By Christopher R. Hill
Simon & Schuster. 431 pp. $30
Christopher R. Hill, a career diplomat and rabid Red Sox fan, was a key player in four major diplomatic crises: the Bosnian crisis that led to the Dayton Peace Accords, the Kosovo crisis that led to NATO intervention, the George W. Bush administration’s effort to stem North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and the national election that he oversaw as President Obama’s first ambassador to Iraq.
But figuring out his batting average is not as easy as counting hits. The Dayton Peace Accords were a home run, but the others are more difficult to tally. In Kosovo, he pursued a diplomatic mission that was destined to fail, but at least he kept the Western alliance together. The North Korea effort, his most important moment in the diplomatic limelight, collapsed in failure, but he might argue it was a sacrifice fly. In Iraq, he never really got on base.
Does that mean he is less than a .300 hitter? Perhaps. But in the hard-to-measure world of diplomatic success, his batting average might still make him worthy of the Hall of Fame.
Hill’s memoir, “Outpost,” is a great introduction to the difficult game of diplomacy. Rather than a turgid tome, Hill’s book is lively, entertaining — even at times laugh-out-loud funny. He spends just enough time to let readers understand the gist of a complicated diplomatic problem, without getting too bogged down in the weeds. Full disclosure: I closely covered the North Korea negotiations as The Washington Post’s State Department correspondent, and Hill and I had a sometimes testy relationship. At one point in the book, he complains that a “leak” I reported complicated his diplomacy and empowered his foes in the administration.
As a government source, Hill was unusually helpful because he had a great eye for detail, whereas many officials simply never look up from the negotiating table. That raconteur’s skill serves him well in this book, giving texture to his recounting of past diplomatic battles.
Hill’s most important mentor was the late Richard Holbrooke, who was the chief negotiator of the Bosnian talks held in Dayton. Holbrooke plucked Hill almost out of nowhere to make him one of his chief aides, after the briefest of interviews, which Hill describes with relish. (He barely got to say a few words before Holbrooke pointed a remote, as if to mute him, so Holbrooke could watch a news report.)
Hill is a diplomat of the old school, focusing on moving the ball forward while safeguarding U.S. interests, especially maintaining relations with key allies. He has little patience for rigid ideologues, especially those whom he considered neoconservatives in the Bush administration. He has a special animus for former vice president Dick Cheney, who he believed undercut his North Korean diplomacy.
When Cheney appeared on television to criticize Hill’s selection as ambassador to Iraq, Hill describes how he at that moment was immersed in a Boston Globe article on Red Sox pitching prospects. “I sat in my late mother’s recliner, motionless, one hand clasped around my Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum coffee cup, the other keeping my jaw from dropping to the floor,” he writes. He wonders how a former vice president could “stoop to a cheap shot like that on national television against a nominee for service in Iraq.”
Hill’s tenure as assistant secretary of state for East Asia and envoy to the North Korea nuclear talks occupies the biggest part of the book. Hill was tapped by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to be a dealmaker, and he was so eager to begin negotiating that he violated her instructions during his first meeting. Rice had insisted that Chinese officials be present so it did not appear to be a bilateral session, since at the time the Bush administration forbade such one-on-one talks. But when the Chinese did not show up — at a government-owned hotel in Beijing — Hill called “a diplomatic audible” and went forth with the talks anyway.
That operating style is one reason Hill became such a controversial figure in the administration. Another reason is that he became world-renowned for his tireless efforts to resolve the conflict. Along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Aga Khan, he was named a finalist for Britain’s prestigious Chatham House Prize, awarded for significantly contributing to improved international relations. He was also hailed by the U.N. secretary general as a “diplomat par excellence” who appeared ready to resolve “this last legacy of the Cold War.” (Hill does not mention either of these facts.)
Hill pushed the diplomacy with the North Koreans as far as possible, despite fierce opposition from rivals in the Bush administration. But he was hamstrung by the fact that, during Bush’s first term, the administration terminated an agreement with Pyongyang that had kept a stash of nuclear material under close supervision by U.N. weapons inspectors. Once the genie was out of the bottle — the North used some of the plutonium to detonate a nuclear device — it was all but impossible to get it back in, despite Hill’s success in getting Bush to keep offering incentives to Pyongyang.
Ultimately, North Korea pocketed the administration’s concessions (such as removing it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism) and stopped negotiating. Hill demonstrated that it was all but impossible to reach an agreement with North Korea, and the Obama administration never really tried to pick up the ball. Hill tried to comfort himself with the fact that his efforts improved relations with South Korea, but that was small beer indeed.
Hill begins his book with an account of how, as a young Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, he tried to overhaul a corrupt credit union only to have his efforts rejected, largely because he did not understand the community’s internal dynamics and culture. It’s a lesson he took to heart. “Years later, in the Middle East, in the Balkans, in Asia, I would see time and again systematized efforts on the part of the United States to pick winners in situations we understood little about,” he writes. “Like my efforts at the Tole Tea Estate’s credit union, they never worked.”
Despite the efforts of professional diplomats such as Hill to fix the mess afterward, it’s a lesson rarely learned.