Daniel W. Drezner
Being an ambassador in the 21st century
One could argue that the job of ambassador has been made obsolete by macrotrends in technology and politics. Oh, sure, maybe traditional envoys from great powers still play an important role in smaller countries that don’t normally capture much attention in major capitals. Among the great powers, however, one could posit that ambassadors are superfluous. In a world in ...
One could argue that the job of ambassador has been made obsolete by macrotrends in technology and politics. Oh, sure, maybe traditional envoys from great powers still play an important role in smaller countries that don’t normally capture much attention in major capitals. Among the great powers, however, one could posit that ambassadors are superfluous. In a world in which heads of government and foreign ministers have multiple direct means of communication, in which you can’t go a week without some big global summit, and in which leaders are wary of confiding with ambassadors because
they’ll quit and then run for head of government that’s just another press leak waiting to happen, what can ambassadors really do? Will we see the likes of Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams, or even Anatoly Dobrynin ever again?
Probably not, but even in the 21st century, great power ambassadors to other great powers still serve a purpose. In the case of American ambassadors to Russia and China, they can excel at getting under the skin of their host country governments. Gary Locke seems to be doing that pretty well in China, in no small part by being an ethnic Chinese politician that doesn’t seem to be behaving like Chinese politicians.
In the case of Russia, there’s the new ambassador Michael McFaul, who before this was in Obama’s National Security Council and one of the architects o the "reset" policy, and before that was a professor of political science at Stanford (full disclosure: Mike’s first year at Stanford as a professor was my last there as a grad student, and he’s been a friend to me ever since).
In the annals of American diplomacy, few honeymoons have been shorter than the one granted to Michael A. McFaul, who arrived in Russia on Jan. 14 as the new American ambassador.
Toward the end of the ambassador’s second full day at work, a commentator on state-controlled Channel 1 suggested during a prime-time newscast that Mr. McFaul was sent to Moscow to foment revolution. A columnist for the newspaper Izvestia chimed in the next day, saying his appointment signaled a return to the 18th century, when “an ambassador’s participation in intrigues and court conspiracies was ordinary business.”….
Mr. McFaul, 48, has arrived in a city churning with conjecture and paranoia. The public attack illustrates how edgy the Kremlin is about the protest movement that has taken shape, turning Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s re-election campaign into a nerve-racking test for the government. It also reveals how fragile relations are between Washington and Mr. Putin’s government, which has repeatedly accused the State Department of orchestrating the demonstrations.
If the blast of venom that greeted Mr. McFaul was intended as a warning to maintain a low profile in his new role, he seems unlikely to comply. At the end of his first week, he was exuberant, saying his goal was to “destroy cold war stereotypes,” especially misstatements about the United States’ intentions in Russia.
“I know I’m just going to go in full force, I’ve got nothing to hide, and we feel very confident in our policy and in selling our policy,” said Mr. McFaul, a native of Bozeman, Mont., who spent much of his career in academia. He does not need to fret over his next diplomatic posting, he added, because there will not be one.
“I ain’t going nowhere else,” he said, with a big smile. “This is it. I am not a career diplomat. And so I am here to do that in a very, very aggressive way.”
As someone who spent a short stint in DC, I recognize the sentiment McFaul expressed in that last paragraph. The exit option is one of the greatest assets an academic has if they enter the foreign policymaking world. Of course, that option can also encourage policymakers to stray way outside the reservation, so it kind of depends upon which academic has been appointed. In the case of McFaul, I’m very confident he will use this power for the forces of good.