As he prepared to talk with a roomful of Hellgate High School history students, former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul inadvertently waited in front of a poster with instructions on “How to Be a Dictator.”
“The seniors in this class just finished studying the Cold War,” teacher Patty Hixson said. “Having somebody who’s actually talked with Vladimir Putin and the people of Russia just made Russia and the Russians a little more real for them. And having somebody who’s actually gone from Glasgow, Montana, to Washington, D.C., and then to Moscow lets them know it’s something you can do too.”
McFaul was a Bozeman High School graduate and speech team debater with now-Sen. Steve Daines before going to Stanford and then studying abroad just before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. He came to Missoula on Wednesday to give a University of Montana President’s Lecture on foreign affairs. But he spent much of the day with high school students talking about everything from career paths in the State Department to President Barack Obama’s basketball jump-shot.
International relations transcends American political divisions, McFaul argued. For example, current President Donald Trump offered a much more isolationist foreign policy plan than most of his Republican rivals during the election, while Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton differed greatly on the Democratic side. The bigger question, McFaul said, was whether the United States should be actively involved in the affairs of other countries and promoting its values abroad, or not.
“Our country has made a lot of mistakes over the years,” McFaul told the students. “But we’ve also been an inspiration for people fighting autocratic states around the world. To people fighting for human rights in tough places, we’ve lost our leadership role. I think we benefit from the expansion of liberty and human rights around the world.”
In his book “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia,” McFaul chronicled his time as a graduate student in the Soviet Union as the Berlin Wall came down, and Michael Gorbachev started opening the country to Western economic and political ideas.
He went on to work for a nongovernmental organization sponsored by the U.S. Democratic Party advising Russian political groups how to develop grassroots support for open-government institutions. He joined Obama’s National Security Council and eventually become ambassador to Russia.
“Putin blamed me personally for supporting opposition to him,” McFaul said. “I was considered the revolutionary sent by Obama to overthrow him.”
In confusing fashion, the Trump administration has continued most of Obama’s Russia policies such as sanctioning Russian individuals in response to international outrages like the annexation of Crimea, and supporting Ukraine, which Putin’s military invaded the day McFaul ended his ambassadorship. But Trump himself has continued a “peculiar obsession with Vladimir Putin, going out of his way to praise him and criticize his own government,” McFaul said.
Asked about career paths in foreign affairs, McFaul advised studying two things: history and foreign languages. In international diplomacy, he said people tend to relate to historical anecdotes much better than analysis or data, even if the stories don’t match the science. And the people who can actually speak the language of the other side will have much more access to the negotiations than those who don’t.
Hellgate senior Dylan Yonce said she planned to finish McFaul’s book after covering several chapters for her International Baccalaureate History test. She plans to study Russian and history as a presidential scholar at the University of Montana next year.
“I liked his optimism that two countries which have been so polarized and separate could find common ground,” Yonce said of McFaul’s diplomatic efforts in Russia. “Spending your entire life trying to improve relationships is inspiring to me.”