Michael McFaul discusses Montana, his first trip abroad and the importance of empathy

MICHAEL MCFAUL director of the Freeman Spogli Institute, recently talked about growing up in Montana, his experience living in Russia and the values that he hopes to instill in his children, as part of the Office of Religious Life’s “What Matters to Me and Why” speaker series. The series is designed to spark conversation between Stanford faculty, administrators and the larger university community on topics including values, beliefs and motivations.

Michael McFaul
Michael McFaul

In an interview with SUGHRA AHMED, associate dean for religious life, McFaul was asked about experiences that transformed him, including what his first trip abroad to Leningrad in 1983 was like.

On his first trip abroad, McFaul replied:

“That trip changed my life. I was at Stanford and taking classes from very prominent professors, but I always was suspicious of what they were telling me — Stanford teaches you to challenge authority. I had this notion that ‘maybe this cold war thing could be reduced if we understood each other.’ By the way, I came back from that trip even more convinced of that hypothesis because I met people who seemed a lot like me. They were college kids and they liked to drink and they liked to listen to Led Zeppelin. They didn’t seem so scary to me. I later learned over time that that was just a particular part of society — those that were not afraid to meet with Americans. But that theory has animated a lot of my thinking ever since. We are not going to agree with countries like Russia or China or North Korea on everything, obviously. But we can’t have disagreements, let alone war, based on misperceptions or bad information. I got to test that theory that I developed as a young college kid as the U.S. ambassador to Russia.”

Michael McFaul is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies in Political Science, Director and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Read highlights from McFaul’s interview with Ahmed on the FSI website here.