The Last American Diplomat: John D. Negroponte and the Changing Face of American Diplomacy

  • George W. Liebmann
  • I.B. Tauris
  • 368 pp.
  • June 13, 2012

This deeply researched work explores the last half-century of U.S. foreign policy through the career trajectory of a high-profile public servant.

Reviewed by Robert Swan

The tenuousness of diplomatic negotiations, the brutal realities of bureaucratic warfare and the frequently confused and haphazard development of U.S. foreign relations are all clearly on display in George W. Liebmann’s new book, which outlines the career path of one of this country’s most talented public servants. Liebmann explores U.S. foreign relations from 1961 to 2009 while following Negroponte through the vagaries of his professional life in the Foreign Service, the State Department, as deputy national security advisor and as director of national intelligence. Unfortunately, he also includes matters related to Negroponte’s personal life, of which more below.

Liebmann has trolled deeply in diplomatic archives, and he employs a remarkably wide range of sources (including even the doctoral thesis of Negroponte’s accomplished wife, Diane). Primary documents are quoted at length on virtually every page. Liebmann’s approach provides a sense of immediacy to the story he tells; one has the sense of actually being involved in high-level negotiations, of being at the table, so to speak, with Henry Kissinger as he twists his winding way through the labyrinth of international diplomacy.

It is clear that the Foreign Service of the United States is filled with hard-working, competent, dedicated individuals whose efforts to do the right thing are frequently thwarted by the fog of war. These professionals must become experts on a truly staggering array of issues, dealing  with problems of daunting complexity that would challenge the most gifted civil servant. Negroponte, for example, was called upon to become an expert in maritime law, oceans and fisheries policies, and scientific issues in areas such as international scientific cooperation (neoconservative opponents expressed concern that exchange programs were tantamount to “putting the KGB into the Pentagon”), space exploration and policies designed to protect the ozone layer. This is only a partial list.

The ugly side of Washington politics is on display too. After a quick start to his career, in which an initial posting to Hong Kong was followed by outstanding work in Vietnam and the National Security Council, Negroponte was punished for an ill-judged ― and honest ― interview about U.S. policies in Vietnam in 1974 with the New York Times correspondent Tad Szulc. Kissinger did not appreciate Negroponte’s candor; he was relegated to Ecuador, considered a diplomatic backwater, for two years.

Negroponte next applied to be executive assistant to Kenneth Rush, the ambassador to France. Having been offered the position, and on the cusp of leaving Ecuador, Negroponte irritated Kissinger a second time by sending him a letter (reproduced in facsimile in the book) suggesting, among other things, that it might be nice for Kissinger to make a statement about the true extent of CIA involvement in “the affairs of other countries,” especially in South America. Given Kissinger’s record in Vietnam and the fact that he still resented Negroponte’s interview with Szulc, this was waving a red flag at a bull. According to State Department rules, the only way Kissinger could keep Negroponte from taking his plum new assignment was to abolish the position, which Kissinger did. This fact is noted by Liebmann with the kind of insouciance that suggests the author’s familiarity with the inner workings of the diplomatic corps. Kissinger followed up this nasty piece of work by banishing Negroponte to a posting in Thessaloniki, where, like Judas Iscariot consigned to the ninth circle of Hell, he might have moldered in perpetuity.

Negroponte was liberated by powerful friends in 1977 (just how much the career of every diplomat is predicated on “the confidence and patronage” of influential people is made clear by Negroponte’s experience). His career thereafter generally prospered. He did face a few tough Senate hearings and endured a rough posting to Honduras. According to Liebmann, Negroponte’s  reputation was “permanently scarred” after he was accused of soft-pedaling human rights abuses in that country by editing a 1982 human rights report. His reputation recovered sufficiently to enable him to end his nearly 50 years of public service as deputy secretary of state.

Lurid accounts of infighting among rapacious bureaucrats are interesting, but a better reason to read this book is the inclusion of rich documentary evidence related to U.S. policies and diplomacy in Vietnam. Anyone interested in understanding how this country lost the war in Vietnam should give Liebmann’s book careful attention. Consider Negroponte’s telling comment on problems of translation, worth quoting at length:

“My conversational ability [in Vietnamese] was limited to the most basic discussions of political or economic matters. … I could hardly speak about other matters at all. This was and is a serious problem. At most there are 20 officers in the Department (of State) with capabilities in Vietnamese similar to mine. In addition there are two officers whose knowledge of Vietnamese could be characterized as good to excellent, almost measuring up to standards expected of linguists at important international conferences. These officers … were in Paris. … A little bit of Vietnamese is a very dangerous thing since … an incorrect inflection can change the entire meaning of a sentence. … many high level meetings turned out to be dialogues between the deaf and the dumb ... we have never been able to establish with any degree of satisfaction what the Vietnamese really think of us [emphasis mine].”

One would think that a good to excellent language proficiency constitutes a basic requirement in negotiations involving the fate of millions of human beings. But, at least until very recently, this was not an assumption one could make about U.S. diplomacy. Negroponte believed (correctly) that Kissinger’s shameful January 1973 peace treaty allowing North Vietnamese troops to remain in South Vietnam vitiated any possibility of a stable and unthreatened South Vietnamese regime. This section of Liebmann’s book should be required reading for policy makers of good will of every political stripe who want to understand the dangers of American exceptionalism and an overly aggressive, ideologically driven foreign policy. Liebmann’s account of Negroponte’s experiences leading up to the second Iraq War is equally compelling and sobering.

Liebmann would have been better served producing a book strictly devoted to U.S. foreign relations and Negroponte’s role in it. Instead, while exploring serious foreign relations issues we are told about,  among other things, Negroponte’s responsibilities for organizing an embassy party; about his living arrangements, including the quality of his apartment; about his purchase of caviar and other comestibles for a visiting delegation; about his adoption of five Honduran children; about one of his daughters having elevated levels of lead (not life threatening); and more, so much more. This is rather like making intermittent references to Hitler’s chronic flatulence during a harrowing description of the fall of Berlin: frequently jarring, and useless to our understanding of U.S. foreign relations or, for that matter, Negroponte’s own inner life.

This aside, Liebmann’s book will leave the reader with a deeper understanding of U.S. foreign relations. Superb diplomats of Negroponte’s caliber have the ability to smooth the way to a better understanding of the multicultural and multilateral needs of a complex international community.

Robert Swan teaches history and philosophy in the International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.

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