The influence of the United States on the world stage has been declining in the wake of our foreign policy undergoing drastic changes in recent years. The halls of the State Department have gradually become eerily deserted while the Pentagon is increasingly in charge of diplomatic decision-making. In War on Peace, former State Department official Ronan Farrow takes us on a journey from Washington DC to some of the most dangerous and remote places on Earth over the last few decades, expounding upon the contributions of some of the last old-school diplomats while illuminating the little-known foreign policy problems facing us today. Drawing on documents and interviews with hundreds of people, including many former Secretaries of State, he makes the case that a return to the diplomacy of yesteryear might be the only way forward out of the morass of war in which we've become mired.
I've only somewhat recently become familiar with Ronan Farrow through his Pulitzer-prize-winning work for the New Yorker covering the Harvey Weinstein scandal that led to the #MeToo movement being raised into our collective consciences. Then he also covered the breaking news story of Deborah Ramirez, one of Brett Kavanaugh's accusers, during the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings. I honestly didn't know that Mr. Farrow had written a book until War on Peace came up as a suggestion for our book club. Of course, the book has nothing whatsoever to do with either of those cases I previously mentioned, but I thought it sounded pretty interesting. Apparently others in our club thought so, too, because it's become our latest read. This is a very meaty book that is definitely not light reading. I'm still not sure that I grasped everything in it, but it was a very enlightening read, nonetheless.
Before becoming an award-winning journalist, Mr. Farrow worked as an official at the state department. Therefore, he has an insider's view of the goings-on inside the world of international diplomacy, and I must say that the picture he paints is a rather bleak one. Not long after the cold war ended, the US began pulling back somewhat on seeking diplomatic solutions in war-torn areas. Even when our country was involved in talks, more often than not, those "peaceful" solutions involved supplying arms and other weapons of war to these countries as part of the bargain, which in my mind, is the opposite of brokering actual peace. In many instances, these weapons then either fell into the hands of the "bad guys" anyway or were used by the supposed "good guys" to terrorize and murder innocent people. In some cases, none perhaps quite so prominent as in the Middle East, we actually made Faustian bargains with brutal warlords who have dismal records of human rights violations, while eschewing direct talks with the Taliban. While I know that negotiating with terrorists wouldn't play well politically back home, I can't help feeling like we were simply trading one devil for another.
I have to give the author kudos for his balanced writing. He didn't really cut any administration of the past thirty or so years, Democrat or Republican, much slack when it came to the issue of diplomacy. Mistakes (or what in my mind were mistakes) have been made by all of them, and over the years, old-school diplomacy has gradually been relegated to the history books as the purview of diplomacy falls more and more to the Pentagon, which again, in my mind is the opposite of "peaceful talks." Those whose job it is to make war don't genuinely understand what it takes to broker peace. However, no executive failing on diplomacy has been as glaring as with the current administration's under whose leadership much of the State Department has been shuttered, many ambassadorships remain open, and more than a thousand foreign service workers with real expertise in specialized diplomatic areas were let go. Of course, in the midst of this power vacuum, China has risen to the occasion to fill the gap, leaving much of the US influence on the international stage falling hopelessly behind. I do hope that we will someday be able to become influential again, but I fear that much of the ground gained throughout history is forever lost. I suppose only time will tell.
War on Peace is an extremely well-written and well-researched tome on the state of world politics and the role the US has played throughout the past few decades. It's a very ambitious work that by Mr. Farrow's own admission in his author's note took five years to write. During that time, he conducted over two hundred interviews with former Secretaries of State and other diplomatic officials, and even some of those warlords I spoke of. The author profiles many of these people while also showing the role they played, for good or bad, in helping advance US objectives overseas. While not my usual reading fare and not exactly a page-turner for me, I was, nonetheless, extremely impressed with the quality of the writing. This is definitely an intellectual book that will be a feast for any mind that enjoys exploring the international socio-political arena.
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