Commentary

Book Review: ‘The Last American Diplomat’

The Last American Diplomat: John D. Negroponte and the Changing Face of American Diplomacy
By: George W. Liebmann
I.B. Tauris, hardcover; $99, 368 pages

The world is changing but diplomats such as John Negroponte, who spent much of his career working in some of the world’s worst hotspots, still matter.

Historian George Liebmann has written a friendly biography, though he says his book is about a country as well as a person, “a nation that has been ‘mugged by reality,’ which no longer occupies, as it did in 1960, the position of an undamaged economic colossus amid other nations struggling to recover.” Politicians today seem unaware or unwilling to acknowledge this new reality, but, concludes Mr. Liebmann, “A mercantile republic, with great absorptive capacity and a constitution framed with due regard for human frailty and the realities of human nature should feel itself advantaged by this change.”

Mr. Negroponte’s real career began in Vietnam. The odds always were against U.S. policy there. Mr. Liebmann notes, “The Vietnam to which John Negroponte came in 1964 was an unpropitious candidate for successful Westernization.”

When Mr. Negroponte left Vietnam he was pessimistic that a reasonable negotiated compromise was possible. He ended up back at the National Security Council handling Vietnam for Henry Kissinger. Mr. Negroponte was disappointed by the outcome, believing that the Republic of Vietnam was essentially left to its fate.

Mr. Liebmann explains, “John Negroponte began his involvement with Vietnam as a ‘dove’ and ended as a qualified ‘hawk,’ a parallel to his later experience in Iraq. He regarded both interventions as improvident, but considered in both instances that the United States could not abandon the local populations to the predicament.”

Mr. Negroponte was quoted criticizing Mr. Kissinger, and this left his career in eclipse after the latter became secretary of state. Mr. Negroponte ended up in Ecuador and later Greece, and then handled fisheries during the Carter administration.

During President Reagan’s first term, he served as ambassador to Honduras, perhaps his most controversial tenure. Although he believed in the administration’s attempt to limit Soviet and Cuban influence in the region, Mr. Negroponte wanted “to contain the American commitment, restraining Honduran ambitions for an invasion of Nicaragua or the provision of large quantities of offensive weapons, and also working to preserve constitutionalism in Honduras,” Mr. Liebmann writes.

The latter may have been his most difficult task. Seeking to advance war while protecting human rights is not easy, and he got into trouble for editing a human rights report that, Mr. Liebmann explains, “impaired Congressional trust in his candor.” Mr. Liebmann is sympathetic to Mr. Negroponte, but admits that the episode “permanently scarred Negroponte’s reputation.”

Still, it did not notably harm his career. Mr. Negroponte became an assistant secretary of state. Then came a stint as deputy national security adviser to finish out Reagan’s second term. From there he became ambassador to Mexico, where he promoted NAFTA.

Next came the ambassadorship to the Philippines. After that, he hoped for the ambassadorship to South Korea but was offered Greece, which he rejected. He then joined McGraw-Hill Cos., but after a few years of remunerative employment became ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush.

While there, he was a messenger rather than policymaker. Mr. Liebmann explains, “Up until this point, American foreign policy under the new Bush administration had appeared to be restrained in nature, designed to vindicate the president’s campaign pledge of a more ‘humble’ foreign policy.” This was one reason Mr. Negroponte had supported Mr. Bush.

Mr. Negroponte’s Vietnam experience made him skeptical of the administration’s proposed Iraq invasion. Ironically, his next position was ambassador to Iraq. To his credit, he shared none of the arrogant naivete that characterized his predecessor, Paul Bremer, who had the powers of a pro-consul. By most accounts, Mr. Negroponte performed well in a nearly impossible job, though his support for greater international involvement raised administration ire. He left after just a year, frustrated with the project.

From Iraq, Mr. Negroponte took over as director of national intelligence. He served at a time of great controversy over warrantless surveillance and other issues. His more pragmatic touch made him a target for neoconservatives.

After Paul Wolfowitz was forced out as president of the World Bank in 2007 in a game of musical chairs, Mr. Negroponte was tapped to become deputy secretary of state. While there, he dealt with crisis in Pakistan and sought to improve relations with China. He retired when President Obama was inaugurated.

It truly was an extraordinary career. Mr. Negroponte promoted the humble virtues of diplomacy against more grandiose visions. Mr. Liebmann writes that Mr. Negroponte “was mindful of the effect of excessive militarization of foreign policy in 20th century Germany and Japan, which contrasted with Britain’s success in maintaining worldwide influence with an historically small standing army — an influence resting on good intelligence and training, local knowledge and the willingness to limit objectives, exercise indirect control, and cut losses.” This is a lesson that should be heeded in Washington today.

Diplomats still matter, as John Negroponte’s career well illustrates.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to former US president Ronald Reagan.