Ronan Farrow is a journalist and ex-diplomat. He has now written a book about US foreign policy. What can we expect?
Ronan Farrow, son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, wrote an award-winning story about the Weinstein case Photo: AP
taz am wochenende: Mr. Farrow, you describe the destruction of the State Department in Washington. Since Donald Trump became president, the budget, staff and field offices around the world have been drastically cut. What’s the goal?
Ronan Farrow: In the beginning, it was said that there would be reforms in the State Department like in the private sector. People in the diplomatic corps were open to that. But in fact, cuts came across the board and without a well thought-out plan. It is bravado instead of strategic caution.
After all, hadn’t Trump told his first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, in January 2017 what he wanted him to do?
Shortly before the end of his term, Tillerson told me that he had tried to fill vacancies in the State Department and at the top of embassies around the world. But the White House, which itself was in great chaos, had prevented that, he said. He also told me that he didn’t know that part of his job was to ask for more resources for the State Department.
When Tillerson told Congress that he wanted to cut his department’s budget by nearly a third, several members of Congress urged him in vain to accept more money. How can he claim a year later that he knew nothing?
My personal impression of Tillerson is that he didn’t realize how disastrous his short tenure was until the last days of it.
At times, it seemed as if Tillerson was a moderating voice at certain flashpoints. He wanted negotiations with Korea even when Trump was still threatening war. Tillerson also argued for the extension of the Iran agreement.
He probably didn’t run Exxon, one of the largest corporations in the world, by accident. That’s why his total uselessness at the State Department was such a shock to many. What’s happening at the State Department is symptomatic of the Trump administration. It has created an environment in which there is no time or space for diplomacy.
Donald Trump has reneged on agreements that diplomats worked years to reach. He has left international organizations. He behaves like a bully. Should the world be afraid of him?
When we turn away from our partners, that’s dangerous. We have withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement, we have ended the thaw in relations with Cuba, we have pulled out of the Iran deal, and we have also walked away, at least rhetorically, from core NATO commitments such as mutual defense. These are alarming signs for our allies. One of the most serious consequences of reneging on the Iran agreement is that it drives a wedge between the United States and its partners. That is a consequence of this diplomacy by tweet that has replaced professional foreign policy in the United States.
U.S. allies are still seeking the right tone for dealing with Trump. Macron has tried seduction. Trudeau was also very nice to him. And Merkel …
… is grouchy.
30, is a journalist, lawyer and was a diplomat. In 2018, he received the Pulitzer Prize for his research on sexual abuse in Hollywood.
His book "The End of Diplomacy. Why the Change in American Foreign Policy is So Dangerous for the World" has just been published in German. For it, he interviewed all living ex-US secretaries of state and many diplomats.
From 2001 to 2009, he was Unicef spokesperson for youth. During Obama’s first term, he worked in the State Department under Hillary Clinton.
He is the son of actress Mia Farrow, his father is Woody Allen. Or maybe Frank Sinatra.
In any case, they’ve all been rebuffed. What is the right tone?
Vladimir Putin and the North Korean regime are very successful. They flatter Trump’s ego and organize meetings that don’t produce the slightest results for America or the international community, but at the end of which Donald Trump can say wonderful things about mass murderers. He fires from the hip, and he is receptive to flattery. I don’t know how to translate that into diplomacy.
But the time with Trump could be long. How should the Europeans bridge it?
Maybe they should follow the Canadian example. There are some creative solutions there, with Canada working directly with communities and states in the U.S. rather than going through the government in Washington. And in the case of Iran, we need to contain the nuclear threat without America.
What changes with Mike Pompeo, the current secretary of state?
He’s more politically experienced. Maybe soon there will be less chaos and more ambassadors who are professional diplomats. But there remains disdain for diplomacy in government.
Trump is not the first U.S. president to weaken the State Department.
No, Bill Clinton is also a good example of this. His administration has closed several departments in the State Department – including the one for arms control, which we could do with right now.
Barack Obama has also centralized entire foreign policy divisions in the White House. If both Democratic and Republican presidents are dismantling the State Department, perhaps that tells us more about a trend in U.S. foreign policy than it does about Trump?
The turning point was the attacks of 9/11. The consequence has been the increasing shift of power to the military. We are now seeing the absolute nadir where the military and the national security state determine diplomacy.
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But the U.S. also had foreign ministers who were more strongly in favor of military solutions than the defense minister and the generals. Hillary Clinton, who advocated interventions in Libya and Syria, is the latest example of this for now.
Diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who brought peace to Bosnia and sought solutions for Afghanistan at the end of his life, bucked the trend. He begged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for more room for civilian diplomats in the Afghanistan process. Clinton was not a passionate defender of diplomacy in this case. With her, it was a combination of principles – she is a hawk – and political expediency. She was in lockstep with the generals.
Perhaps Holbrooke belonged to a breed of diplomat – at least in the U.S. – facing extinction?
He continued the tradition of diplomats who negotiated the international order after World War II. Today, we see few of them.
Is this a US-only phenomenon, or are there parallels?
The changes in U.S. priorities since 9/11 also affect our allies. But I don’t see their foreign ministries withering away in the same way.
Is there also a cultural phenomenon behind this? U.S. Americans have virtually no experience with war on their own territory. Most know the rest of the world only as soldiers or from short private trips. Does the lack of knowledge of foreign countries and other cultures lead to military rather than political solutions being considered?
In election campaigns, we see time and again how military personnel are celebrated as heroes – and rightly so – while diplomats, who also live in dangerous places and try to bring about peace, are belittled. It is easy to understand an explosion and an exchange of fire. Negotiations and diplomacy are more complicated. Also, we have spy novels, but not diplomatic novels. There is no John Le Carre of the State Department.
Over the past half century, the United States has generated so many international crises-from election meddling to military coups to wars-that its strength has not necessarily been good for the rest of the world. Given that, why would we want to see a continuation of U.S. international leadership?
I am not arguing for American dominance, but for America’s ability to function in the international community. Yes, there are American missteps. But when it comes to a choice between American, Russian, and Chinese leadership, I continue to believe in the project of restoring American influence in the diplomatic sphere. I am in favor of an American presence in the world that is characterized by competence and caution. And which relies on talks instead of conflicts.
Why did you leave diplomacy so quickly yourself?
After my experiences in Afghanistan and the Middle East, I was disillusioned. On the one hand, I’m proud of American diplomacy; on the other, I’m disappointed. My book was born out of this feeling.