BEATING PLOUGHSHARES INTO SWORDS
The work of diplomats is unglamorous and involves nations in messy compromises which are easily caricatured as weak. But without their work we are lost.
‘Mostly it’s fools who start a war. Only the brave and wise can end one.’
These words of Anthony Loyd, contemporary war reporter, are a terse commentary on prevailing realities. If Ronan Farrow is to be believed, US diplomacy is on the wane. In War on Peace: the end of diplomacy and the decline of American influence (William Collins, 2018) Farrow tells a sorry story of the hollowing out of the State Department’s influence. The son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, Ronan Farrow is one of its former officials who worked closely with Richard Holbrooke, the man largely responsible for helping to end the horrific civil wars of the Balkans.
The State Department, which held such a pivotal role among the post-war global institutions, is frequently criticised in the US for being ineffectual and allowing other nations to string it along. Following Trump’s inauguration as President in January 2017, many foreign service officer posts were ended, making redundant many people with an experienced knowledge of the workings of other countries built up over decades. More were to resign in despair in the following time and the number of those taking the foreign service exam has fallen by over a quarter. No longer is it the distinguished destination of America’s finest brains. Soft power has little place in the era of strongmen.
It would be unfair to place all the blame on the Trump administration. Reductions in staffing at the State Department began under Bill Clinton and accelerated under George W Bush and Barack Obama as the US became more militarised in its basic stance following 9/11. Many of the big civilian posts have since been filled by US forces personnel. These people have often been highly capable, but they understandably arrive in office with the culture and perspective their professional role affords.
The work of diplomats, especially around issues of war, peace and global security, is unglamorous, unseen, painstaking, enduringly fragile and susceptible to events beyond their control. It also involves nations in messy, awkward compromises which make people agitated and are easily caricatured as weak. Their work is essential to the success of summit meetings, where the hard graft needs to be done beforehand. When it isn’t, summits lack the fertile soil in which the fruit of peace can grow. The lack of supporting context for Trump’s 2018 meeting with Kin Yong-Un may be a case in point. There were highly active teams surrounding Reagan and Gorbachev when they met at the denouement of the Cold War.
This era is not unprecedented in the level of threat it contains, but its complex, evolving nature demands attention to detail, which the declining headcount of diplomats will struggle to afford. It is also an age in which globalisation, far from dissolving boundaries, has increased fear of the Other. Without a knowledge base with which to interpret words and actions, culture and identity, history and meaning, the risk is that lasting mistakes are made between nations which do not know each other well.
When we intercede in prayer for those in authority, we rarely stop to think of the officials behind the scenes who are the machinery of government. In a generation where the emphasis is so much on the difference one strong individual makes, it is ever more likely we will forget to pray for them.
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