Review of Ronan Farrow’s “War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence” (W.W. Norton, 2018) and James F. Dobbins’s “Foreign Service: Five Decades on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy” (RAND/Brookings, 2017).
When President Donald Trump released his administration’s first National Security Strategy (NSS) in December 2017, he prefaced the document by repeating his pledge to “make America great again” by placing “the safety, interests, and well-being of our citizens first.” The NSS identified a need to “rethink the policies of the past two decades—policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.” According to the NSS, this premise “[f]or the most part … turned out to be false.” Going forward, it said, the United States would call on allies and partners to “shoulder a fair share of the burden of responsibility to protect against common threats” in an environment of “cooperation with reciprocity.” In addition, “[t]he United States will seek areas of cooperation with competitors from a position of strength, foremost by ensuring our military power is second to none,” since “[a] strong military ensures that our diplomats are able to operate from a position of strength.”
One might ask, not entirely facetiously: Which diplomats? As of May 2018, the State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs had announced his retirement. There was no nominee for four additional undersecretary positions or eight assistant secretary positions. State lacked nominees for ambassador positions in countries including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to name a few, and we had yet to confirm an ambassador to South Korea. As Eliot Cohen, former counselor to the State Department, has recounted:
Trump is accelerating the decomposition of the Republican foreign-policy and national-security establishment that began in the 2016 campaign. Two public letters signed by some 150 of its members during the spring and summer of  denounced Trump not merely for bad judgment but also for bad character.
The letters’ signatories, in response, were placed on a veritable black list as far as the Trump administration was concerned. In Cohen’s view, however, a long-run “elite consensus”—a policy and institutional consensus spanning elite political leadership and their policies in both political parties—was effectively negated by the Trump administration’s decision to shun the (mostly) Republican appointees who could maintain it in a Republican administration.
In Cohen’s view, such an elite consensus around core policies represents a necessary condition for having a government that does not
shift radically from administration to administration in its commitments to allies or to human rights, in its opposition to enemies, or in its support for international institutions; that has a sense of direction and purpose that transcends partisan politics; that can develop the political appointees our system uniquely depends on to staff the upper levels of government.
The irony, of course, is that it’s precisely this elite consensus that Trump’s rhetoric targets so unsparingly—even as any real implementation of his policy agenda depends on the very bureaucratic apparatus he deplores.
In this political climate, James Dobbins’s recent memoir, “Foreign Service: Five Decades on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy,” almost inevitably evokes nostalgia for a bygone era in which career diplomats could play a critical and valued role in shaping and implementing U.S. foreign policy. Dobbins, a long-serving and highly respected career U.S. diplomat, offers a narrative that is linear and full of lively anecdotes (although the book has some noticeable typos). It begins with Dobbins’s 1953 journey to the Philippines as the ten-year-old son of a Veterans Administration lawyer assigned to the Manila office, and it ends with Dobbins’s role (more than a decade after he retired from the State Department and joined the nonprofit RAND Corporation) as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013 to 2014. In between, Dobbins’s assignments included serving as assistant secretary of state for European affairs; Ambassador to the European Union; and special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Dobbins rose quickly through the ranks of the foreign service, but he also encountered obstacles. His allegedly evasive response to a question from Rep. Dan Burton in 1995 about his knowledge of an FBI investigation into whether associates of Haiti’s U.S.-backed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had murdered a prominent conservative critic resulted in enduring opposition by Burton and Sen. Jesse Helms to any further ambassadorships. (The State Department inspector general initially concluded that Dobbins’s testimony had been “seriously misleading and possibly perjurious,” but a subsequent review deemed that report to be “unbalanced” and its main conclusions “unsupported.”) Given the pressing diplomatic and policy challenges that Dobbins was subsequently tapped to grapple with in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, he ends his memoir by observing that “[m]uch as I hate to admit it, and much as they would hate to hear it, Dan Burton and Jesse Helms probably did me a favor.”
In contrast to Dobbins’s memoir, the narrative arc of Ronan Farrow’s “War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence” is distinctly non-linear. Farrow’s book jumps freely between first-hand accounts of his time at the State Department from 2009–12 and discussions of selected international incidents: for example, the shooting of two Pakistanis in Lahore by CIA contractor Raymond Davis, the investigation of a mass grave in the north of Afghanistan associated with a U.S.-backed warlord, and the practice of “false positive” killings of civilians by U.S.-trained and funded brigades in Colombia.
Farrow’s treatment of such events is informed by an impressive more than 200 interviews. However, his theme of an increasingly militarized approach to foreign policy provides a somewhat thin narrative thread by which to link all these disparate, if compelling, stories. One result of his attempt to emphasize this narrative theme is that Farrow substantively overstates the continuity between Trump’s fetish for the military (think military parade; “my generals”; etc.) and his impetuous and performative “America First” approach to international relations, on the one hand, and the prominent roles of the National Security Council and the Pentagon in foreign affairs under Trump’s immediate predecessors, on the other.
The book’s strength rests less on continuity of analysis than on Farrow’s power as a storyteller. The disjunctive selection and sequencing of these stories seems driven less by an overarching theme than by Farrow’s personal interests, along with his ability to access the factual details enabling him to provide the kind of in-depth account for which he has become famous. “War on Peace” is not what its ambition seems to be—a systematic presentation of evidence in support of a particular thesis: namely, the commonly-expressed lament that there has been a steady shift from “soft power” to “hard power” in U.S. foreign policy since 9/11, to the detriment of U.S. interests and global standing. Even so, although the analytic pieces of Farrow’s ambitious project don’t quite fit together, “War on Peace” makes the altogether valid point that the sidelining of the State Department did not begin in 2017. Farrow (and Dobbins as well) reminds us how impoverished our interactions with other countries will be until—and unless—we rebuild our traditional diplomatic capacities, rather than relying on what Monica Duffy Toft has generously termed “kinetic diplomacy,” which “trades violence for engagement.”
The Global Role of the United States
The isolationist strand in American foreign policy has a long pedigree. Yet, although a record 52 percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2013 said that the United States “should mind its own business internationally,” that number had declined to 43 percent by 2016 (although it remained 54 percent among Trump supporters). Ian Bremmer, reflecting on the Pew Research numbers, wrote in 2014 that in “a democracy, no president can sustain a costly and ambitious foreign policy without public support. In America today, that support just isn’t there.” Eliot Cohen observed in 2017 that “Trump is not entirely a historical fluke, and it is reasonable to see his foreign policy as reflecting some Americans’ attitudes toward the outside world.” In his view, our politicians and foreign policy establishment
have lost the ability to make the case to the country for prudent American management of an international system whose relative peace for 70 years owes so much to Washington’s leadership.
Using language that has since been widely publicized, current Defense Secretary Jim Mattis testified in 2013 before Congress that the State Department needs to be as
fully funded as Congress believes appropriate, because if you don’t fund the State Department fully then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately … The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.
In that exchange, then-Gen. Mattis was answering a question about proposed cuts to foreign aid. More broadly, President Trump has signaled his intention not only to shrink the State Department’s budget, but also to “renegotiate” multilateral agreements that he feels do not adequately serve U.S. interests, even at the expense of “withdraw[ing] from the international scene.”
Some of these issues involving international engagement fall largely along partisan lines, such as the Republican Congress’s distaste for the Paris Climate Agreement and the JCPOA, both of which were negotiated by the Obama administration and did not require the advice and consent of the Senate. Farrow’s observation in “War on Peace” that the “foreign policy establishment that had underpinned diplomatic acts of creation from NATO to the World Bank after World War II ha[s] long since disintegrated into vicious partisanship” seems well-supported by certain examples. These include Jim Dobbins’s experience with the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which he characterized as “an organized lynch mob.” One might add to these the conspiracy-minded inquiry undertaken by House Select Committee on Benghazi, in which current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo played a prominent role.
Yet, the blanket characterization of “vicious partisanship” is contradicted by other experiences, such as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s strong bipartisan pushback against the Trump administration’s proposal to slash a third of the State Department’s budget. During one exchange with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina opined that the budget request “is radical and reckless when it comes to soft power.” Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, dismissed the administration’s proposal as “not being the budget we’re going to deal with.”
Farrow, himself a former State Department official, particularly resents the ascendancy of the Pentagon over Foggy Bottom. He insists that “sidelining diplomacy is not an inevitability of global change,” but rather a choice “made again and again and again by administrations Democratic and Republican.” In his account:
From Mogadishu to Damascus to Islamabad, the United States cast civilian dialogue to the side, replacing the tools of diplomacy with direct, tactical deals between our military and foreign forces. At home, the White House filled with generals. The last of the diplomats, keepers of a fading discipline that has saved American lives and created structures that stabilized the world, often never made it into the room.
Or, as Sen. Graham chided Tillerson: “While I understand the need for hard power, I don’t understand the need to cut soft power.”
On a practical level, the Defense Department’s relatively greater resources has meant an increasing role in activities such as foreign development assistance—a particularly ironic development given the Pentagon’s distaste for “nation-building,” which Dobbins powerfully chronicles. Yet Dobbins, unlike Farrow, does not necessarily see this shift as an entirely negative development, observing that “[a]id donors tend to be more comfortable funding schools or hospitals than armies, police forces, or prisons, but security is the bedrock requirement for any enduring development.” Indeed, in Dobbins’s view, the United States sabotaged its own chances of success in both Iraq and Afghanistan by
minimizing troop deployments, refusing to accept responsibility for public order, and stinting on reconstruction aid, [thereby providing] time and space for violent resistance movements to emerge, organize, recruit, fundraise, intimidate the population, and begin an insurgency.
We are, of course, still dealing with the consequences of these drastic miscalculations.
The Role of Diplomats
Reenter Richard Holbrooke, the legendary diplomat who, according to Farrow, irritated President-elect Barack Obama by insisting, upon being greeted by him as “Dick,” that his name was “Richard.” How unfortunate, then, that Holbrooke’s obituary in the Guardian indicated that he was “generally known as Dick,” which is also how Dobbins refers to him throughout his memoir. Farrow recounts in detail how Holbrooke served as the first special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan from January 2009 until his untimely death from a ruptured aorta in December 2010. Interestingly, Holbrooke insisted that the role carry the sui generis title of “special representative,” which was, in his view, “a more concrete managerial term than ‘envoy’—a way to signal that he was building up a sizeable, operational team.” Farrow, who worked closely with Holbrooke, describes him affectionately as “the rare asshole who was worth it.” Dobbins, who knew Holbrooke for decades, recounts that “Dick was loud, boisterous, pushy, and supremely self-confident, exhibiting all the traits at twenty-five that would later make him the best-known American diplomat of our generation.”
“War on Peace” devotes much space to chronicling Holbrooke’s experiences as “SRAP,” as the position is sometimes called around Foggy Bottom. For example, Farrow quotes a September 2010 memo from Holbrooke to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, dictated to Farrow. Holbrooke bluntly told Clinton in the memo that “our current strategy will not succeed. … Whatever happens in counter-insurgency, our policies are in peril for a basic reason: the lack of a credible and reliable partner who shares our goals.” After detailing what Farrow calls “a litany of instances of [Hamid] Karzai’s government engaging in double-dealing and corruption,” Holbrooke wrote in exasperation that he knew “‘of no strategic partner in the history of American foreign relations who has behaved in such an extraordinary manner.” It is instructive to juxtapose Holbrooke’s observations with Dobbins’s, who explains that, by 2014, Karzai “claimed, and perhaps believed, that the United States was intentionally prolonging the war in Afghanistan to perpetuate its military presence in the region.” The exasperation was mutual.
Stories about foreign policy are, inevitably, also stories about bureaucracy. When Dobbins assumed the SRAP portfolio in 2013, the office was “the largest of several dozen independent and, in principle, temporary fiefdoms tacked on to the Department’s permanent establishment.” For these substantial resources, he “could thank Dick Holbrooke, who had created a substantial bureaucratic power base and recruited a talented staff numbering almost 100.” As SRAP, Dobbins was charged, among other things, with negotiating a bilateral security agreement (BSA) between the United States and Afghanistan even though, in his view, the United States already had a “perfectly satisfactory status of forces agreement with Afghanistan” dating from 2002. Debates over the proposed agreement created a flashpoint in an already tense relationship, leading to “a yearlong clash of wills between Obama and Karzai.” Dobbins narrates the dynamic incisively:
Tactically, the very fact that Obama was insisting on the BSA gave Karzai leverage only so long as he resisted. The effect of this foolish and wholly counterproductive confrontation was to greatly increase uncertainty regarding American and NATO intentions within the American government, within the NATO alliance, and most damaging, among the Afghan public. This occurred just as Western troops began leaving, the Afghan economy slowed, the war heated up, national elections approached, and the country prepared for the first democratic transfer of power in its history. Obama was stubborn, Karzai delusional, and both leaders were behaving badly. (Page 286)
His career spanning ten presidents and thirteen secretaries of state, Dobbins thus is able to speak with authority when he says that the “price of democracy is a certain degree of amateurism”—and adds that “[n]owhere is this truer than in the realm of national security.”
Dobbins trades in pithy observations about diplomacy and foreign policy born of decades of experience. Farrow, for his part, deploys his investigative and narrative skills to lament the demise of statecraft. His eulogy for traditional diplomacy includes the story of Robin Raphel, who found herself the subject of an FBI investigation based in part on her “peerless Rolodex in Islamabad,” which SRAP Dan Feldman, who succeeded Dobbins, asked her to use to “ferret out information on whether the government [of Nawaz Sharif] would actually fall.” In Farrow’s estimation, the “old-fashioned schmoozing and relationship-building [Raphel] had built her career around was out of vogue and foreign for a generation raised in the surveillance age.” The result of this generational disconnect and excessive suspicion was espionage charges against Raphel. The charges were ultimately dropped, but not before costing her job and more than $100,000 in legal fees.
As for the overarching competition among agencies to take the lead on the multitude of issues related to foreign policy, “War on Peace” reports the view of “multiple officials” that, at a working level, the State Department “had surrendered so much power that there was little counterbalance from civilian voices—at least those who didn’t fall into lockstep with the request of the Pentagon or Langley.” In Farrow’s own view, this trend has “already proved disastrous for America’s trajectory in conflicts the world over.” Even so, he also quotes Henry Kissinger’s quip that “if you give an order to the Defense Department there’s an 80 percent chance it’ll be executed, if you give an order to the State Department there’s an 80 percent chance of a discussion.” Kissinger himself (interviewed by Farrow for this book) seems not to have been an entirely innocent bystander to this dynamic. Dobbins recounts, for example, that during Kissinger’s time as national security adviser (part of which overlapped with his tenure as Secretary of State) “Kissinger’s tactic was to launch numerous broadly conceived and time consuming interagency studies that seldom came to any conclusion, while secretly conducting diplomacy on the key issues.”
Although dysfunction in the Trump administration’s conduct of foreign policy seems unparalleled, there have been plenty of grounds for criticism in the past. Dobbins describes, for example, how the dual-hatted Kissinger “kept offices in both the White House and State and ran both institutions through a small cadre of trusted aides, to the extent that he trusted anyone.” Dobbins goes on to recall that this “affected the morale of everyone in the department, who knew their judgment and discretion were not trusted.” Holbrooke himself wrote a scathing critique of the “foreign affairs machine” in 1970, in which he argued that “[s]ize—sheer, unmanageable size—is the root problem in Washington and overseas today.”
One could almost imagine Rex Tillerson saying something similar (though perhaps for different reasons). Yet by the time Tillerson became secretary of state, Holbrooke’s institutional legacy included having turned SRAP into its own bureaucratic “fiefdom.” Holbrooke reportedly told one SRAP recruit that the rest of the State Department was “‘dead intellectually’” and that it “does not produce any ideas; it is all about turf battles and checking the box.” That recruit later recounted his disillusionment in the face of, in Farrow’s words, Obama’s “truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics” and whose “primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans.” One might wonder what a genuinely functioning bureaucracy would look like, or instead whether internecine battles and recriminations among offices and officials are simply endemic—and unavoidably so.
Dobbins also criticizes Obama’s approach to the conduct of foreign affairs:
If the record of George W. Bush’s first term might be characterized as policy without reflection, the Obama White House often seemed committed to reflection without policy, as the interagency machinery minced issues ever more finely before eventually spitting out a decision.
Moreover, Dobbins continues, while in prior administrations, presidential decisions “were usually conveyed in confidence to the relevant Cabinet officers before becoming public,” under Obama the first moment agencies “learned about such decisions was often in some public announcement.” Though the same appears true under Trump, there is the additional and not insignificant feature that some of Trump’s decisions appear to take by surprise even those in the White House itself. It’s a dynamic exemplified, of course, by President Trump’s proclivity for making major announcements unexpectedly on Twitter. If Robin Raphel’s rolodex-based diplomacy was eclipsed by the surveillance state, the very idea of a coordinated foreign policy risks being eclipsed by a reality TV presidency. As Trump himself proclaimed when asked about persistent vacancies at the State Department, “I’m the only one that matters.”
As for the State Department, some see renewed hope; Secretary Pompeo recently lifted aspects of the hiring freeze imposed by his predecessor, for example. Yet Pompeo’s declaration that we need “our men and women on the ground executing American diplomacy and representing our great nation”—which might be considered a truism in any other administration—will mean little if those hired don’t have a voice at the table, both within State and in interagency discussions. John Bolton’s elevation to the position of national security adviser, meanwhile, gives him direct access to the president, though Pompeo will also likely continue to spend a significant amount of time fostering his personal relationship with Trump. This personal relationship gives Pompeo more international credibility than Tillerson had, at least until the moment when Trump dashes off a tweet directly undercutting his current secretary of state. Finally, although Tillerson often took a back seat to Mattis in the now-dismantled, so-called “Axis of Adults,” the power dynamics in the Mattis-Pompeo-Bolton triumvirate have yet to be established at the time of writing this review.
Meanwhile, global challenges will continue to arise: some of our own making, and others we simply can’t avoid. Kissinger opined to Farrow that the idea “you can always try something new” is “one great American myth,” and, compounding this fallacy, we have “an inadequate number of people who can think of foreign policy as a historical process.” Dobbins, for his part, has offered more practical and strategic analyses of U.S. foreign policy, but they appear in his RAND Corp. reports, not his autobiography.
Dobbins’s memoir instead captures an essential lesson of the big-picture: the paradox at the core of even as long and distinguished a career in diplomacy as he has had. “Insanity,” he says, “has been defined as repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results, but in diplomacy, if one does not keep trying to solve intractable problems, there is zero chance of success.” Taken together or separately, these two books offer engaging reads, particularly for those who enjoy war stories (literally and figuratively). Neither book answers, however—or for that matter purports to answer—basic questions of where and how U.S. foreign policy ought to go from here.