The End of Diplomacy

Several years ago I produced a film in Ethiopia about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Research took me across the country and I was privileged to see the breadth of this ancient, colorful culture and the landscape in which it has evolved.

At one point, my traveling companions told me about the “China bridge.”

It was a new structure that replaced an older, less reliable bridge over a mountain pass.

Later, I was in another African country and heard about the “China road.”

I began to keep my eyes and ears open to the presence of China in this part of the world.

I knew Chinese workers had provided the labor to build the Nairobi to Mombasa railroad in Kenya under British colonial rule, but it was not a strategic actor in modern times.

China into Africa

However, it was becoming clear that China was inserting itself into the continent by building infrastructure, doing business and exploiting natural resources.

At first, it was a bit clumsy because Chinese workers weren’t there for diplomacy, they were there to get a job done and they didn’t interact well with local populations.

Moreover, China was also buying large tracts of land for agricultural development and this didn’t sit well with locals who were often thrown off the land.

In effect, I was witnessing a new geopolitical move by China to extend its reach into a continent to which it had not given much attention in recent decades.

I thought of this as I read the excellent account of the decline of U.S. diplomacy by Ronan Farrow, War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence.

The Decline of U.S. Influence

Farrow provides first-rate reporting about how U.S. diplomatic strategies were implemented, ignored, or compromised, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

He offers unique insight and detail about the efforts of special representative Richard Holbrooke, among others.

It’s a compelling story, as well as one that should be of great concern. It illustrates how elections in the U.S. make a difference.

Importantly, it makes it clear how the loss of U.S. influence puts national security at risk in these days of geopolitical crises.

As I read Farrow’s account of U.S. involvement in Somalia as recently as 2004, I recalled my own experiences there two decades earlier.

It concerned me way back then that Somalia in anarchy was a destabilizing force in east Africa. But it seemed a mere blip on the radar of U.S. politicians until Somali pirates began to highjack tankers moving down the Gulf of Suez into the Indian Ocean.

To be sure, they were interested in the region much earlier and appropriated the island of Diego Garcia for an airbase, and later estabished a large militay presence in Djoubti, but less about Somalia.

From Diplomacy to Military Think

The crux of the case Farrow makes is that the U.S. has reduced its diplomatic capacity worldwide in favor of increasing its military footprint. This has the effect of putting our international relationships in the hands of generals who have military power but are not skilled at, nor assigned to develop the kinds of relationships with civilian populations as diplomats have cultivated in the past, nor to assist to in the development of countries to encourage democracy.

They enter under security-building protocols, and this is very different.

In fact, so-called “nation-building” is derided and ridiculed today. There will be no Marshall Plan coming from politicians who quietly and spinelessly accept modern-day isolationist ideology.

And that’s a shame as well as a danger.

What is Being Lost

Farrow writes that what is being lost is generations of skill, knowledge and relationships that undergird the U.S.’s efforts to grow democracy and create a more peaceful world, as idealistic as that sounds.

He notes in precise detail how frequently the ideal has been hypocritically betrayed.

China, on the other hand, has stepped up its efforts—it’s transactional diplomacy, not the type of relationship diplomacy the U.S., at its best, has attempted to do—and China is filling in the gaps.

Among other things, this means that youth around the world are interacting with Chinese programs and receiving a worldview from the Chinese perspective, business people are developing transactional relationships with China for business and infrastructure, and politicians are interacting with Chinese officials more directly.

And the U.S. is in the background diplomatically.

A Lost Future

In his epilogue, Farrow quotes senior State Department official Bill Burns as he is leaving his post in the opening days of the Trump Administration.

Burns summarizes the dilemma, “There’s a real corrosion of the sense of American leadership in the world and the institutions that make that leadership real. You end up creating circumstances where you wake up fifteen years from now and say ‘Where are all those Foreign Service officers who should be just short of the mark of becoming ambassadors?’ and they’re not going going to be there.”

But, Farrow writes, China will be there.


Here are two interesting takes on the decline of U.S. diplomacy, not directly related to Farrow’s book, but certainly complementary to the core idea: Trump’s America Does Not Care and Trump Has Put America in the Worst of All Possible Worlds, This Should Have Been the Real Headline of the Trump Kim Summit.

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