Michael McClellan was born just outside of Bowling Green, but his career path has taken him to the far corners of the earth as a senior foreign service officer for the State Department and U.S. Information Agency.
Earlier this month, McClellan retired from the State department after 30 years and is settling into a new position, a little closer to home as the only “Diplomat in Residence” at a public university in Kentucky.
His current job at Western Kentucky University involves explaining foreign cultures to American college students , but for three decades it was just the opposite.
“My job was to communicate American culture, American foreign policy and American policy positions on every possible topic there is and to help people abroad understand why we hold such positions, why we develop those positions, how are system works and what constitutes American culture,” said McClellan when he stopped by the WKU Public Radio studios this week. “This is particularly challenging in today’s world because America is without a doubt the most diverse country in the world.”
He says when he started with the State Department, he was virtually the only link many of these cultures had to America. But as new technology emerged, the world shrank and McClellan says he became more of a navigator, helping people in foreign countries sort through the good, and sometimes, not so good world of the internet.
“A lot of people around the world see the violence the violent video games, the pornography and the extremist positions,” said McClellan. “They see all kinds of stuff that they probably never would have seen 20 years ago and that influences how people perceive our country. So, as a public policy practitioner, our job is to make sure – not to censor all of that – but to make sure they also see the rest of it, that they’re able to see the good things that Americans are producing: the positive aspects of our culture, the good art the good music."
Russia and the Olympics
In the early 1990s, McClellan was assigned to a post in Russia at a pivotal moment in history, just after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“You know, think of a pendulum swinging back and forth. It swung from one side of Communism to almost an extreme side of free-market capitalism – and now it’s kind of swinging back to the middle just a little bit. There’s more state control, more state institutions exercising control over the economy -- not nearly as much as in the old days, but a lot more than there was in the '90s,” said McClellan.
In the lead up to this year’s Winter Olympics, Russia was criticized for its crackdown on free speech – particularly when it came to gay and lesbian rights. The government was also maligned for spending so much money on hosting the Olympics when many of its citizens are struggling financially.
“You know, there’s a lot of hardship across the country, but nonetheless, the country has made a lot of progress,” said McClellan. “When you consider how much it has to do, you can fault them entirely for what they’ve done. Obviously, democracy is up for grabs there. There are directions in the society that many of us in the west think aren’t going in the right direction. But keep in mind that this is a country that’s still struggling to find its path.”
As for the Olympics – McClellan says the games provide two opportunities for the host country – a chance to stimulate the economy and an opportunity to bask in the worldwide media spotlight.
“Russia has done a fairly good job in this case of showcasing their country, of highlighting Russian culture and for promoting its image. Now, when it’s all over, what’s going to happen to all these facilities in Sochi and surrounding towns -- that remains to be seen,” said McClellan. “Obviously there’s a lot of corruption around these programs, but that’s true in many countries, not just Russia."
Last fall, the U.S. and Russia butted heads on how the world should deal with the Syrian civil war and with allegations that the government there had launched a chemical attack on rebels. The two sides eventually agreed to deal in which Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad would relinquish his stockpile of chemical weapons. McClellan saw the negotiations as an example of Russia attempting to reassert its place among world leaders.
“I think Russia could play a much more positive role than it does by developing a more positive foreign policy that says these are the things we want to achieve, this is the kind of world we envision, these are the kinds of people and programs that we’ll support and this is Russian culture and this is what we want to share with the world. Rather than, what seems to be the current approach, of whatever the U.S. is for – we’re against,” said McClellan.
Two Experiences in Iraq
Later in his career in the foreign service, McClellan was faced with one of his most challenging assignments – he was in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 when General David Petraeus led a troop surge, trying to quell insurgent violence.
“During that period, it was a very dangerous period, even for diplomats. We were shelled very often. We did not have an embassy compound at that point because we were living with the military and all in the same facility. But we received incoming rockets and mortars several times a week,” McClellan said, recalling his time in Iraq. “It was normal practice to wear your body armor and helmet whenever you were outside. You always had to know where the shelters were you had to be ready to run on an instant’s noticed if you heard the alarms go off. It was a very tense and it was a very different way of working.
He says that constant threat made it hard for him to do his job as a diplomat. McClellan says when he returned to Iraq for a second time in 2011, he found a stark contrast.
“It was completely different. We were in a large embassy. The embassy in the entire year I was there only had one incoming round and it just landed in a field – it was probably not even aimed correctly. I never felt in danger at all there. We were able to drive around the city much more easily and we didn’t using armored Humvees anymore, we were just using regular cars -- granted they were armored -- but it was much lower profile and the Iraqis simply didn’t notice us that much more,” said McClellan.
“Once the military pulled out, what we saw was that instead of having a common enemy, these different religious groups, these sectarian groups suddenly, without a common enemy, turned on each other much more so," he said. "This is not our fault and it’s not because we withdrew. The Iraqis simply didn’t want to have military forces there anymore and no amount of negotiating was going to keep them there.”
McClellan earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Louisville and received a master’s degree in photojournalism at Syracuse. He says his career choices came down to two options – foreign service or photography. He chose the state department, but never forgot to bring along his camera as he traveled the world.
“It gave me the opportunity to learn foreign languages and to live in a foreign country for two or three years at a time and in doing so, getting to know that culture really well and do a much deeper penetration of the culture through my photojournalism. The first book I published is one about monasteries in Egypt, because Egypt is where Christian monasticism started,” said McClellan.
He says he visited nearly 40 monastaries while compiling his book. He also says took lots of photos in Serbia and Kosovo while he was living in Russia.
Now, Michael McClellan is back where it all started -- at home in South Central Kentucky as he begins the next chapter of his life working at WKU. As Diplomat in Residence, he’ll give guest lectures, present workshops and taking part in panel discussions.
“By coming back it’s very rewarding for me – emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, if you will, to be part of this community again. In a sense, I had to travel the world to realize where ‘home’ was,” said McClellan. "Now that I’ve come back after living and working in 11 different countries, I want to share that experience with students here and I want to be a resource for them and I want them to see that even if they grew up here in Kentucky, the world is still their oyster and it doesn’t matter where you were born, where you grew up or what school you went to, you do have opportunities to live and work anywhere in the world.”