Ronan Farrow on the Sad State of American Diplomacy

Ronan Farrow. Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for The Association of Magazine Media

Ronan Farrow is everywhere. The journalist and former MSNBC host recently won a Pulitzer Prize for his rigorous investigations of Harvey Weinstein’s abuses, reporting that helped spark the #MeToo movement. He’s also the author of a new best-selling book, War on Peace, which explores the denigration of U.S. diplomacy through the lens of his years spent at the State Department. Daily Intelligencer talked to Farrow about the importance of face-to-face negotiations, the Bill Cosby verdict, and why Hillary Clinton originally refused his interview request.

One of the central arguments of the book is that the U.S. has, for decades, prioritized military engagement and expertise over good old-fashioned diplomacy. But, as you sketch out in great detail, this shift hardly began under President Trump. In many cases, it even preceded 9/11. Is it realistic to think that diplomacy can take center stage again in a world that’s dominated by concerns of nebulous “national security,” which can be used to justify almost anything?

I don’t think it’s about wanting diplomacy to take center stage, or to eclipse our military national-security instruments. It’s about calling for appropriate balance between these parts of our government and ensuring that military solutions aren’t the first and only ones on the table. Because if you have a strong enough apparatus, you can have another layer of solutions that spare our brave servicemen and women immediate intervention, and shorten the interventions we’re engaged in.

This is not about painting diplomacy as some sort of perfect catchall solution. Diplomatic solutions are flawed and complicated. But we also desperately need them.

I wonder about the portrayal of diplomats in popular culture. Even in some other embattled professions, like journalism, we have movies like All the President’s Men and Spotlight that make us look heroic. I can’t think of an analog for diplomats. How much of the problem with the crisis in diplomacy is one of perception?

I think there’s a fundamental cultural misunderstanding, and that misunderstanding is exploited by politicians. We often hear about dusty bureaucrats not getting a lot done, and we don’t often get what I think is an accurate portrayal of the brave men and women of American diplomacy. These are people who risk everything and move their families around to every corner of the earth and endure long hours and low pay to make our country a safe place.

You’re right to talk about fiction, which is a proxy for our cultural values. We have a correctly robust culture of heroic portrayals of the military and espionage, but no equivalent for diplomats.

When you talk about fiction, violence is sexier on screen. It’s more kinetic and more immediate, and it’s really easy to understand something going boom. But the painstaking work to prevent things going boom is just as important. If you look at the chapter where the Iran deal was being negotiated, that was as tense and high-stakes as an action movie.

The book touches on some notable American success stories — making peace in the former Yugoslavia, helping transform Colombia into a thriving country. But it also highlights massive mistakes in American strategy, from Somalia to Afghanistan, that both destabilized the countries in question and failed to serve America’s best interests. As China starts to usurp America’s role in the world, what would you say to people who might not think this is such a bad thing?

I’m very careful to not portray American leadership as some perfect panacea. But I still do sincerely believe that China, as it evolves rapidly, brings a new set of problems to the table. And, without demonizing the country, we should think about whether we want to embrace it as the new architect of the world order. China still has a long way to go in terms of freedom of the press and willingness to examine their own authoritarian tendencies and their track record on human rights, and we have to ask ourselves whether that’s the leadership we want in the world. We’re not perfect, but I still believe in the project of using American leadership as a force for good.

You talked to every living secretary of State for the book, including Rex Tillerson, who gave extensive comments about his strange, short tenure. He chalked up his seeming enthusiasm for decimating the State Department to inexperience. Do you believe him? And why do you think he took the job in the first place? Because I’m still trying to figure that out.

This was one of the last and most candid interviews he gave before he was fired. I think him opening up was a part of a course correction around that time, away from being completely inaccessible — a willing executioner. He wrote a New York Times op-ed praising the foreign service, appeared on 60 Minutes … I think late in the game, he realized that his own legacy mattered more than just faithfully eviscerating the department, and he started to realize that what he had initially embraced as efficiency was proving to be something of a disaster. On the record, he’s clear in expressing some degree of regret; he didn’t realize you could go to the Hill to push back on spending cuts, that you have to advocate for your department. He also put a lot of blame on the White House. He fought those cuts behind closed doors, pushed to fill the countless empty ambassadorships. It was a fairly disgruntled interview. You hit the nail on the head in asking, “why?” This was a guy with a peerless track record, respected in the private sector. His approach to the State Department seemed to defy any kind of pragmatism or efficiency.

Moving on to a lighter topic: North Korea. Diplomats have been understandably skeptical of Trump’s strategy, but there are some surprising signs of progress. Do you think there’s a chance he’ll stumble onto a real achievement here?

Could it work? Sure, but time will tell. Many of the diplomats who have worked on this problem for years point out that there’s a serious risk of getting played. And you can’t safeguard against that if you don’t have experts who know the pitfalls guiding Trump’s meetings and embedding them in a longer term strategy.

The diplomats like Chris Hill all, to a one, say that the only way out of this thing is diplomacy. And that’s gonna involve a concerted effort to work with China. That’s the only way you can contain North Korea.

And I assume you think that pulling out of the nuclear agreement with Iran on the brink of talks with Kim Jong-un would not be a smart idea.

It is the prevailing opinion of diplomats that unilaterally killing the Iran deal when our allies think Iran is abiding by its terms would be a disaster for the North Korea talks.

Three weeks ago, you won a Pulitzer Prize for your reporting on Harvey Weinstein. One of the reasons the Weinstein story caught fire was that it exposed not just a powerful creep, but a vast, systemic structure used to silence women. Since then, how do you rate the efforts at actual systemic change?

I think we have a long way to go, and time will tell. We now know that high-profile attorneys like David Boies hired spies to undermine accusers. There will have to be an examination of that. And there will have to be an examination over time of how district attorneys take money from high-profile lawyers, and how that affects their ongoing investigations, and the revolving door between district attorneys and private investigation firms hired to quash allegations.

These are the kind of systems where it’ll take years to see if there’s any kind of reform. We’re also gonna need journalists banging their heads against the wall to uncover all this. But I would say, in terms of cultural change, as far as we have to go, I wouldn’t underestimate just how far we’ve come. When I started talking to Weinstein’s accusers, it was hard to envision a universe where they’d risk opening up about this crazy thing and people would actually listen. That just didn’t seem possible a year ago. Now there is some understanding that they may well be heard.

Bill Cosby was recently convicted of sexual assault, and a lot of people connected the verdict to the Me Too movement. Did you see the verdict as a sort of referendum on what’s happening in the culture?

I will say that I reported a lot about the initial allegations at a time when they weren’t in the headlines. Mark Whitaker had written a Cosby biography that didn’t address them at all, and I remember it being a struggle at MSNBC to get even a kicker question about it when he came on. People were very uncomfortable. It was a really entrenched cultural context: if a guy was powerful enough and well-regarded enough, you just didn’t talk about it. The Cosby case was a powerful precedent for the women who had been abused by Weinstein who were struggling to come up with lifelines. I pointed to Gretchen Carlson and Fox News as well. These were all pieces of the puzzle; they were survivors brave enough to chip away at the culture of silence.

You said that Hillary Clinton tried to cancel an interview with you because she found out that you were working on the Harvey Weinstein stories. What do you think convinced her to come around?

Her team called and raised the Weinstein reporting, which they’d discovered I was in the midst of. And then a sit-down interview that had been long promised and scheduled was canceled. This was at a time when she was otherwise doing a great deal of press. Eventually, after some tough conversations about how I’d have to explain the peculiar circumstances of her becoming the only living former secretary of State not on the record in War on Peace, she did agree to a brief phone call. Her team denies that she was motivated by her close relationship with Weinstein in any of this, which I faithfully pass on here.

Lastly, I wonder if you see a connection between your work on U.S. diplomacy and sexual abuse in Hollywood. They both reflect an interest in cultures of power and persuasion.  

Someone recently asked me why Richard Holbrooke started in both of these fields. I have not spent my career in diplomacy. I was briefly fortunate to see that world and work on it, but I wouldn’t claim to be a career diplomat, so I don’t know how equipped I am to answer. But I can say that these are both worlds that involve telling stories and persuading people to see the world as it can be, as opposed to how it is.

This interview was edited for clarity.

Ronan Farrow on the Sad State of American Diplomacy