2018, Books, Non-Fiction

War on Peace (2018) by Ronan Farrow

This is a deeply flawed but fascinating book about the decline of the US foreign service and US diplomacy and general, the the ebbing of US influence as the American Empire slowly ends.

Farrow was an employee of the State Department at one point and perhaps he was too close to his subject. The first 100 or so pages are essentially an apologia for his boss, Richard Holbrooke. Holbrooke is no longer around to defend himself so Farrow seems to have taken it upon himself. I don’t think it necessarily works as a point of entry into this topic for someone who isn’t an American, or who isn’t a Democrat, frankly, and it feels more like it’s about Holbrooke than it is about failed efforts in Afghanistan. Until the riveting depiction of Holbrooke’s death, I was seriously contemplating abandoning this book.

Things pick up considerably in Part 2 and Farrow does a better job of chronicling problems the US has helped fester (or even caused) when he’s less close to the material. This is the real value of the book: how the US has prioritized the military and the CIA over the State Department more and more, and the inevitable disasters that result. This point was made with Holbrooke, but the whole Holbrooke section is cast is a “best intentions” light that makes it harder to stomach.

And it’s the idea of “best intentions” that brings us to the book’s main problem, it’s thesis. As a work of journalism chronicling the decline of the US State Department, this is mostly a success (even the Holbrooke part). But as an argument that the decline of US influence is a bad thing, well that remains to be proven. Because, the thing is, if you’re not an American, and you don’t believe the US should be the policeman world, then it’s hard to know why this is necessarily a bad thing. Farrow himself doesn’t really argue this point at all. He mentions Vietnam and some other past US foreign policy disasters, but claims that the good outweighed the bad; he never bothers to try to convince us, it’s just assumed. It’s a little like a British person during the Sinai Crisis saying “But whatever will the world due without our leadership?!?”

This is perhaps too crude but bear with me: imagine everything the US has done outside its borders since the Spanish-American War. Do you believe that the US has saved more lives than it has helped end? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m not sure the answer is affirmative. As someone who is not an American citizen, I find the assumption that the US has normally or mostly acted for the good of the world to be highly, highly questionable. I’m not sure the passing of American influence is as terrible as Farrow thinks it is. (Though, as a Canadian, I should point out that the US being economically strong is in my self-interest and I definitely agree with Farrow that China is not necessarily the country we want to replace the US on the world stage.)

So read this if you’re interested in the declining role of diplomacy in US actions in the world, but don’t read it if you want a coherent argument as to why the US should remain the policeman of the world, because there isn’t one.


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