Publisher: W. W. Norton
Released: April 24, 2018
American diplomacy is under siege. Offices across the State Department sit empty, while abroad the military-industrial complex has assumed the work once undertaken by peacemakers. We’re becoming a nation that shoots first and asks questions later.
In an astonishing account ranging from Washington, D.C., to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea in the years since 9/11, acclaimed journalist and former diplomat Ronan Farrow illuminates one of the most consequential and poorly understood changes in American history. His firsthand experience in the State Department affords a personal look at some of the last standard-bearers of traditional statecraft, including Richard Holbrooke, who made peace in Bosnia and died while trying to do so in Afghanistan. Farrow’s narrative is richly informed by interviews with whistleblowers, policymakers, and a warlord, from Henry Kissinger to Hillary Clinton. Diplomacy, Farrow argues, has declined after decades of political cowardice, short-sightedness, and outright malice—but it may just offer America a way out of a world at war.
War on Peace is the book it promises to be, but not the book I thought it would be. I picked it up thinking that it would be a real-life story about how the Trump administration broke US diplomacy, and, in my defence, that’s pretty much what the marketing of the book seemed to promise. The book does indeed talk about how the Trump-administration has had an adverse impact on diplomacy, but in order to illustrate what was torn down it also has to chronicle what was built up. Had my idea about what this book was been accurate I might not have picked it up. But having read it, I’m very glad I did.
I know that war is the failure of diplomacy and the failure of leaders to make alternative decisions.John Kerry, quoted in War on Peace
I’m not used to reading about foreign policy for more than a newspaper-friendly ten minutes or so at a time. That’s probably the reason why starting out reading this book felt like walking up a steep hill. I was a little disappointed in myself: I understood the words, I understood what was going on, and there was no reason why reading this should feel like such an effort to me – yet it was. I started reading this book a year ago, and about 50 pages in I concluded that reading this book in 15 minute commute-shaped chunks was a bit pointless. I realised that, while this was a book I could probably really like, I had to give myself a fair chance to appreciate it.
A year later, and I finally got around to reading this book properly. I’m glad that I got back to reading the book, but I’m also very glad I put this book on pause, and gave myself the time to get into the right state of mind. I finally read it because I was interested, not just because I hoped to become interested. The book didn’t let me down: it took a while, but once I got into it, the book became a page-turner.
This is not an “Oh, wow, Trump is doing terrible things, and this is an affirmation of my opinion of how he is terrible”-book. The book will fulfil that need as well, but while the “what has Trump done”-stuff might be the synopsis that sells the book (at least it’s the synopsis that sold it to me), the book is much more than that. The book is mostly Farrow drawing on his experience in the US foreign service, and on interviews with “everyone” involved in it, to write up a high-level history of what the foreign service has been in relatively recent years, honing in on some specific examples of the what it has done. It takes some time to get into the narrative, and it seems a little dry until it suddenly doesn’t. I’d be lying if I said the first hour of reading this book didn’t feel like a slog, but once I started feeling a little invested in the, to me, hitherto hidden world the book was about, what was dry suddenly became exciting. For this I’d credit the author with two things: writing about real-life, potentially dry, events in a way that became interesting, as well as not dumbing it down to the point where it would have been too easy for me to read the book. There is a very different, probably worse, book that could have been written that would have been much easier to read, but once I got over the barrier of entry I really appreciated this book not shying away from the details.
The stories about diplomacy are honest. After the fact everyone involved in diplomacy acknowledges that even great successes will necessarily have many warts on them. Compromises can look ugly, but can also be much, much, better than the lack of a compromise. This forms a very interesting juxtaposition between the general sentiment of this book, which is a love-letter to the foreign service, and the stories of how ugly truths have been part of even the most successful ventures of diplomacy. The contrast makes it it very clear how vulnerable state-level diplomacy can be under a certain kind of government. When the inner workings of something is as ugly as diplomacy can be, shining a selective light on certain parts of it can be both hugely politically beneficial, and very dangerous. It’s easy to come away from this book thinking that the Trump administration has done a lot of damage to a fragile part of international relations, but it’s also surprisingly obvious that something like it could easily happen. The belief in that the world can do better, and the discipline of every state leader who respects the work to make it so, regardless of the cost, or opportunity cost, of respecting and supporting diplomats was surprising and fascinating to me. It made me aware of the important, hidden, and often thankless work that goes into governing – and increased my respect for those who dedicate their lives to it.
After going through the story of how diplomacy has been done in the past, what started changing during the Trump-administration, and what the results of it have been, the book then backtracks and ends with an account of the Iran nuclear deal, the diplomatic importance of which seems incredibly pertinent as I’m writing this. The relatively short chapter tells of the enormous amount of work everyone put into the deal, the cooperation of political enemies to make this particular deal happen, and the significance the deal had to everyone involved. Knowing what we know now, both about how the Trump-administration dealt with the deal shortly after Trump took office, but also how much diplomacy between the countries has been torn up only during the last couple of days, the chapter becomes downright sad.
It’s hard to rate a book like War on Peace. It’s a very well done book, and does a fantastic job laying a lot of information out in a way that is digestible – even for me. That said, I think I would have enjoyed the book more if it contained more personal stories, and delved a bit further into the minds of some of the hidden people behind diplomacy. I’m left with a story of what some diplomats achieved, but it would have been interesting to hear more about the personal thoughts and experiences behind the negotiations. The book has a bit of this, but usually only when it related very directly to an outcome, or to Farrow himself. There might be good reasons why the book didn’t go a more down the avenue of personal anecdote at times, but after finishing the book I was left just a little cold, like I’d seen a great picture that was lacking a top corner. I think a little more insight into the minds of the people behind the work, in addition to that of Farrow himself, could have completed the picture.