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Q&A - Michael McFaul

US ambassador to Russia

Moscow

Early in US president Barack Obama’s first term his administration launched a “reset” with Russia. Its figurehead was secretary of state Hillary Clinton, but its author was Michael McFaul. The Stanford professor had been working on, and in, Russia since the 1980s, and had been a key member of Obama’s foreign policy team since early in his presidential campaign. The candidate and the adviser, each bookish and charismatic, were a good fit, and once in office Obama brought McFaul into the White House. It was, McFaul says, never a job he aspired to, but it was also an opportunity he could not refuse. He has been a major player in shaping the administration’s foreign policy, particularly on Russia, and with the “reset” he coined a word that has entered the diplomatic lexicon.

Even so, when the president tapped the academic to be the US ambassador to Russia, the appointment made some waves. The post, working with a notoriously prickly world power, has almost always gone to career diplomats. When such a novice, new to the State Department, was named to replace the well-liked and well-respected John Beyrle, many had doubts. Concerns on the Russian side were fuelled by years of papers and articles on the development of democracy in Russia, and the new ambassador’s arrival coincided with the biggest anti-government protests since the fall of the Soviet Union. McFaul, as he openly admits, got off to a rocky start, but he has found his feet and, while continuing to shape Russia policy in Washington, is forging ahead with a brief to reshape the way the US does diplomacy in Russia.

Monocle: Is this your dream job?
Michael McFauL: It’s a fantastically interesting job. As an academic the years tend to blend together, so I’d be hard put to tell you what I did in 2002 or 1998. I will always remember 2012, my first year as ambassador here, because of all the different and new challenges and experiences I’ve had. I love to learn, I love the freedom to continue to learn, and most certainly the opportunity to serve as US ambassador here has given me that.

M: It wasn’t necessarily the easiest start just over a year ago. Do you think it was made harder because you were new to the State Department?
MM: I’d start with the advantages – I think other ambassadors are challenged to know what is the policy, how do I execute the policy, what the senior government officials think about the country I’m serving in, what does the president of the US think about the country that I’m in? I didn’t have that problem. I had worked for three years at the White House, so I knew what the policy was. The one place where I had to learn more of course was navigating the private and the public. It’s a challenge everywhere: under what conditions do you talk about things publicly; under what conditions do you not; and I’ve had to learn that, but I feel pretty comfortable with it now.

M: In terms of the public and the private, are there things you wish you hadn’t said?
MM: Yeah, so I’m not going to say them again! (Laughs.) I don’t want to give the news another cycle on it. Of course, my job as a professor and as a communicator is to make things as crystal clear as possible, and to take very complex phenomenon and to boil them down. That’s not always useful in diplomacy and I’ve had to learn to be more ambiguous. Sometimes ambiguity serves a purpose in diplomacy, and sometimes being imprecise is useful. I’ve learned that.

M: It’s been an astounding year and a half in Russia. How much has that been a problem for you and how much has it been an opportunity?
MM: I arrived at a unique period in Russian history and I believe there has been a misperception – I think fuelled for political reasons – about what I was doing here and the functions of my job. Guess how many times I’ve met with [Russian opposition activist Alexei] Navalny, here in Russia. Zero. But to read the Russian press, you’d think he’s over at Spaso House [the US ambassador’s official residence] having beers with me every night. I met him once, in the US. If he would like to meet, I’m happy to meet. I would say that about other leaders, but I think there’s been a cartoonisation of the role that I’ve played here. It’s disappointing because that doesn’t give the Russian people an accurate perception of what I’m here to do.

M: As someone who’s been so heavily engaged in Russia for so long and with close personal attachments here, how do you like where you see Russia going at the moment?
MM: I’m a big optimist. I don’t know if that’s informed by my academic training or if it’s informed by the fact I was born in Montana. So as a social scientist I would want to look at what we would call the ‘causal variables’ for my optimism in a more systematic way because I’m not so sure it’s rational. But I lived here first in 1983 and if you compare that moment with this moment and ask if Russia is moving in a more positive direction, the obvious answer is yes.

Rising above it all

Russia

Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev has announced he has switched to using a helicopter for his daily commute. The news is a relief to drivers in Moscow who spent an average of 127 hours in traffic last year, partly caused by presidential and diplomatic motorcades.

Ghana gains

Accra [OIL]

A healthy partnership has emerged that sees Norway advising Ghana on how best to manage its nascent oil industry. From its embassy in Accra the Norwegian government has advised on establishing an oil fund in the style of the Norwegian model, and is helping with environment and development issues. Arne Olsen, interim Chargé d’Affaires at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Accra, is quick to counter any suggestion that Norwegian oil companies might benefit from this partnership. “There is a firewall between the development programme and the private, commercial side,”he says.

Going south

London [US EMBASSY]

When the Americans chose the site for their new embassy in the UK some more snooty Londoners turned up their noses. South of the Thames (already a geographical faux pas in diplomatic circles) the Nine Elms site is currently a large industrial wasteland. However, the State Department’s decision has been backed by the Dutch – the Royal Kingdom of the Netherlands has bought land right next to the Americans and intends to vacate its red-brick pile at Hyde Park. London’s taxi drivers are famously wary about going south of the river. With diplomatic rumours suggesting the Chinese are considering a move too, it’s becoming less of a no-go area for ambassadors.

Ambassador no.19

Panama’s fresh face

London [ANA IRENE DELGADO]

“I’m not a diplomat,” says 31-year-old Ana Irene Delgado. Wearing a fur-lined leather jacket and discussing nights out in London, it is easy to forget that Delgado is not being entirely honest. She may not look like your typical ambassador – nor, in a good way, does she act like one – but for the past 18 months Delgado has been one of Panama’s most important envoys, representing the tiny Central American state not just in the UK but, crucially for a country known for its shipping, to the International Maritime Organisation.

Her self-deprecating line has more to do with her professional background. Trained as a lawyer in New York, Delgado was invited to join Ricardo Martinelli’s government after he was elected in 2009. She refused at first before eventually agreeing to take up her current post after being offered a choice between Madrid and London.

The weather, of course, isn’t exactly to her liking but she has no regrets about choosing London over Madrid. “I love this city,” she says, before rattling off the galleries and restaurants that excite her. The social life of an ambassador is not necessarily what most 30-year-olds would like to experience in London. Most of her fellow ambassadors are “old enough to be my father or grandfather”, so instead she has made friends with their sons and daughters. A former fencer, she still finds time to train at the Lansdowne club with some members of the British Olympic team, and also does showjumping in Harrow. The job though, keeps her busy enough. Panama is currently doubling the size of its famous canal, a $5.25bn (€4bn) project that should have a major impact on the shipping industry, while there are also plans to build an underground system. Delgado’s biggest transport concern is aviation.

She is trying to convince a major airline to begin direct flights between London and Panama. With the regional success of Copa Airlines, it could help to make Tocumen International a true hub for Latin America.

Panama’s reputation could also do with a bit of work. Delgado is honest enough to recognise that the effects of 23 years of military dictatorship from 1966 to 1989 still linger. “Money laundering, drug dealing, things like that,” she says with a shrug. It is beginning to change. Fittingly for Delgado, fashion is at the forefront. A handful of Panamanian designers came to London Fashion Week for the first time this year, while Burberry is among the British fashion retailers beginning to open shops in Panama. “Little by little,” says Delgado, “people will start hearing about Panama.”

Panamanian embassy in London

  1. The embassy: a three-storey building a couple of roads back from Green Park and Piccadilly. Visitors are greeted in the wood-panelled meeting room where the walls are decorated with a framed copy of Panama’s constitution.
  2. The staff: Persuading British businesses to invest in Panama, something that Delgado hopes the strength of Copa Airlines and doubling the width of the canal will make a bit easier.

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