OUTPOST: LIFE ON THE FRONT LINES OF AMERICAN DIPLOMACY
By Christopher Hill
Simon & Schuster, $30, 432 pages
Considering his life as a U.S. foreign service officer (FSO), Christopher Hill has few regrets. An FSO brat, his passion for diplomacy was fostered early. Referencing a formative experience in Cameroon, Mr. Hill explains, “I signed up for the Foreign Service exam … and resolved to pass it, because I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life.”
“Outpost” is the story of that life.
Traversing from Asia to Europe to Iraq, every page offers a new experience. And unlike so many of today’s political memoirs, “Outpost” is strengthened by Mr. Hill’s attention to broader lessons. Keen to offer instructional value for others — FSOs and interested citizens alike — Mr. Hill frequently points out the lessons he learned in public service.
Many of these lessons are simple but poignant.
Describing efforts to end the 1990s bloodshed in the Balkans, Mr. Hill explains how American diplomacy advanced. “We got to know the Albanians, one by one, the way a good diplomat does.” “It is,” Mr. Hill notes, “always about relationships not transactions.” While Mr. Hill admits that U.S. peace efforts had mixed results, this early element of ‘Outpost’ sets the trend for the book’s broader utility: At once a history book, a personal memoir and a study of political theory, it serves multiple interests.
Although much of “Outpost” focuses on action abroad, Mr. Hill reminds readers that the foundations of successful diplomacy often take root in simple handshakes and photo opportunities.
Describing the annual U.N. General Assembly, for example — “nothing short of a scheduling nightmare” — Mr. Hill describes an influx of world leaders desperate to meet the president. Mr. Hill explains that to free the president, the secretary of state, the undersecretary of political affairs and various regional assistant secretaries are all drafted in for a relentless week of meetings at Manhattan hotels.
Still, Mr. Hill is most focused on that which makes American diplomats successful: people skills and cultural adaptability. Mr. Hill outlines why local hires are crucial to the function of any embassy: As indigenous citizens and loyal staffers for America, these locals are those who make things happen. Nevertheless, Mr. Hill also understands that American diplomats must be intellectually capable of original thinking. Taking up residence as ambassador in Seoul, Mr. Hill offers an interesting anecdote on the complicated face of public diplomacy. Facing growing anti-American sentiments from younger South Koreans, Mr. Hill speaks to them in their own language. Recognizing South Korea’s vibrant Internet culture, Mr. Hill establishes a successful discussion forum on the embassy website.
Yet no two places are the same. Exemplifying different political cultures, Mr. Hill notes his challenge in dealing with North Korean diplomats: “Unlike in the Balkans, there was no discussion of raising difficult teenagers, or sports or hobbies. We rarely strayed from the subject at hand and hardly got to know each other.”
Mr. Hill’s navigation of shifting political egos is a constant theme. But often, some of Mr. Hill’s harshest words are left for those in the U.S. domestic arena. As Mr. Hill explains, “Accomplishing something on the ground in a war zone and managing Washington anxieties were often two very distinct skill sets.” As a good example, Mr. Hill reports how, shortly before an important meeting with a North Korean delegation, he was given instructions from Washington that gave him no real leeway for negotiations, and even instructed him “not to engage in any toasts at official functions that included North Koreans.”
While he’s convincing here, Mr. Hill lets his ideological distaste for the neoconservative movement dominate him excessively: Mr. Hill’s thinly veiled anger and open derision weakens his argument. Compared to Mr. Hill’s overflowing adoration for Hillary Clinton — “I wanted to clap my hands and cheer for her she walked the ropeline, connecting, it seemed, with everyone she shook hands with or simply touched” — the bias becomes tedious.
Regardless, Mr. Hill’s account of his time as ambassador in Iraq is undoubtedly one of the book’s most valuable. Noting President Obama’s domestic political inclination to end U.S. involvement in Iraq without regard for political circumstances, we see how extremists grew empowered absent American interest. In Iraq, we also see how, even as many foreign service officers served with great courage and commitment, the State Department struggled to fill posts. This is another area in which Mr. Hill is overly defensive.
Ultimately, however, the book’s positives vastly outweigh the negatives. In its extraordinary diversity; from U.S. Marines searching embassies for improperly secured classified material, to New Zealand’s discomfort with U.S. nuclear weapons, “Outpost” gives constant encouragement to continue. At the end of the book, whatever a reader’s consideration of Mr. Hill’s foreign policy assessments, it’s hard not to like and respect the man. Spending a career in public service under both Democratic and Republican administrations, Mr. Hill strived to advance American interests while navigating a minefield of domestic politics and bureaucratic inertia.
Serving American outposts is a great honor, but no easy task.
• Tom Rogan is a columnist for The National Review and The Daily Telegraph.