Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Lesson in Foreign Policy From James Hilton

This is kind of an unusual post, because it is about a book that it has been over a decade since I read, but one which has been on my mind lately, because of current events. 

James Hilton is best known for two very different books written in back to back years in the 1930s. The first, Lost Horizon, created the term “shangri-la” for a utopia, brought Tibet into the cultural knowledge of the West, and led to a Frank Capra movie which took liberties with the plot. The second was Goodbye Mr. Chips, the story of a beloved, if mediocre, schoolmaster. I enjoyed both of these books.

The book, however, which has stuck with me more than any of his other books is his last novel, Time and Time Again. As far as I can tell, few have read it, which is a shame.

The book is told mostly in a series of flashbacks, by an aging diplomat currently negotiating with the Soviets. His life has been essentially a story of disappointment and mediocrity, with few highlights, but few failures too. A lot of the book tells of his earlier life: his poor relationship with his distant father, his solid but not great college years, his plodding bureaucratic career, where he was usually passed over for promotion by younger, flashier men. It also tells of his relationships with the women he loved, most notably his wife, who is tragically killed by a bomb during the Battle of Britain, leaving a small son behind. All of this is told in achingly beautiful and gentle writing - Hilton is excellent at portraying the psyches of men who never excell, but quietly do the necessary work of human society.

Where the book takes an interesting turn, though, is at the end.

I don’t remember all the details of the diplomatic negotiations, and I couldn’t find a summary online either. (I told you, this book is a bit obscure, although it is in print.) The details don’t really matter, however. What does matter is that the Soviets are involved in some serious skullduggery that threatens to embarrass a number of western European countries. The young bucks miss the clues, however. It is left to the old guy, with his decades of experience in the diplomatic corps and in reading other humans, to sense that there is something wrong. I won’t say he exactly “saves the day,” because the poor guy can’t really catch a break. But he is able to quietly avert disaster, even though he never gets the credit for what he does.

The reason this book keeps returning to my mind is that, for the first time in my lifetime, our country has been left largely devoid of experienced diplomats and foreign policy workers. Since Trump took office, he has shown contempt for the Intelligence community, failed to appoint ambassadors, and failed to fill the gaps when long-time diplomats have retired or resigned in protest against the chaos and Trump’s continual undermining of his own people. The latest was just this week, when Trump called his own Intelligence people “naive” for giving evidence that, contrary to Trump’s claims, North Korea is very much a nuclear threat, and Iran appears to be abiding by the agreement Trump pulled out of.

But this is just another symptom of the dysfunction. International relations isn’t just about bombing the shit out of anyone you don’t like, flinging tariffs around, and doing photo ops with autocrats. Building the kind of relationships which prevent wars, increase trade, and solve problems for the long term requires continuity, knowledge and expertise, and consistency.

It also requires competent, experienced people.

This applies to any large-scale human enterprise. It is why the most successful companies work to retain employees, and look toward long-term success, not just short term profits. International relationships are even more important, of course. If a company goes out of business, it can and will be replaced. But a breakdown in international diplomacy tends to mean hardship, death, and destruction to many innocent people. Which is why it is worrisome to see the present state of affairs. Rebuilding our diplomatic corps is going to be a decades-long process after the damage which has been done.

Hilton had it right: most of the most important work in any sector is done by the quiet, hardworking plodders, not the flashy superstars. We rarely appreciate them until they are no longer there.  This goes double for arenas like foreign policy where all depends on bridging cultural, political, and language gaps to find common ground.


You could also say that experience is a plus in politics in general, which requires finding common ground, compromise, building relationships, and so on. This is not to say you can’t get elected without experience. But the chances that an inexperienced person will govern well are...low. And guess what? The last two years have already given solid evidence that egotistical billionaires without political experience tend to be better at playing tin horn dictators and antagonizing people than actually governing for the common good. Who’d have thought?

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