The Current

Trump is creating a world of empty embassies and risking global stability, says Ronan Farrow

Ronan Farrow's new book argues that the U.S. State Department is being gutted to the point where American influence in the world is at risk.

As U.S. steps off world stage, China is stepping in, says journalist

(W.W. Norton & Co./Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

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​Originally published on May 3, 2018

U.S. President Donald Trump swore in his new secretary of state Mike Pompeo on May 2, heaping praise on the department that plays "a vital role in advancing the safety, liberty, prosperity, and all good things of the United States." 

Despite the kind words, parts of the organization are allegedly concerned about its ability to fulfil that role under the Trump administration. Pompeo's ceremony was the first time that Trump had visited the State Department.

Ronan Farrow addresses those concerns in his new book War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence. He worked in the State Department during the Obama era, but is better known for his work in exposing sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Those stories won him a Pulitzer Prize, and were among the catalysts for the #MeToo movement.

He spoke with The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti about what he calls "a moment of unprecedented attack on the State Department," and why the U.S. — and allies like Canada — should be worried.

Ronan Farrow shared a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. (John Carucci/Associated Press)

You spoke to every living secretary of state for your research. What were some of the concerns they raised about the state of the State Department under President Trump?

Many of them have grave concerns, and Colin Powell was incredibly uncensored here, saying the Trump administration has ripped the guts out of American diplomacy. That we are in the midst of 'mortgaging our future,' is one phrase that he used — and he's right in a sense. The damage that's being done to America's capacity to negotiate and make peace is something that isn't going to be fixable overnight ... it's going to take years to reinstate the flow of talent into the department. 

And when you look at Korea, Mr. Trump is taking credit for bringing the north and south together. He's already being touted as deserving the Nobel Peace Prize. Could it be that his unorthodox methods to that point on North Korea have worked?

Time will tell. It's completely possible that, for instance, the American president's meeting with Kim Jong-un will prove to be part of an effective diplomatic approach. There's no reason why that can't be part of diplomacy with North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27, 2018. Farrow said that the U.S. is short on experts who can advise on the reason. (Korea Summit Press Pool via AP)

However there are also a lot of reasons why we have turned down that opportunity in the past, and there are a lot of occasions on which North Korea has said the things that they're saying now that seem optimistic and it turns out they were lying. And there's a real risk. All of the experts involved in North Korea diplomacy say that we end up getting played if we go into this meeting … Without that kind of attentiveness from career diplomats who know the region, we may well end up getting played this time. 

OK, so even the angry tweets and the public threats, even if they could push something, you need the diplomacy happening behind the scenes — you need a whole other layer going on. And you're telling me that those people actually don't exist anymore, do they?

I think that's right. There was a core of North Korea experts at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration when we last tackled this problem. That was an attempt that was not a complete failure. It fell through in the end, but we made a lot of inroads, particularly in our dialogue with China around this issue. Those are threads that we will likely have to pick up if we want to resume regional diplomacy there, because the Chinese have more leverage over North Korea than anyone.

Chinese President Xi Jinping with U.S. President Donald Trump last year. Farrow said that as the U.S. pulls back from the international stage, China is stepping in. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

It's almost unwitting, isn't it, that the United States — by pulling back — China's just moving in?

That's exactly right. In place after place around the world we see a situation where China is building more bridges and more dams and has ... shuttle diplomacy underway. They've got an envoy tackling regional peace issues in Sudan, for instance. This is a new side of China. And while it's going to take a long time for China to eclipse American leadership, the trend line is pretty striking. And this is all exacerbated by the fact that in many of the places I'm talking about we no longer have American ambassadors.

And what does that mean for the United States?

I am careful to not paint an overly rosy picture of American leadership either. I fully embrace the fact that the United States is an imperfect global leader, that the impact of our leadership can often be deleterious to global security, that our human rights track record is not spotless either. But I still do believe that a nation like China, which has a serious authoritarian streak and serious human rights issues that it has not confronted — and despite this new mounting diplomatic face that they are putting forward to the world — is still very much about its own narrow commercial interests. I think that we should all question whether we want that brand of leadership to overtake the United States influence.

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.