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U.S. is gutting its ability to make peace, says Ronan Farrow

The last year in American diplomacy has been momentous and chaotic. In his new book, "War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence," journalist Ronan Farrow argues that this is part of a much bigger and darker trend, and that we are at an inflection point. Farrow joins Judy Woodruff for a conversation about the State Department, negotiating with North Korea and more.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    From the firing of a secretary of state to possible talks between the president and North Korea's dictator, the last year in American foreign policy has been momentous and chaotic.

    In his new book, "War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence," the journalist Ronan Farrow, who worked in the Obama State Department, argues that this is part of a much bigger and darker trend.

    I recently spoke with Farrow, and began by asking him if he really thought we were watching the end of American diplomacy.

    RONAN FARROW, Author, "War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence": You know, I think we're at an inflection point, Judy, where we can make important choices about that.

    And this is in the news right now. Mike Pompeo is going to be coming in. And a lot will be on his shoulders. He has a track record as a hawk, a track record of some saber-rattling against large-scale diplomatic accomplishments, like the Iran deal.

    But the whistle-blowers who were brave enough to share their stories in this book are really hopeful that he may pull out of the nosedive that right now is really triggering a transformation of America's place in the world, where we are gutting our ability to negotiate and make peace and increasingly shooting first and asking questions later.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, you — one of the things you of course start the book writing about is the so-called Mahogany Massacre, where people who played key longtime roles in the State Department were just summarily dismissed, a lot of them, in the very early weeks of the Trump administration.

    I guess the pushback on that is, doesn't every new president, every new secretary of state have a right to come in and put his own people in?

  • RONAN FARROW:

    Absolutely.

    And this was done in a very different way from that normal scenario you just described, where non-political appointees, career officials who had decades of expertise in important subject matter areas related to our most important challenges around the world, were just shown the door.

    And, you know, what whistle-blower after whistle-blower told me was, they feel there is a culture of denigrating expertise. And as we barrel into, for instance, the North Korea crisis and this latest effort to tackle it, the experts who have been embedded in that crisis for decades say time will tell what a meeting between leaders in that situation will achieve or not.

    We could get played. What we do know is, we need it to be embedded in strategy built by diplomats. And we don't have them anymore.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, you — among other things, you were one of the very few people to get access to sit down with the former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He told you in that conversation that — admitted some mistakes were made.

    What did he say to you?

  • RONAN FARROW:

    You know, every living secretary of state went on the record for "War on Peace," and I think they were each candid in different and surprising ways.

    Rex Tillerson, to his great credit, gave a lot of access, and for the first time in this interview really did say, look, maybe I was just too inexperienced. He said, when he defended these very deep cuts to the State Department budget, he was in the early days of the job, and that, over time, he learned a little bit more.

    But, at that point, he didn't understand that, running a government agency, you're supposed to advocate for more money, not push back on Congress' efforts to fund you.

    And I will say other secretaries regarded that posture with some degree of astonishment. But he was, at the very least, frank, and he put a lot of blame on this White House, Judy.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, and, of course, Ronan Farrow, the other part of that argument is, you're saying they put too much emphasis on defense, on military spending.

    Their argument, of course, is that this follows years of cutting the defense budget, not spending enough, letting the Pentagon grow weak. You now have the defense secretary, James Mattis, saying this sizable increase is what we must have, it's what we need to get us back to a position of primacy.

    So, they have pushed back.

  • RONAN FARROW:

    And I'm very forthright about saying, look, this trend is not linear. There are ups and downs. Something like sequestration led to cuts across the board.

    But what we see is that, at the times when we gut the State Department spending, it has devastating consequences. And this happens under administrations of both parties. You look back at the Clinton administration and the early days after the Cold War, where the mantra was, it's the economy, stupid, we did similarly deep cutting to the State Department.

    And it resulted in the closure of two government agencies on important priorities. It resulted in the closure of embassies around the world, and it resulted in a scenario where, Judy, after 9/11, we really didn't have the diplomatic capacity we needed.

    And we're seeing history repeat itself in that respect. Right now, it's a much more extreme version of that. And I would also point out that Mattis has been one of the first to say, if you don't spend on diplomats, I'm going to need to get more bullets.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You mentioned North Korea a minute ago. And, as you know, people are watching that effort to make a difference, get the North to denuclearize, that President Trump initiated that.

    Isn't it possible that, as a result of what the president has done, there could be a good result on the Korean Peninsula? And, in fact, the president is still talking to world leaders. You know, you mentioned the French leader. Mr. Macron was in Washington. So it's not as if diplomacy has stopped, is it?

  • RONAN FARROW:

    It is absolutely the case that this curveball of a leader-to-leader meeting could have successful results.

    But I think what everyone who has ever been involved in North Korean diplomacy agrees on is, this is one of the most wily diplomatic opponents in the world. They lie a great deal. The promises they're making now, they have made before and backed down on.

    And you run a very real risk with this kind of a meeting that you will just legitimize them as a nuclear power.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You are relatively new, relatively young at all this. I think I read you're 30 years old. You have been — you have had a precocious start. You worked at the State Department from a very early age.

    There are those who are saying, wait a minute, it's going to take time, some of these things just don't happen overnight.

    So, isn't it — I guess the argument is, don't we all need to have a — take a breath, see what happens?

  • RONAN FARROW:

    So, we talk at length in "War on Peace" about the response of world leaders to all this saber-rattling from Trump about North Korea.

    And across the board for the most part, it's a fair amount of despair, you know, and the same is true, of course, with respect to the Iran deal. There is great concern about the possibility of the United States abdicating its leadership in some of our great diplomatic confrontations.

    Now, you see an example like Macron coming in and saying, all right, let's look at an alternative deal, just so we can salvage some of the accomplishments.

    And that's absolutely a productive conversation to be having. But this is not the way that diplomacy has to work. It doesn't have to be leadership by tweet. And I think that what you hear from a lot of the anguished voices in this book, including Richard Holbrooke, my mentor of many years, in his final days before his death is, the system doesn't have to be that way, and we lose a lot when we sacrifice our diplomacy and the people who do it.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Ronan Farrow, thank you.

    The book is "War on Peace — The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence."

  • RONAN FARROW:

    Thank you, Judy.

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