit of “dual-track” diplomacy, publicly engaging with Russian activists and the wider public in person and through social media while also engaging in more traditional relations with the Russian government those activists are trying to transform or topple.

I think there’s truth in both views, but I agree with James Carden (here) that the fault for McFaul’s rocky tenure lies primarily with the people who decided to appoint him to the post. I see Ambassador McFaul as a tragic figure—a man who meant to do good and tried his level best but whose accumulated professional baggage made it almost impossible for him to succeed in the job of a lifetime.

(It would be nice if Mr. Ulfelder quoted or linked to some of these “Many oberservers” or “others,” but never mind; when I searched for news stories on McFaul, papers and news sites tended to cite anonymous “experts” to support whatever analytical point they were making about McFaul or the Ruskies.)



  1. I read Ulfelder’s post on McFaul several days ago.

    Here’s the problem, as I (a complete non-expert on Russia) tend to see it.

    Obama appointed a leading academic expert on Russia, who had sympathies and/or ties w the dissident pro-more-democracy forces. McFaul insisted apparently, according to what Ulfelder writes, in maintaining communication w/ civil society and opposition groups as well as doing the more traditional govt-to-govt stuff. Result: he gets blamed by some, at least to some extent, for the souring in Russia-US relations.

    Now suppose that Obama had appointed someone without McFaul’s ‘professional baggage’, say, a career diplomat knowledgeable about Russia but with no paper trail of writing about it and its domestic politics. This person proceeds to do the traditional ambassador thing and have cordial relations w the govt. He nods in direction of civil society etc but doesn’t go out of his way to cultivate the opposition. Result: the US gets criticized by every human rts group for having an ambassador who is too close to Putin, etc.

    Is either approach — quiet diplomacy on the one hand, McFaul-style engagement on the other? — going to pay off in terms of liberalization eventually? who knows? I certainly don’t.

    What I do suspect, though, is that whatever sort of ambassador you appt in this situation, you lose. You get criticized. You can’t win. And how much the amb. really has to do w the arc of relations is prob. exaggerated. Russia-US relations were prob. not going to be esp. great, given events in the world, regardless of who was ambassador.

    I know someone in For. Service v. knowledgeable and experienced in Eastern/Central Europe, though not a Russia expert capital E. I shd ask him what he thinks about this, tho I haven’t.

    • Fair points. Blamed either way. Russia is probably a posting where it is difficult to be especially “effective” (for various values of that term) regardless of the approach. China is probably the same way, for that matter.

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