The Theater of Diplomacy

I wrote a review of Alexander Etkind’s Roads Not Taken: An Intellectual Biography of William C. Bullitt and Michael McFaul’s From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia for Bookforum. Unfortunately, the review is behind the dreaded paywall. So here’s the pdf and the opening:

As relations between Russia and the United States continue to worsen, one of the unexpected twists in the unfolding drama has been the dragging of each nation’s ambassadors into the limelight. Usually, these diplomatic figures spend most of their time hosting parties and attending state ceremonies. But the compulsion to conjure phantoms has made two recent ambassadors—Michael McFaul, Obama’s ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, and Sergey Kislyak, Putin’s ambassador to the US from 2008 to 2017—into the public faces of their countries’ treachery.

Bizarre as the current situation is, the role now being played by ambassadors is not entirely novel. Diplomats have often been cast in leading parts in international political dramas. (“An ambassador resembles in some way an actor exposed on the stage to the eyes of the public in order to play great roles,” the French diplomat François de Callières wrote in 1716.) But how much power to shape events does an ambassador really have? In light of the conspiracy theories that have proliferated during the current standoff between the US and Russia, two recent books couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The first, McFaul’s memoir, From Cold War to Hot Peace, recounts his experiences as Obama’s main Russia hand and then ambassador during Putin’s revanchist third term. The second, Alexander Etkind’s biography Roads Not Taken, traces the life of William C. Bullitt, the first American ambassador to the Soviet Union. Taken together, the books provide a valuable picture of the aspirations— and the limitations—of diplomatic engagement during critical moments in US-Russian relations over the past century.

Read the entire review.