U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul's YouTube Presentation From a Public Diplomacy Perspective

I've looked at/listened to newly-appointed U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul's recent video presentation to the people of Russia. Based on my Foreign Service experience in Moscow as Cultural Affairs Officer (1998-2001), several aspects of the talk struck me.

First, the negative ones, from the perspective of U.S. public diplomacy with the Russian Federation, and especially its younger generation:

1. Repeated references to the Soviet Union (including showing a map of that former geographical expression), which collapsed some 20 years ago;

2. The fact that the Ambassador did not speak in Russian (as his predecessor did fluently on YouTube clips), except for a few words at the end of his remarks*;

3. The use of the word "help" (translated as pomogat' in the subtitle) in U.S. dealings with the Russian population. Of all things Russians dislike most about foreigners, it is condescension of any sort on their part;

4. No reference to high Russian culture, except for Tchaikovsky (to which the Ambassador refers in the same breath as he does to Russian hockey); no references, even indirect, to intellectuals who condemned the USSR.

5. Irritating, feel-good background music that could be straight out of a U.S. TV commercial for a penile dysfunction pill.


1. Mentioning a new visa agreement that will make it easier for Russians to visit the U.S.;

2. An effort to reach out to the Russian "provinces" by comparing them to the Ambassador's home state of Montana;

3. A "down-to-earth" approach that might appeal to the "muzhik" (regular guy) side in the character of many Russians;

4. Stress on people-to-people exchanges;

5. He did not go on for too long, as do so many Russian politicians.

The Ambassador was careful not to confront the Putin regime, except by stating that he would be in contact with "civil society activists," whom he un-diplomatically distinguished from "regular Russians."

Russian speakers/readers of the language might be struck, as I was, by the number of negative comments to the Ambassador's YouTube performance, which suggests that Russian anti-Americanism is indeed a factor to consider in the two countries' relations -- and that, on a more mundane level, Russians use the Internet as a way of "letting off steam." It is not out of the question that some of the comments were planted by Russian security services.

*However, it is better, in official remarks, for a foreigner to speak in his own language than address Russians in bad Russian, which will quickly turn off his audience. A few words indicating an appreciation of their language, yes; a long delivery full of grammatical and pronunciation errors, no. The Russians, though more tolerant of foreign accents than some other Europeans, are a bit like the French who cringe when they have to endure an American murdering their mother tongue by trying awkwardly to express himself in it, in his effort to show that he "understands" them. In contrast, we Americans, a nation of immigrants, tend not to be concerned with such linguistic niceties, even though there is a feeling in this country, not limited to Texas, that "English, if it was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me."