President Donald Trump evidently doesn’t need the State Department to conduct foreign policy. When Mike Pompeo went to North Korea over Easter, no one from the State Department accompanied him. Pompeo, still the CIA director at the time, hadn’t been confirmed by the Senate as secretary of state, and his trip had to be quietly declared “not diplomacy.” Meanwhile, Trump has no ambassador in South Korea, no permanent assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and nothing resembling the unit of diplomats that shepherded negotiations with North Korea under past presidents. And yet the possibility of making some kind of deal with North Korea is real, even without the close involvement of America’s professional diplomatic corps.
This, according to the journalist Ronan Farrow, is diplomacy by moonshot. “Whether we get played or this is used to leverage our way into lasting gains in the North Korea crisis is highly dependent on whether we assemble a corps of experts and diplomats to guide this kind of intervention,” Farrow told me in an interview prior to Friday’s high-profile North Korea summit. He’s in a position to know. Better known for his Pulitzer-winning reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds, Farrow spent the early part of his career as one of those professional diplomats the Trump administration has sidelined. For a new book, War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, Farrow spoke to every living former secretary of state and a host of other civil servants, policy experts, and at least one prominent U.S.-backed warlord. The resulting picture of American foreign policy is both grimmer and in some ways more hopeful than any other recent portrait of the State Department: grimmer because the decline in American diplomacy long predates the Trump administration, and hopeful because it reveals how past presidents have acted to arrest that decline.
At the heart of the problem with diplomacy is an unbalanced relationship among the key agents of American power: the military, the intelligence agencies, and the civilian diplomats of the State Department. “There's a reason we structure our government in terms of checks and balances and different agencies with different interests and areas of expertise,” Farrow told me. “When those agencies work in concert it creates an effective policy process. Right now, when you have everything run through the military and intelligence communities, you really do lose something.” Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang is Exhibit A for this problem. Time and again, foreign policy led by military and intelligence officials has led the U.S. into tactical deals with unsavory foreign governments or other local actors that have later undermined American interests. “When you don't have a counterbalancing force, civilians’ voices saying, here's how this fits into a 10 or 20 year development strategy, you really do lose something,” said Farrow.
The war in Afghanistan is the clearest example of foreign policy without sufficient diplomacy. In the initial invasion, the U.S. chose to rely on local partners—many of them warlords—to carry out the bulk of the fighting. One was Abdul Rashid Dostum, the current vice president of Afghanistan, who admitted to Farrow that his forces were responsible for massacring prisoners in the aftermath of the U.S. intervention. Dostum committed war crimes even as his military contribution was invaluable to achieving U.S. objectives the early phase of the war. But nearly two decades later, Dostum is still sowing chaos—he has even hinted he might turn his militia fighters against his own government. (He now prefers the term “peacelord,” he told Farrow.) In that saga, Farrow saw a failure to involve civilians in setting the broad course of American strategy. “The problem is that when you don't have diplomats introducing some kind of strategy into the way that unfolds in the long-term, not just in those weeks [after the invasion], but in the months and years to follow, you end up with the downside of the Dostum relationships, which is a lack of accountability, and violent and erratic characters woven into the structure of the new government that we create in these places, and no way to rein in people we've empowered.”
The U.S. relationship with Pakistan is similarly problematic. Military and intelligence officials can strike deals with Pakistani leaders behind closed doors, but each side knows the other will say something else in public. That has allowed the U.S. to pursue tactical deals that come at the expense of American interests in a rights-respecting, stable Pakistani government. Former CIA director Michael Hayden was bracing in his conversations with Farrow about the tradeoffs he was willing to make with the ISI, Pakistan’s military-intelligence service. “We already know that the ISI were apparently killing journalists. Alright? That may affect my overall view of ISI, but it doesn’t affect my working with ISI to try and capture an al-Qaeda operative in Wana or Mir Ali,” Hayden is quoted as telling Farrow. “Look, I mean, the director of the CIA is not going to cause the government of Pakistan to change course based upon a conversation he has in either Washington or Islamabad,” Hayden said in another exchange. That requires the balancing power of civilian authority, but in recent administrations, civilian foreign-policy experts have rarely had the same access to the president as military and intelligence officials.
For a brief moment under President Barack Obama, a strong civilian voice came from Richard Holbrooke, a veteran American diplomat who had led the negotiations to end the war in Bosnia under President Bill Clinton. Under Obama, Holbrooke assembled a team of diplomats to address Afghanistan and Pakistan—a unit that Farrow joined. But that effort failed to find purchase before Holbrooke’s death in 2010. Farrow recounts that, despite Holbrooke’s efforts, Obama’s Afghanistan strategy was “pure mil-think,” according to Holbrooke’s audio diaries. Holbrooke and David Petraeus, the general Obama appointed to lead the war, were meant to be equals, but that was never true in practice. “And while I had great respect for the military, uh, and Petraeus was brilliant, I liked them as individuals and they were great Americans, they should not dictate political strategy, which is what’s happening now,” said Holbrooke in the diaries. He made his frustration with Petraeus plain to Farrow and the team: “His job should be to drop the bombs when I tell him to.”
Obama’s Iran strategy shows the other side of foreign policy. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, told Farrow that in the latter half of the presidency, the administration moved away from its reliance on generals. “I think there was a slow, admittedly, but steady reprioritization of diplomacy,” Rhodes said. The Iran deal, according to Farrow, shows how diplomacy is meant to work. “If you have leadership that says, OK, diplomats, we've got your back, the White House will support you, we're not going to micromanage you, go to town, this is one of our top priorities, you can pretty rapidly mobilize results,” said Farrow. And those results have (so far) proved relatively difficult for the deal’s opponents to undo, particularly because U.S. allies like France signed onto Obama’s plan. (A key difference, however, is that, unlike Afghanistan, the U.S. is not in direct military conflict in Iran, potentially giving civilians a larger opportunity to control policy.)
Governments do poorly when they are run purely by the whim of their leaders. The diplomatic whiplash over the Iran deal is one example; the confusion created by the U.S. entrance into and exit from the Paris Climate Accords is another. Institutions staffed by apolitical professionals are meant to dampen these kinds of vibrations. Farrow raises the question of what happens if the State Department can no longer be a stabilizing institution for the United States. “There’s no way around the fact that all these secretaries of state described a generational problem,” he said. The ranks of experienced diplomats are being depleted, Farrow argues, as foreign-service officers serve for shorter and shorter periods than their predecessors. More-junior officers are serving in positions previously reserved for those with more experience. And that was true before the Trump presidency, which has yet to make nominations for dozens of ambassador positions, according to the American Foreign Service Association. Trump has found the edifice of American diplomacy crumbling, and, instead of rebuilding it, has kicked away the scaffolding.
Mike Pompeo is now formally in the role of chief diplomat, but his title alone doesn’t automatically convey the depth of civilian experience that a fully staffed, in-the-loop State Department was able to provide in decades past. Nor does it ensure him any more access to the president than his predecessors in that role had—though his personal relationship with Trump might. That means any deal the United States strikes with North Korea is in danger of suffering all the faults of previous diplomacy-light deals: It may be overly tactical, focused on short-term wins, and constructed without regard to the interests of American allies. Moonshots succeed every now and then. But they’re no way to run a government.
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