War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence
By Ronan Farrow, WW Norton, 448 pages
Can this be? Has the greatest military power in the history of the world marginalized its diplomatic corps? Has it basically unilaterally disarmed in the power corridors of international organizations? Is it more equipped – more inclined – to settle disputes by force than by negotiations?
Yes to all three, says Ronan Farrow, who less than a month ago won the Pulitzer Prize for his work reporting on sexual harassment. And yes, he adds, in a sad and sober book of dogged research and persuasive argument, this is an important turning point in the American story.
A turning point, he is quick (and fair-minded enough) to acknowledge, that did not begin with the ascendancy of Donald Trump but in fact is part of a long-term trend – one that extends back to the Bill Clinton years, when the 42nd president put an emphasis on domestic affairs (‘’it’s the economy, stupid’’) and thus pulled the United States away from world involvement, a position that was congruent with the conservative populism that would burst forth in our own time. Indeed, Mr. Farrow argues, even in the years of George W. Bush’s global war on terrorism, the United States’ diplomats were in eclipse as the Pentagon and the White House increasingly became the straws that stirred Washington’s national-security drink.
That trend, Mr. Farrow contends, only accelerated under Barack Obama and then got a strong protein boost from Mr. Trump.
‘’The point is not that the old institutions of traditional diplomacy can solve today’s crises,’’ Mr. Farrow writes. ‘’The point is that we are witnessing the destruction of those institutions.’’
So much so that, this week, Mr. Trump’s new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was in the remarkable position of standing amid his diplomatic corps and trying to reassure State Department officials that they were still relevant, adding what none of his modern-day predecessors was remotely required to say: that it was okay for them to regain their ‘’swagger.’’ This was necessary because the first Trump Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, began his tenure by proposing a 40-per-cent budget cut.
Whether possessed of swagger or sniggers, American diplomats have witnessed a dramatic change not only in the role of American foreign policy in the world but also in its mechanics – and the endangerment of a tradition of diplomacy that, from Benjamin Franklin to Daniel Webster to James A. Baker III, has been an indispensable part of the American story and of world history.
But, Mr. Farrow argues, ‘‘the Trump era squandered diplomatic leadership by dint of chaos and blunder,’’ and he warns, ‘’The rest of the world has not stood by as America relinquishes its leadership in diplomacy and development.’’
With his celebrity (the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen), his intellectual pedigree (Rhodes Scholarship) and his remarkable experience at the age of 30 (UNICEF official, Obama administration position on humanitarian affairs for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Capitol Hill staffer), Mr. Farrow brings to his book astonishing access, and as a result, the perspectives of Henry Kissinger, Richard Holbrooke and Hillary Rodham Clinton – all three are avatars of the diplomatic arts, though reviled by rivals – are part of his outlook. (Altogether he interviewed nine secretaries of state, perhaps a North American record.)
An indefatigable and imaginative reporter, Mr. Farrow in these pages is critical of Pakistan’s ‘’double game’’ on terrorism – the notion that it was fighting terrorists even as it was supporting or at least shielding them . He charges that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan was riddled with ‘’massive inefficiency and a lack of accountability.’’ He argues that successive American presidents have increasingly cynical views of career Foreign Service officials.
And he maintains that things have only gotten worse, unnecessarily. ‘’The steady dissolution of the State Department under the Trump administration may appear to be a logical outcome of years of imbalanced foreign policy,’’ he argues, ‘’but it is not an inevitable one.’’
This volume is part meditation and part memoir, and as a result Mr. Farrow is a prominent figure in his jeremiad (‘’It was during this period that Holbrooke and I had our knock-down-drag-out session …’’ and ‘’I stooped to the ground in a Nairobi alley and picked up an empty bullet shell.’’). But the theme that courses through this book is the triumph of the military perspective over the diplomatic perspective, coming to a crescendo in the Trump years:
‘’President Trump … concentrated ever more power in the Pentagon, granting it nearly unilateral authority in areas of policy once orchestrated across multiple agencies, including the State Department.’’
The personification of the death of diplomacy was Mr. Tillerson, an oil-company executive inexperienced in diplomacy and inaccessible to the press, to his own work force – and to his foreign counterparts. He didn’t survive, of course. Whether his successor reverses course is one of the most important but most overlooked questions of Mr. Trump’s Washington, itself a cauldron of chaos. Perhaps War on Peace should be on Mr. Pompeo’s nightstand. It won’t make for soothing bedtime reading.
David Shribman, a frequent contributor to The Globe and Mail, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a former Washington-based national political correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.