W.W. Norton Company, 2018, 392 pages
American diplomacy is under siege. Offices across the State Department sit empty, while abroad the military-industrial complex has assumed the work once undertaken by peacemakers. We’re becoming a nation that shoots first and asks questions later.
In an astonishing account ranging from Washington, D.C., to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea in the years since 9/11, acclaimed journalist and former diplomat Ronan Farrow illuminates one of the most consequential and poorly understood changes in American history. His firsthand experience in the State Department affords a personal look at some of the last standard-bearers of traditional statecraft, including Richard Holbrooke, who made peace in Bosnia and died while trying to do so in Afghanistan. Farrow’s narrative is richly informed by interviews with whistleblowers, policymakers, and a warlord, from Henry Kissinger to Hillary Clinton. Diplomacy, Farrow argues, has declined after decades of political cowardice, short-sightedness, and outright malice—but it may just offer America a way out of a world at war.
Right now Ronan Farrow is most famous for exposing Hollywood sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves, but before he started kicking ass and taking names in Hollywood, he was a Yale Law graduate, and spent time working under Richard Holbrooke in the State Department. It is largely that background that informs this book.
It's evident right away, if you didn't already know from his Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism for The New Yorker, that Farrow has some serious writing chops to go with a pair of cajones that make me believe his mother's suggestion that his dad is Frank Sinatra and not Woody Allen.
Farrow interviewed every living former Secretary of State for this book, from George P. Shultz to Rex Tillerson. He also interviewed Afghan warlords, Somali militants, Columbian army counter-terrorism officers, and numerous other people, from the corridors of power in Washington to some of the most dangerous places in the world. This isn't some idle memoir of a celebrity kid's dilettante career. Farrow did serious work in the State Department, and now he's doing serious journalism.
The thesis of The War on Peace can be stated simply: increasingly, the United States is gutting its diplomatic corps and letting the military handle international relations. Everywhere from Afghanistan to Russia to China, in dealing with Columbia and the War on Drugs, in trying to curb the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, the U.S. is favoring military solutions and sidelining career diplomats.
Since this book was published in 2018, much of it addresses the first half of the Trump Administration, but while Farrow paints a very unpretty picture of a State Department that has never been more demoralized and devalued, and a White House that is blustering around on the diplomatic scene in a way the world has never seen, this is not solely a critique of Trump. Farrow argues that Trump is just accelerating a trend that began under Bush Sr., and he has plenty of negative things to say about Clinton and Obama and how many diplomatic opportunities they screwed up or threw away.
His argument is persuasive, detailed, and backed up by very in-depth explanations of just what the impact has been. Notably, in the present, China is all too ready to eat our lunch if we continue what has been essentially a diplomatic withdrawal from much of the world, offering the foreign aid and political support that countries around the globe used to go looking for from the U.S.
If there's a weakness in The War on Peace, it is that Ronan Farrow clearly has a viewpoint, based on his personal experience and background, and while I definitely respect his experience, his intelligence, and his knowledgeability (again, he's not just some leftist journalist pushing an anti-Trump agenda — he was there, in the trenches), he gives very little time to any opposing viewpoints. A few of his subjects, like former Madame Secretary Hillary Clinton, push back a little on some of his criticisms, but I am sure there is an argument to be made for some of the "cleaning up" that Trump claims to be doing in the State Department, as well as for some of the policy decisions that were made in previous administrations that Farrow (and the State Department in general) condemns. It's his book and he doesn't need to give equal time to the opposing side, but it would be nice to know at least what the counter-arguments are.
However, whether or not you agree with all of Farrow's conclusions, this is a very thorough and troubling book. Even if he's wrong on the importance of the State Department, even if you are a MAGA-hat wearing endorser of "draining the swamp," Farrow details a lot of very current issues that are not going away and are not getting better (notably China, North Korea, Russia, Iran, and Afghanistan). This is an extremely topical book and like most topical books, may not be of much interest in 5 or 10 years except to see what people thought at the time and how right or wrong they proved to be. But if Trump is still President when you read this review, then this book is still topical, and even a few years from now I'd say it will be a worthwhile look at the recent history of the State Department and American diplomacy and where it has gone off the rails.
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