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Putin’s Russia today – Former Ambassador Michael McFaul on “Intelligence Matters”


In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell speaks with Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and current director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. Morell and McFaul discuss Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main geopolitical objectives and personal anxieties about the West. McFaul shares behind-the-scenes details of meeting and negotiating with Putin, as well as thoughts on how the Biden administration should approach its relationship with the Kremlin.

HIGHLIGHTS: 

Putin’s attitude: “[H]e’s been in power for over two decades. So he thinks he knows everything. He doesn’t listen even to his closest advisers anymore. They’re all second-tier people compared to him. It kind of reminds me of what I used to read about Stalin. He has no peers inside the country anymore, in his view. So he’s quite arrogant.”

Putin’s negotiating techniques: “He likes to stare. He’s done it to me. And believe me, it’s scary, especially when you’re sitting in his office on his side of the wall and your bodyguards are on the other side. He’s got an intense way of looking at you. He did this once to me when he was basically accusing me of supporting the opposition in Russia, and he wants you to blink literally and figuratively.” 

Emboldening Putin: “From his perspective, he’s gotten away with a lot recently, right? He annexed Crimea and he said, “I dare you to unravel it,” and we failed to do so, right. We played a game of chicken in Syria…In 2016, when he violated our sovereignty and our elections, he dared us to push him out and to make him pay, and from his perspective, he doesn’t think that he personally has paid a price, even though many oligarchs have and most certainly the Russian people have.”  

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – MICHAEL MCFAUL

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL: Mike, thanks for joining us on Intelligence Matters. It’s great to have you on the show.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Great to be here.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Mike, I want to start with with a little bit about you. For our listeners, and I’d love to hear about how you got interested in Russia and how did you find your way to the government the first time?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Well, I got interested in Russia from high school debate. I grew up in Montana and my junior year, we moved to a town called Bozeman, and I tried to get the easiest English credit I could, and I was told, ‘Take the debate class.’ So I just I want to underscore the serendipity there.

And the topic that year was U.S. trade policy. And so my debate partner and I ran a case, as it’s called in high school debate, on increasing trade with the Soviet Union. This was 79-80. I don’t think I would have supported that idea a couple of years later, but I didn’t know better back then.

And that’s when I first got interested in the Soviet Union. My debate partner, by the way, is a guy named Steve Daines. He’s now Senator Daines from Montana, and we both just became intrigued with the Soviet Union. And then as a freshman at Stanford, I showed up here as a 17 year old kid and I took ‘How Nations Deal with Each Other’ a course on international relations, and first year Russian. And then I just I had a theory that, you know, if we could just understand that society better, we might be able to reduce tensions or at least not have misperceptions in terms of U.S.-Soviet relations. And, you know, in a way, I’ve been kind of thinking about testing that hypothesis for the last three or four decades. So that was the initial interest in Russia.

I then later studied there in ’83, ’85, ’88 and most importantly, ’90-91. So the year the Soviet Union collapsed I was at Moscow State University and became quite interested in under what conditions do regimes collapse and under what conditions do political movements, democratic movements coalesce? That’s been a part of my academic research ever since then.

And that really, I would say, was a formative year that made me interested not just in understanding Russia and the Soviet Union, but becoming more involved in a kind of, I guess we would call it policy, now, I would say I was more of an activist back then. Kind of an anti-communist activist.

MICHAEL MORELL: Do you remember what the mood was like on the ground when the Soviet Union fell apart and you were there?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Yes, I was physically not there in August 1991. I left Moscow in June of 1991. I was there for the run up and I went to all the demonstrations and I interacted with a group called Democratic Russia. I started working for an American NGO at the time, it’s called The National Democratic Institute. So I did become, you know, I wasn’t just an analyst, if you will. I was writing my PhD still, but I was also becoming a bit of an activist and it was — I then flew back in October, right after the coup failed in August 1991. And the mood was euphoric. I mean, the mood was, ‘We have defeated communism, we have destroyed the Soviet empire.’ — These are my friends, right? You know, these are Russians that I was interacting with, right? – “And we are now joining the West?”

And so, when I hear that, oftentimes it’s phrased that, the United States won the Cold War. Well, yes, the United States most certainly played a big role in winning the Cold War. But these Russians that I knew they were victors as well in the Cold War and Ukrainians and Estonians and Georgians who I knew at the time as well. So it was a euphoric moment. It felt like that Russia was going to join the West and become a democratic system of government and a market society, market capitalism. And of course, we know that’s not the way that story ended, but back then it was quite euphoric. 

MICHAEL MORELL: So your first job in the government? What was that? How did that happen?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: So my first job was at the National Security Council. You know these words well, but I didn’t know them that well. I was senior director for Russia and Eurasia Affairs, and I was an SAP, Special Assistant to the President. And I started — President Obama was sworn in on a Tuesday, and I started that job on a Wednesday. I landed that job through, I worked on his campaign and there was a group of advisers and one of them was a friend of mine from Stanford and Oxford, where I went to school, Susan Rice. And I signed up pretty early on, Mike, back when I honestly didn’t know much about Senator Obama at the time, but I trusted Susan’s instincts. And she said, “This is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met and he’s going to be elected president and you should get on this bandwagon.” And I did. And that was a great ride. So that was my first job.

And then as I tried to leave that job and go back to Stanford – remember, you know, academics spend, I think the average is 18 months in the government. Many universities have a requirement that you have to come back after two years. And so that was always kind of the clock in my head. But in 2011, my immediate boss at the time, Tom Donilon, he was the national security adviser at the time. This will sound funny now, but he was like, “Mike, how can you leave now? We’re in such a cooperative time with Russia, with President Medvedev.” And we’d just gotten in the start treaty done. We just got the Iran nuclear deal done. They were about to join the WTO and they just voted with us — or they abstained, to be clear, to allow the use of force against Libya, something Russia had never done. So the height of cooperation. And he’s like, “You can’t leave now.”

And he called me back a couple of hours later, he said, “I talked to the boss and he said, ‘You can’t leave either,’ – President Obama.” And that’s how it was from that conversation until the end of the year that they proposed that I stay in the government but do a more family-friendly job, which turned out to be true, by the way. And that’s how I became the ambassador to Russia starting in January 2012.

MICHAEL MORELL: Any particular memories stand out of your time in Moscow.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Oh, well, Moscow was a fantastic job. I mean, in many ways it was a difficult time in terms of my day job, which was, you know, right as I landed in Moscow on the streets of Russia in Moscow and St. Petersburg and other big cities were the biggest demonstrations against the regime since 1991. Since that year I was describing, 1991, and that meant, you know, for Putin that that we were out to get him. And he blamed Obama. He blamed America. And when I got there, he blamed me personally for seeking to foment revolution in Russia. And you need to remember, in his mind, I’ve always worked for the CIA, and I want to be clear, I’ve never worked for the CIA.

MICHAEL MORELL: I can attest to that.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: You can attest to that. But, you know, in their coating of things going way back to 1991, I was a revolutionary fomenter. And so I arrived in that initial — the weekend I arrived as the U.S. ambassador, there was a 20 minute hit job on national television describing my mission to Moscow, which was to overthrow Putin. So that was the main drama, if you will, in terms of my service there.

And no matter what we said, that was a useful story for him. And it wasn’t just instrumental. I used to think it was just instrumental. I came later to believe that actually, Putin is quite paranoid and thinks that we are trying to overthrow his regime. And by the way, I don’t know if we are or not today. I want to be clear about that. When I was in the government, we were not.

MICHAEL MORELL: We were not. We were absolutely not. Yeah.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: So I got there right as U.S.-Russia relations started to deteriorate. Now they got a lot worse after I left. People blame me for the breakdown, and I like to remind people that Putin did not annex Crimea when I was ambassador, he waited until the day I left. So it’s been in a negative trajectory ever since 2012, right? Because of Putin needing this narrative of the West out to get him. That was the hard story. And playing defense, trying to avoid worsening things happening. That was my my government bilateral job with the Russian government.

But being the ambassador, I hope it’s like this in every country, but certainly in Russia, it’s a vast, incredibly complex society. I would host Russian basketball players and ballerinas and musical groups. And the other thing you get to do is you get to present America in all of its different dimensions to the Russian people, the kind of public diplomacy part of that job. And I loved that part of the job.

In fact, one of my best memories, Mike, I’m from Montana, as I already mentioned. And one of the first groups ever to come to Moscow while I was ambassador was from Montana, a country western group, and my father was a country western musician. So, you know, that’s a milieu I know well and I go down to the ballroom and there’s no dance floor and I go to my staff, I was like, “Where people are going to dance?” And they said, “Mr. Ambassador, people do not dance at Spaso House. This is a concert.” And I said, “No, in Montana, you don’t have a group like this, come — we will offend them. It will be culturally offensive if we don’t dance.”

So we had this big standoff between the Russian staff and the new American ambassador, and we compromised. We took out three rows. And of course, nobody danced, she was right, until my wife and I got up. And then there was just this explosion of 300 Russians doing the two-step rather poorly, by the way, but with great enthusiasm. And that was a fun night because it was a really tense moment in terms of US-Russia relations. But there were senators there and members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, you know, mixing it up with a band from Montana.

MICHAEL MORELL: That’s great. So Mike, what are those things that Russia does that we see as inconsistent with our and our allies’ interests? And why do they do those things?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Yeah, that’s a big, hard question. And the first thing I would say is over time, I would answer that question differently. So if we were talking in the summer of 1992, for instance, when I moved back to Moscow to open the office of an American NGO, the government of Russia invited us. We were a democracy promotion organization, the National Democratic Institute, and our host was the Russian government, president Yeltsin. And that’s because they wanted the affinity with the United States. And at least they pretended to share our values, and I don’t think it was pretending. I think they wanted to be a part of the West. So I just think that’s important to remind people that, over the years, Russia and the Soviet Union and even going back, you know, 200 years, that’s — you would answer that question differently at different times.

But today, I think it’s pretty clear. Putin, somebody I’ve known for a long time and written about and met for the first time in the spring of 1991 – he also has changed his views, by the way – but today he’s decided that the West is out to get him, that the West wants to overthrow regimes that we don’t like. And by the way, we have done that from time to time. So he’s got some data to support his hypothesis.

MICHAEL MORELL: Sure does.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Therefore, when we use the words “liberal,” “democracy, he hears, in those words, threats to his regime. And by the way, he’s right about that. At one point, are we funding opposition groups to overthrow him? The answer to that is no. But do our values undermine his legitimacy in his country and around the world? The answer to that is yes.

And so he has — initially he consolidated power inside his country, propagating a kind of nationalist, populist set of ideas, anti-democratic ideas. He would use the word “conservative.” He would say he’s a man of conservative values, traditional values. That’s the way he would describe it. And in the last decade, he’s now started to export those set of ideas, looking for like-minded leaders in places like Hungary and Italy, and even here in the United States, putting a lot of money into propaganda to propagate those ideas around the world using his vast and – I don’t need to tell you – but he’s invested a lot in his intelligence services, again, in the service of sometimes of propagating those views. And he really does define the liberal West as his enemy today, and therefore he’s pretty engaged in what he considers an ideological struggle with the West.

MICHAEL MORELL: And can you describe him as a person and what’s he like? What’s he like to deal with? What drives him, what motivates him? He paints himself as a great chess master. Is that right? Is he that much of a strategic thinker? Spend a little bit of time talking about Putin, the man.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Sure. So the first time I met him, he was the deputy mayor for a very charismatic pro-Western leader, Anatoly Sobchak was his name. And I want to be clear, Putin made no impression on me whatsoever. If you’d asked me back in 1991, you know, name 500 people that’ll be the next president to replace President Yeltsin, he would have not made my list. And I think that’s important for people to understand. He was an accidental president chosen by Yeltsin. It wasn’t some populist demand for who he was. And so his views and his ways have changed over the years and decades.

But today, I would say a couple of things about his mannerisms. Remember, he’s been in power for over two decades. So he thinks he knows everything. He doesn’t listen even to his closest advisers anymore. They’re all second-tier people compared to him. It kind of reminds me of what I used to read about Stalin. He has no peers inside the country anymore, in his view. So he’s quite arrogant.

And number two, he has that view about the world. The last great leader, in his view, that was a peer to him in the West was Angela Merkel, and now her time is coming to a close. Xi Jinping, he admires. That’s real, and I think we should understand that to be real. There is a kind of affinity there ideologically, and I think on a personal level. But the rest of the world, he doesn’t think he has any peers.

Third, Mike, you’ll appreciate this. He is a well-trained intelligence officer. Remember, he did counterintelligence. So he comes into meetings really well-briefed. And I’ve seen it many times with Secretary of State Clinton, with President Obama, with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Secretary Kerry. These are various people have been in meetings with Putin, with where he will try to, you know, get people off their game, say something surprising. He wants to see how they’ll react. He’ll then say, “Oh, I was just kidding.”

At one point, he said to Vice President Biden, the last time they met – they met in Geneva most recently – but the last time before then was in Moscow. I was in that meeting. And when the press break came in, he said, “Oh, Vice President Biden and I just agreed to visa-free travel between our two countries,” and he just wanted to see how Biden would react, right? So he does that kind of stuff.

He likes to stare. He’s done it to me. And believe me, it’s scary, especially when you’re sitting in his office on his side of the wall and your bodyguards are on the other side. He’s got an intense way of looking at you. He did this once to me when he was basically accusing me of supporting the opposition in Russia, and he wants you to blink, literally and figuratively.

MICHAEL MORELL: So stare without speaking or stare while you’re talking or -?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: The pregnant pause. He’s very comfortable just staring at you and waiting, with kind of a glare, in my case.

Meeting with Secretary Kerry, for instance -a the principal in the room is Secretary Kerry. I’m just the ambassador, right? I’m just there’s part of the team. And at one point, he just pivoted to me and said, “We know what your embassy is doing here.” And he just stared right at me and he said, “And we’re going to stop it because we’re really good at it.” And it was this, you know, it was kind of macho, KGB, you know, “We know what you guys are doing.”

And by the way – we always used to wonder about this, by the way – if he really knows what we’re doing and we have no reason to not believe that, why is he so paranoid? But he wanted to elicit a reaction and and he deliberately moved away from Kerry and stared at me to create tension in the room. And he plays those kinds of psychological games.

I’m talking about negative ones. He also does it in a positive way, for instance, when he met with Obama in 2009, and I need to be careful here about what I’m going to talk about. But he was trying to make the case that there can be circumstances under which Russian and American cooperation on intelligence could be good for them and good for us. You’ve heard that many, many times. And for many decades.. But for dramatic effect – I won’t talk about the specifics, that’s classified – but for dramatic effect, he dismissed all of the help staff that was there. This was at his dacha and he told them to all leave the room. And then he kind of leaned in to talk to Obama, you know, with a whisper. That was very dramatic. And I remember it made an impression on President Obama, right? It was effective theater.

MICHAEL MORELL: So I want to ask you a question, and I’ve been thinking about this. At the end of the day, I’m wondering if history is going to look back on Putin as someone who advanced the interests of the Russian state or someone who helped lead to its decline. As an example, I’m thinking about, at, the end of the day, who was the big loser in the Ukraine crisis, right? Obviously, the Ukrainians had their ambitions dashed, the West for looking impotent. But you know, at the end of the day, it’s probably the Russian economy and the Russian middle class and Russia itself, right, because of what’s happened in the aftermath. And I’m just wondering how you think about how history will see this guy.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I obviously don’t have a great answer. And part of it depends on who has the pen for writing that, right? Whether it’s people out here at Stanford or it’s people at Moscow State and what happens in the post Putin era.

But I’d say a couple of things. I mean, my own view is, you know, I have no qualms with the statement of Russians that want Russia to be a great power in the world. That’s fine by me, as long as it’s a democratic Russia and playing by the rules of the game. And Putin very cleverly has convinced – I don’t know if it’s a majority, but a large segment of the Russian society – that his strategy is the strategy for making Russia great in the world. But you can run the counterfactual and remember he was an accidental president picked out of obscurity. Had there not been the 1998 financial crash around the world, I’m convinced it would have been somebody else. In fact, everybody does. It’s a fairly well-known story that the heir apparent back in 1998 was a guy named Boris Nemtsov, and Nemtsov was a pro-democratic, liberal, pro-market leader from a town called Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk, very industrial town in the middle of the Urals, and he won re-election twice during an economic crash throughout the 1990s. By the way, he was Jewish. So this notion of ethnicity – he overcame those circumstances. And I knew him. He was an incredibly talented politician. And had that crash not happened, there’s no doubt in my mind that Yeltsin would have chosen him. And run that tape – they could be one of the leading players in Europe today, as opposed to being in opposition to Europe. And I think they could be a much greater power today than the path that Putin went down them because there have been real consequences for that economy as a result of annexation of Crimea and meddling in our elections in 2016.

What I don’t know is who writes that history, right? Because Putin was lucky in that he was chosen by Yeltsin, then ratified by the people of Russia, right as the Russian economy began to grow. And that would have happened no matter who was chosen, they would have ridden that upside of six or seven percent growth for 10 years. But, I think he will probably be remembered as the leader that brought Russia back from state collapse in the 1990s and an economic depression of the 1990s. I just think it was a bit of an accident that it will be Putin that gets the credit for doing that.

MICHAEL MORELL: So you do see the argument right, Mike, from time to time, that if Putin wasn’t in the job, there’d be somebody else like Putin in the job because that’s what the Russian people want. What do you think of that argument?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Well, I think it’s partly true and partly not. So let me explain that. So, that’s what people said when Stalin died. They loved Stalin. People cried for three days when Stalin died. The massive, massive lines went to walk by his open casket. And yet, three years later, you had a guy named Khrushchev that did de-Stalinisation. So that continuity, even in the Soviet period, wasn’t there.

And remember, in the Brezhnev era, it was a period we called it “Zastoi,” it was Russian stagnation. But nobody – and I was living there in 1983. In fact, I was living there in 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev came along. Nobody in ’83 and ’85 was saying, “Well, this system is going to radically transform,” let alone collapse five years later. So I’m very skeptical of the kind of trajectory, culture doesn’t change, history doesn’t change. I think there is an action-reaction between culture, history and individuals and political change.

And when I think about Putin, I think, what’s the more radical prediction: that 20 years from now, this basic, corrupt, poorly functioning system will be in place 20 years from now or that something will replace it after the end of the Putin era? I don’t think Putin himself will lose power, but I’m skeptical that what he’s built will last, you know, another decade or two.

Now, I’m not comfortable in trying to predict what might replace it. Something even worse could replace it. But there could also be this opening for democratic renewal. And I would just say, if you look at the data – it’s hard to do public opinion work in Russia. Believe me, you have no incentive in that society to express your true preferences. People need to remember that when they look at polling from places like China or Russia or Iran, right? And we know that from history that if you’re sitting out there in Vladivostok and you know, Volodya from Moscow calls from a polling firm and he says, “Hey, we want to know what you think,” There’s really only one rational answer to that: “Of course he’s doing great.” There’s no upside to expressing what you might truly think.
So with all those caveats, yes, it still is the case that that there’s quite a bit of disenchantment in Russia today with the economy. They don’t blame Putin, right? He’s been able to separate himself from the performance of his government, but they’re not excited about what’s happening in their country today. And, you know, they still do support, should leaders be elected versus chosen by God or chosen by a party, they still think that leaders should be elected. So I actually think those there’s a lot of volatility coming in the Russian political system in the post-Putin era.

And there’s one other thing I would say, you know, putting on my social science hat now, we’re not – I don’t know how you think about the CIA’s ability to predict the future. But we in political science are pretty bad at it.

MICHAEL MORELL: Everybody is.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: We’re not good at point predictions. But we we are pretty good at some long-term trajectory things, over hundreds of years, right? Over hundreds of years, there’s a pretty strong correlation between the more well-to-do a society is, the more educated it is, the more urban it is, the more income GDP per capita, the more likely there is to be demand for democracy.

And if you look at GDP per capita, eight of the top 20 countries in the world, if you kick out the oil exporters, they’re all democracies. I don’t think that’s a spurious correlation. Russia is one of the richest countries in the world today, GDP per capita, Singapore, Russia, Kazakhstan that are not democratic. And I sometimes – if you’re betting, you think that’s going to last or will some, over decades, not not in two to three years, but over decades, will Russia become more like Europe? My prediction is they’ll probably become more like Democratic Europe.

MICHAEL MORELL: Mike, one more question on Putin. What worries him? What is he afraid of? And I’m asking that question in the context of what might deter him, what might lead him from the kind of behavior that has so worried us.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it’s the fundamental question for the Biden administration and all Democratic governments in Europe.

From his perspective, he’s gotten away with a lot recently, right? He annexed Crimea and he said, “I dare you to unravel it,” and we failed to do so, right. We played a game of chicken in Syria, still when I was in the government. And President Obama used to make the argument to him that if we don’t stop this contest, this conflict, even back in 2011, when it was still peaceful, it’s going to get more violent and there’s going to be more radicals there. And Putin said, “Yeah, and I know what to do with that. We have the experience of Chechnya. We’ll just back a strongman until he succeeds.”

And he took that bet and he deployed his air force in 2015. And from his perspective, he thinks that that was the right course there. In 2016, when he violated our sovereignty and our elections, he dared us to push him out and to make him pay, and from his perspective, he doesn’t think that he personally has paid a price, even though many oligarchs have and most certainly the Russian people have. So I think it’s hard. I want to be clear about that.

Having said that, I do think there’s two or three things one can do. Number one, you need to make more credible our commitments to our allies and reduce to near zero any doubt in Putin’s mind that if he does use force against a NATO ally, there will be a response from that alliance. Now I applaud President Obama and President Trump for doing more with respect to our Article Five commitments as they’re called to NATO. But I think we need to do more. I think there’s still too much doubt and I really worry about some minor skirmish in one of our NATO allies, and then he pulls back and then we don’t respond. That’s my nightmare scenario, but that’s number one.
Number two, for those countries we’re not going to defend militarily – I’m thinking of Ukraine first and foremost. I think we have to give them as much capacity as possible to defend themselves. And that’s why I applaud the recent upping of military assistance to Ukraine.

And number three, I hate to sound like a cold warrior because it’s not the right analogy; there’s lots of things that have changed. But this is an ideological struggle with Putin. And I think we have to up our game into, one, just supporting those that support independent reporting. So that’s one dimension that I just think we need to do more of as a government and as a democracy in the world.

But two, I think we have to get back into the game of supporting and explaining why democracy is better than autocracy. And that is threatening to Putin. And we do do some of that, but I think we could do a whole lot more.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Mike, your assessment of President Biden’s approach so far to Russia and to Putin.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Well, the greatest achievement is that we have one policy towards Russia today, not two, as we did during the Trump administration, where you had basically, not entirely, but almost the entire administration had one policy that they were pursuing, and the president himself, President Trump, disagreed with that and that led to a lot of bad outcomes. So thankfully t that is not happening today and you have one policy.

And I think the broad contours are correct, which is, low expectations for reversing the negative trend but trying to at least slow down the negative trend and to cooperate on matters where our interests overlap. And first and foremost, that relates to arms control. I think that’s the right strategy.

I would like to see more on the ideological dimension. I think there are “small D” democrats in Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia itself and “small D” democrats in the alliance and some of the frontline states – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – who would like to see more meat on the bones to statements that President Biden rightly says.
I mean, I think he rightly has diagnosed the problem, and this is with respect to China as well, that there is a battle between democracies and autocracies. And he has said that many times and various ways, and I applaud that. I think analytically he’s right about that. I think now they need to fill in, “Well, if that’s the case, what are we going to do to lean in to support “small D” democrats? So by that, I mean, democratic governments. But I also mean democrats fighting in these countries against autocracy. And that part, I think needs more articulation.

MICHAEL MORELL: Mike, one final question. So looking at at your CV, I see that no matter where you go, you always find your way back to Stanford. And I’m wondering why? 

MICHAEL MCFAUL: That’s true. I’ve left, I think, eight times and I’ve always come back, and I would leave again. I loved working in the government, by the way. It was the thrill of a lifetime both at the White House and in Moscow. A great honor to work with people like you.

But in the long stretch — actually, I’ll just tell you a story from one of my colleagues here, Condi Rice. I met Condi 30 or 40 years ago, and she’d just gotten back from her first tour of government. And she said -and I was still writing my DPhil, my Ph.D. at Oxford and trying to figure out whether to go into academia or government – and she said, “Well, if you go into government, you should go all in and make a career out of it. But if you’re going to parachute in and out,” — as she did in her career, and this is early on in her career, she said — “Remember one thing, that if you’re going to be one of these political appointees in and out of government, remember that you’re going to spend most of your time out of government, so make sure you choose a career that you really enjoy.”
And I love Stanford. And for lots of reasons, but two are central. One, it is my job to continue to learn here, Mike. That’s a great that’s a great blessing, that it is actually my job to learn. And I think sometimes people can spend too much time in government circles not learning, just treading water. So that’s a great privilege.

And number two, Stanford community doesn’t get any older, right? I get older, but every year – because we’re talking here in the fall quarter – there are all these young new people here, and they’re really smart and they ask really tough, interesting questions. And I change the courses I teach here every two or three years. I rarely teach a course more than three years because I use the classroom to learn from these students, so — they think they’re learning from me. But I know that it is a two-way street, and that’s a pretty great place to spend your career.

MICHAEL MORELL: Mike, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. Great conversation. Thank you.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.

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