Advocating for democracy during the Ukraine and Russia war: Interview with Professor Michael McFaul

by Kyle Nguyen (’23) | February 3, 2023

Art by Matthew Tran (’23)

Michael McFaul served for five years in the Obama administration—first as Special Assistant to President Obama, Senior Director for Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council at the White House from 2009 to 2012, and as U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2012 to 2014. He is currently the Director and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and a Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is also an NBC News analyst and a contributing Washington Post columnist. The Lancer recently caught up with Mr. McFaul to discuss his career in politics and his take on the current Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Lancer: What was your path from your initial interest in the political field to where you are now?

Michael McFaul: I grew up in Montana, and in my junior year of high school at Bozeman Senior High, I took a debate class. I was trying to just get an easy A in English, and I was told this was the easiest course to take. I wasn’t particularly motivated to learn debate or even politics, but the debate topic that year was on improving U.S. trade policy. Back then, the Soviet Union was still a large concern, so our case argued to increase trade with the USSR. That’s how I got interested in global politics and Russia. So when I came to Stanford as a freshman in the fall of 1981, I took classes on international relations, and that launched me on this path about international relations and Russia in particular.

TL: How do you think modern media has specifically changed the narrative of global politics and issues with regard to the Ukraine-Russia conflict?

MM: There is this tragic, horrible, barbaric, physical war going on inside Ukraine because Putin invaded Ukraine. But around it, there’s a digital war going on as well, and many sides are engaged in it. Some of it is information. Some of it is propaganda. Some of it is counter-propaganda. 

The Russians are very active, and the Ukrainians are pretty sophisticated in this field. The U.S. is engaged, but I would say has a weaker presence. I’m surprised that the developing world doesn’t see this war in the same way that I do, or that my friends in Ukraine do. From my perspective, this is a war of annexation. It was an unprovoked war and it’s a former empire trying to re-colonize a country that used to be a colony of the Russian Empire. And yet, if you look at survey data, that’s not the way it’s perceived in Africa or Southeast Asia or Latin America. So I think that the liberal democratic world order is losing the developing world. 

Now onto the positive side. I’m pretty impressed with Zelenskyy as a communicator. He’s a former actor, so he understands communication. I think he’s done some very creative things and is trying to keep the focus on the war around the world, at least in the democratic world. And I think they’re doing a pretty good job. We’re not doing as good of a job.

TL: And if I recall, Zelenskyy gave a discussion at Stanford?

MM: He came twice actually, once in person. I hosted him. That was before the war, in September 2021, and then he came back virtually, speaking at Stanford last May. That’s a good example of him trying to spread awareness of the war by talking to university students.

TL: Regarding the Ukraine-Russia conflict, what is the importance of positive values like optimism for the American people during these times of confusion? 

MM: Well, I think I would say two things. One is that we Americans must remember that this is not just a fight between Russia and Ukraine. It’s not just a fight in Europe. It actually is a battle between ideas: democracies and dictatorships. I think the implications of who wins and who loses goes well beyond Ukraine. If Zelenskyy prevails and Ukrainians win, that’s good for our democratic allies in Europe. But I also think it’s good for our democratic partners and friends in Asia because I think it makes it less likely that Xi Jinping might use force to take Taiwan, for instance. But the converse is equally true. If somehow Zelenskyy loses, and this becomes a victory for Russia, then our allies in Europe will be more nervous. We’ll have to spend more money to reassure them. We’ll probably have to deploy more American soldiers to those countries to reassure them. And I think that would embolden Xi Jinping. So I think the stakes are pretty high. 

The second thing I would say in terms of optimism is that I am optimistic because I am inspired by the heroic efforts of the Ukrainian people. They’re doing these things to defend their homeland, but also to defend their values, and those are values that I think we share with them.

TL: What is one piece of advice you would give to a high school student interested in politics?

MM: As somebody who’s been in academia most of my life but also in government, I would say, keep your career as an action verb. So in Washington, if you ask someone—“Hey, great to meet you. What do you do?” Nine times out of ten people are going to answer that without using an action verb. “I was the deputy assistant secretary” or “I am a diplomat.” 

But you shouldn’t want to be in a position, you should want to do things in the world. For me, fighting for democracy, human rights, and preserving peace in the world are the kinds of things that have animated my career. When you define your career as an action verb, then you figure out the jobs that allow you to do that rather than the other way around. If you define your career as your job, your position, the things you want to do as a form of the verb “to be,” I think that creates the wrong motivation. So define your career as an action verb, and then figure out the jobs that allow you to do the things that you want to do.

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Categories: Features

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