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.