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Book Review: American Statecraft

By (November 16, 2013) No Comment

American Statecraft: The Story of the U.S. Foreign Serviceamerican statecraft cover

By J. Robert Moskin

Thomas Dunne Books, 2013


“Today,” J. Robert Moskin tells his readers in his magisterial new book, American Statecraft, “U.S. Foreign Service members and retirees of the Department of State belong to an organization of more than 58,000 men and women. American Foreign Service officers serve at some 268 posts in 190 of the world’s 192 nations. They are honed to a professional proficiency.” Foreign Service members, he points out, are the face of American diplomacy, the calming layer between foreign frictions, the bending, flexing ligaments that allow the bones and muscles of realpolitik to operate.

The members of that service have over the years produced many books, quite a few of them first rate, perhaps half a dozen of them indispensably brilliant; the sub-genre of the American diplomatic memoir is noticeably robust, and this is on reflection unsurprising, since the men and women pursuing that service generally tend to be not only extremely capable but also unabashedly vain. Their job is a strange combination of tedium, glamour, tension, and melodrama, and in American Statecraft, that job at long last gets its epic history.

Traditionally those men and women come to their jobs in one of two ways, as Moskin clarifies:

An American ambassador is a professional who has climbed the Foreign Service ladder or a political appointee brought in from outside the State Department; each breed has its advocate. Some Presidents have demonstrated little faith in finding trustworthy and able representatives in the Washington bureaucracy. Others have preferred the abilities of men and women who have spent their adult lives working on the intricacies of foreign relations.

But whether they’re up-the-chain veterans or political appointees, they confront the same complexities once they’re in service, and Moskin does a better job than any outsider (he’s a WWII historian and a journalist, and there’s something endearingly fustian about the fact that he’s served as an editor at Collier’s and The Saturday Review) not only at bringing those complexities to life but also of dramatizing them with countless vivid character sketches. Moskin clearly did enormous amounts of research in the preparing of this book, but he keeps that research firmly subordinate to narrative throughout his long book, constantly stressing the precarious challenge of the job itself:

The challenge of communicating directly with people is complex. An audience that is sophisticated and educated requires a certain level of material, while “the street” demands a more simplified approach. Public diplomacy also has to meld the objectives that come out from Washington and the know-how amassed by USIS [U.S. Information Service] personnel in Upper Volta, Ouagadougon, Baghdad, or London.

Moskin fills his nearly 1000 pages with all the great and famous names from American history. Presidents and senators rumble through these chapters, but always in the foreground is a cast of characters Moskin invests with far more detail: the men and women who took orders from those presidents and senators and then went out to their far postings and tried to make those orders work in the real world. There are blackguards and incompetents among those men and women, and Moskin is not shy of pointing them out. But there are also remarkable figures, people like Walter Hines Page, who tried repeatedly to convince President Wilson that Germany was bent on “the practical conquest of the world,” or Elihu Root, called by Theodore Roosevelt “the greatest Secretary of State we have ever had,” or Henry Kissinger, who “depended on secrecy that bred distrust.” Legendary diplomat naysayer George Kennan also features prominently (he and Moskin compared notes extensively prior to Kennan’s death in 2005), which is justifiable but a bit regrettable, since it slants the book’s 20th century portions a bit against Dean Acheson, who actually was “the greatest Secretary of State we have ever had” – but who was no friend of Kennan’s.

Moskin is extremely sensitive to the fact that his subject is still very much alive. This is not a history of the Boer War; American diplomats and Foreign Service workers are in the newsfeeds every day shaping the course of events – increasingly at risk of their lives (the book went to press in time to include mention of diplomat J. Christopher Stevens, who died in Benghazi in 2012). So the story of American statecraft will go on as long as America does, but in the meantime, a copy of this big book should be sent to every embassy and consulate wherever the men and women of the Foreign Service work to stave off the catastrophes that always lie in wait for the world’s greatest superpower. American Statecraft will serve as an excellent reminder to those workers that they walk in the footsteps of giants.

And for all those readers not in Foreign Service, the book still is a hell of a read – which a thousand-page history of diplomats really has no business being.