War on Peace

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Over the past 18 months, we have seemingly witnessed the Trump administration’s evisceration of the State Department—from proposals to cut the budget by more than 30%, to the systematic firing of senior diplomats

with decades of experience. However, as Ronan Farrow’s new book, War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence demonstrates, the Trump administration’s efforts are not without precedent and represent the acceleration of the trend towards the increasing militarization of American foreign policy following the September 11th attacks. In War on Peace, Farrow demonstrates what this means in practice—and why it matters for American foreign policy.

The book’s underlying theme is that the systematic under-resourcing of the non-military elements of American foreign policy post-9/11 has led to an atrophying of diplomatic and international development tools in the U.S. foreign policy toolkit. This has generated a vicious cycle in which the State Department and the United States Agency for International Aid (USAID) fail to take on crucial tasks because they lack the resources to do so, leading members of Congress to judge these institutions to be incompetent and therefore further cut funding for diplomacy and development. This disregard for the role of diplomacy and development has led to an increasingly militarized U.S. foreign policy since 9/11. Senior U.S. officials are less willing to consider diplomatic solutions to intractable conflicts, relying instead on the military. At the same time, diplomats with in-depth institutional knowledge and personal connections with their counterparts in other countries, who might once have led nuclear negotiations with North Korea or raised concerns about the detention of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, are notably absent.

Farrow’s appreciation for the dying breed of great diplomats is evident. He dedicates the first half of the book to his former boss, the late Richard Holbrooke, who served as the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), leading the charge to negotiate an end the U.S. war in Afghanistan as a complement to military efforts. Farrow worked in the SRAP office, coordinating with civil society, giving him unique insight into U.S. policy in the region. Farrow demonstrates that Holbrooke’s decline and fall from grace, before his untimely death in December 2010, was the byproduct of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. Farrow convincingly argues that the political and diplomatic solutions that Holbrooke advocated for were “given short shrift” by a White House that sought a military victory in Afghanistan and thought that diplomacy and development should be subordinated to achieving military goals, rather than the other way around.

Holbrooke’s career maps onto the rise and fall of American in diplomacy in interesting ways, from his participation in fruitless peace negotiations in Vietnam during the Cold War, to the great (albeit imperfect) diplomatic achievement of the Dayton Accords in the post-Cold War “new world order,” which ended the genocidal violence of the war in Bosnia in 1995, to his unsuccessful efforts in Afghanistan in the post-9/11 era.

Indeed, Farrow demonstrates that it was largely due to the sheer force of Holbrooke’s personality that the Obama administration became open to negotiations with the Taliban, an effort that died with Holbrooke and has only been revived recently after several more years of a failing policy in Afghanistan.

The final portion of the book consists of vignettes from Farrow’s time as a reporter, which help illustrate the troubling consequences of this increasingly militarized U.S. foreign policy. These consequences include partnerships with warlords like Abdul Rashid Dostum in Afghanistan and providing financial support to the Colombian army while it committed atrocities against its civilians in the fight against the FARC. Farrow concludes with extensive reporting on how Secretary of State Tillerson went about dismembering the State Department before he was unceremoniously fired this March. Impressively, this section includes candid interviews with every living Secretary of State, including Tillerson himself. The second half of the book does not tie together as well as the first, jumping from place to place, but the first-person narrative, as much of it is told through the lens of his travels as a reporter and conversations with people who have been directly affected by these policy decisions, is nevertheless engaging. Farrow certainly knows how to tell a story.

Tillerson’s remarks in War on Peace (and Farrow’s reporting in the New Yorker) demonstrate the critical role that Congress plays in ensuring that the State Department receives funding. Tillerson shockingly claims that he advocated for drastic cuts in State Department funding because he was new to government and assumed that he could count on “plus ten, plus twenty percent, because we figure the Congress is going to give us something there.” Fortunately, members of Congress rejected most of these cuts: Senator Bob Corker, a Republican, remarked in a public hearing that it was “a total waste of time” to even review Tillerson’s proposal because “the budget that’s being presented is not going to be the budget we’re going to deal with.” Still, the FY2018 omnibus budget contained $700 billion for defense spending, a 10% increase from the previous year, and just $54 billion for the State Department and other international programs. The State Department was the only agency to see a decrease in funding from the previous year. Congress should do more to ensure that State and USAID receive sufficient funding. As then-General Mattis testified before Congress in 2013, “if you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

The story that Farrow tells of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy helps explain why the United States is embroiled in military conflicts in Afghanistan as well as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Niger, and elsewhere, with no end in sight. War on Peace’s most important message is that, as Holbrooke demonstrated, diplomacy is possible even with groups like the Taliban, and that compromise with similar unsavory groups may be the only way out of a decades-long military conflict.


Alexandra Stark is the Security & Defense Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at Georgetown University. Her dissertation research analyzes the conditions under which countries in the MENA region are likely to intervene in civil wars. She also holds an MSc from the London School of Economics and a BA from Wellesley College, where she was a fellow of the Albright Institute for Global Affairs.



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