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American Statecraft: The Story of the US Foreign Service, by J Robert Moskin, Thomas Dunne Books, RRP$40, 944 pages
It is almost impossible for a modern American military man or woman to walk down a street in uniform and avoid a virtual stampede of fellow countrymen stopping to thank them for their service to the nation.
This very public appreciation is not remotely similar to the everyday experience of America’s other vanguard deployed abroad – the Foreign Service officers and civil servants who inhabit the US’s embassies and other diplomatic compounds across the globe.
Journalist and historian J Robert Moskin begins his book American Statecraft with a simple crystalline truth: “We Americans glorify our warriors and ignore our diplomats.” Often distrusted by presidents (for example, Richard Nixon, Franklin D Roosevelt and George W Bush), unfairly caricatured in popular culture as either weak or sinister pen-pushers (the movie Rules of Engagement or the dark depictions of diplomats in the Jason Bourne series), or castigated in Congressional testimony as wasteful and incompetent (see the regular diatribes of Darrell Issa or virtually any other House of Representatives Tea Party member), the Foreign Service is subjected to popular and political disdain that can be disheartening to those who seek to promote US interests and values through means other than war.
I served as assistant secretary of state for Asia from 2009 to 2013 and my colleagues were the very people Moskin writes about. In that capacity, I would regularly receive letters from Americans abroad who were assisted by foreign service officers. These missives invariably had a hint of surprise: Oh my gosh! This person went beyond the call of duty to help me! Who would have thought!
Moskin has written an ode to the current generation of diplomats and their forebears. He traces the US Foreign Service from its earliest origins at the time of Benjamin Franklin in France, through the halcyon days of post-second world war diplomacy with George Kennan orchestrating the US arrival on the global stage, all the way to the swearing-in of John Kerry as the most recent occupant of the office of secretary of state.
There have been hundreds of books in recent years about conflicts in the Middle East, examining the lives and sacrifices of khaki-clad warriors fighting on unforgiving battlegrounds. By contrast, little has been written about their civilian counterparts and the role they have played in the Middle East campaigns and elsewhere.
It has been said that the military is the one instrument of the US government on steroids, while the rest of the bureaucracy – in particular the State Department – struggles on life support. You wouldn’t know it from the determination and tenacity that the contemporary State Department exhibits in the execution of its myriad missions abroad, as this book makes clear.
Moskin has laboured for over a decade in the research and writing of this exhaustive opus. American Statecraft can be unwieldy at times, much like the State Department itself, but the benefits of all his work are clear. Transporting the reader from the ornately furnished headquarters in Washington’s Foggy Bottom out into the heavily fortified diplomatic compounds where theory meets practice (at least in theory), Moskin offers glimpses into the careers of people at all levels of the organisation.
American Statecraft shows how the diplomatic service has reconfigured its core capabilities to maintain relevance since the end of the cold war – most recently to correspond with wartime exigencies in the Middle East. This suggests that it won’t be just the Pentagon struggling to redefine its role in the years ahead as America’s priorities change again; the State Department has an enormous transition of its own to make.
The author is careful to present himself as a hardened and unsentimental observer of diplomats, an unbiased critic. Yet a message is apparent on every page of this timely, well-conceived book: thank you for your service.
Kurt Campbell is chairman and chief executive of the Asia Group and a former US assistant secretary of state