Commentary on North Korea has traditionally focused on its dangerous and deeply entrenched regime, ruled with an iron rod since 1948 by three generations of the Kim dynasty. Until recently, no one has had the insight to point out that it has great beaches. “You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean,” observed President Donald J Trump, in a press conference following his recent summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore. In pursuing face-to-face negotiations, the US president hoped to nudge his North Korean counterpart away from nuclear weapons towards a more constructive path, opening up the so-called Hermit Kingdom to real estate development. “I said, ‘boy, look at that view. Wouldn’t that make a great condo?’”
The Trump caravan leaves scorched earth behind in the West and causes tidal surges in the East. Where this new departure in American diplomacy ends is anyone’s guess. Kim Jung-un is currently a runaway favourite for the next Nobel Peace Prize, with Trump a close second. Despite spending the last two years testing nuclear warheads, presumably Kim scores higher because he bears no responsibility for withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, questioning the purpose of NATO, dismantling the Iranian nuclear deal, declaring a trade war on some of America’s closest allies and causing a collective mental breakdown at the G7.
Galvanised by the summit with Kim, Trump’s small but noisy band of cheerleaders are unrepentant. There is method in the madness, they claim. “Make America Great Again” has now transmuted into “We’re America, Bitch” (this was the most recent formulation of one senior White House official, as reported in The Atlantic). The state department in Foggy Bottom, Washington, DC – a once proud institution that was central to the building of the post-1945 international order – has become a ghost ship. Hundreds of positions, including some of the most senior, remain unfilled. As Ronan Farrow describes in his downhearted but timely obituary for traditional American diplomacy, in the weeks that followed Trump’s election in 2016, a slew of America’s most experienced foreign service officers began receiving calls telling them that they were no longer needed. After the inauguration, another tranche resigned in protest or exasperation. Senior Republican foreign policy experts had disqualified themselves from office by signing a letter promising never to serve under Trump. The number of those taking the Foreign Service exam plummeted by 26 per cent. Among those left in the building, morale has flatlined.
Rather than repair the damage, Trump has sought to push home the advantage against one of the traditional symbols of the so-called “blob” of Washington insiders. As the administration trumpeted a large increase in military spending in its first year, many of the traditional instruments of soft power – such as the US Institute of Peace – were deemed surplus to requirements. The first Trump budget proposed a 27 per cent slash in state department funding, gutting initiatives on world health and war crimes, and handing responsibility for consular issues and refugees to the department of homeland security.
Some had hoped Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, would bring some business acumen to the post. As a softly spoken CEO and former Boy Scout, he was at least free of Trump’s crass excesses. In the event, he could strike up no relationship with the president or the state department’s bemused employees. He turned out to be a low energy grim reaper, arguably the most ineffective holder of the office in American history, and suffered the ignominy of learning about his sacking from a presidential tweet announcing his successor. One of the things that makes this book engrossing is that Farrow secured an impressive level of access, conducting over 200 interviews. As well as being the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, he is a former humanitarian worker, a lawyer and a journalist who did much to uncover the Harvey Weinstein allegations last year. In 2009, he left Unicef and joined the Obama administration. This involved various roles, including a spell in the Office for the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he worked under Richard Holbrooke – celebrity diplomat, frustrated peacemaker and the idealist hero of this book.
Holbrooke died of heart failure in 2010 and there have been many eulogies to him, including the 2015 documentary, The Diplomat. Likewise, the tortured tale of US-Pakistan relations has been told many times and there are no significant revelations here. One cannot help but feel that Farrow – airlifted in and out of glamorous roles, hugged close by Hillary Clinton after Holbrooke’s death – is rather different to the sturdy desk officers whom he lionises. But he is a sharp observer of personality, offering rich character sketches of some of the big beasts of US diplomacy, including a series of former secretaries of state: Henry Kissinger; Madeleine Albright; Colin Powell; Hillary Clinton; John Kerry; and even the hapless Tillerson. As nearly all of his interviewees testify, the rot that has set into post-Cold War American diplomacy did not begin with Trump. Farrow charts a series of wrong turns, from Bill Clinton’s slashing of state department capacity in the 1990s to the hyper-militarisation of the George W Bush years in response to 9/11. The latter proved hard to shake, even under Obama, who disempowered his diplomats by relying on generals and pollsters. Holbrooke griped about the “pure mil-think” that he believed undermined his efforts to bring an end to the endless war in Afghanistan.
There are some strange omissions in Farrow’s account of the crisis of American diplomacy. The catastrophic effect of Wikileaks and the Snowden affair, for example, are only mentioned in passing. Overall, however, it is judiciously observed and packs a punch, ending with an arresting picture of the damage that Trump has done to America’s standing in the world.
And yet, the book will make even more uncomfortable reading for those in the Obama inner circle, who often appear as aloof, smug, stylised and unserious about the world. On learning of Trump’s victory, Obama is quoted as saying that there was nothing to do but “retreat to high ground”. He can’t be enjoying the view.
John Bew’s most recent book is “Citizen Clem” (Riverrun)
War on Peace: the End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence
William Collins, 432pp, £20
This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis