Wednesday 20 June 2018

Whine on decline of State Department misses point

Non-fiction

War on Peace

Ronan Farrow

HarperCollins, ­paperback, 432 pages, €17.99

New direction: Farrow burst into the limelight with his allegations about Harvey Weinstein
New direction: Farrow burst into the limelight with his allegations about Harvey Weinstein
War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

Con Coughlin

The journalist Ronan Farrow, son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, has lost no time making a name for himself. He burst on to the scene last year with his explosive allegations about the predatory sexual exploits of Harvey Weinstein in The New Yorker. Now the tyro is back again, this time with his debut book, portentously titled War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence.

In it, Farrow seeks to persuade his readers that America is in terminal decline because, over a period of years, it has overseen the demise of the once-proud State Department, now threatened by the dysfunctional administration of President Donald Trump. His qualification for taking on such a weighty subject appears to be the few years he spent working as a glorified errand boy for Richard Holbrooke, the combative American foreign envoy who specialised in tackling some of the world's more intractable conflicts. Widely credited with ending the horrors of the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s by negotiating the Dayton Agreement, Holbrooke had refocused his considerable talent on tackling the Afghan conflict when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 2010. His dying words were said to be: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

Holbrooke's untimely death was a grievous loss to diplomacy, and it may well be that, had he lived, he might have found a resolution to the Afghan conflict, as Farrow reverentially contends. He would certainly have challenged the Obama administration over its decision to cut and run before the Taliban had been defeated.

Farrow was not involved in diplomacy per se, but liaised with the numerous - and, in the main, ineffectual - NGOs that tend to proliferate wherever a major conflict develops. And it is from this modest background that he has taken it upon himself to present a critique of all that is wrong with America's diplomacy.

He argues that the erosion of the State Department's ability to project America's standing in the world has been caused by the militarisation of US foreign policy, with the Pentagon and intelligence agencies increasingly calling all the shots. To justify this thesis, Farrow has interviewed every living Secretary of State, from Henry Kissinger to the recently departed Rex Tillerson. This material is backed up with anecdotes gleaned from his bag-carrying days for Holbrooke, which are given as examples of the duplicity that lies at the heart of modern-day policymaking in Washington.

In essence, though, the book is little more than an extended whine about the decline of the State Department as an institution, and the peremptory manner in which many of its senior staffers, some of them personal friends of Farrow, have been treated.

Farrow is not lacking in self-esteem. Recently, he lamented that, because of the demands of his new-found fame, he has not been able to keep abreast of the issues of the day. War on Peace might have been better if he had. As he admits, its central thesis is based on his (unfinished) doctorate on American foreign policy, begun while he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. He might well write a book worth reading if he ever gets round to undertaking a more mature analysis of America's recent reassertion of its power.

Farrow might then realise that the Trump administration, far from presiding over any decline, is in the process of redefining Washington's dealings with the outside world, from getting better trade deals to cajoling rogue states like North Korea to adopt a more responsible approach to global security - something that decades of State Department diplomacy failed to achieve.

Ultimately, I suspect this book is not aimed at foreign affairs veterans such as myself, but at a younger generation who might appreciate some of its more obscure pearls of wisdom, such as this one from the rap artists Nas and Dr Dre which, in an apparent reference to the plight of the modern State Department, reads: "If you ain't speakin' money language I can't hang - you know your conversation is weak, so it's senseless to speak." Well, quite.

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