[This review was published in the Fall 2015 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 308-314.]


Book Review


Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy

Christopher R. Hill

Simon & Schuster, 2014


Christopher Hill entered his 33-year career as a United States Foreign Service officer from a position as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, West Africa, to which he was assigned in 1974 after his graduation from Bowdoin College.  It was there as a credit union field-worker that he learned a piece of wisdom has that stayed with him for many years, but that he has had to relegate to the sidelines during the years he has served as an agent carrying out policies set by others.  The wisdom came at a meeting of a plantation credit union’s membership where Hill recommended electing a new board of directors because the existing directors had given themselves the lion’s share of the loans.  The members reacted to his advice with happy approval – but then did just the opposite, nonchalantly reelecting the incumbents.   Hill concluded that “I needed to accept the fact that I didn’t understand the place, that I had really overstepped my authority in thinking I could unseat an elected leadership and impose another.”  From this small instance, Hill drew a lesson of cultural humility that could have served American foreign policy well, but hasn’t: “Years later, in the Middle East, in the Balkans, in Asia, I would see time and time again systematized efforts on the part of the United States to pick winners in situations we understood little about.”  These efforts, he says, “never worked.”

He quotes “the wise and deliberate sultan of Oman,” who years later admonished with regard to Iraq that “Your country is welcomed in this part of the world, but be respectful of what you encounter on the ground, what the forces are.”  Hill understood this as advising, in effect, that “Americans needed to stop jamming square pegs into round holes.”  Speaking in the context of Kosovo, Hill writes that “American foreign policy is replete with stories of supporting the more aggressive player in a civil war, only to find that that aggressive player was not at all our player.”

It is no surprise, then, that Hill is no enthusiast for the global interventionism that is so appealing to perhaps the great majority of Americans across the political/ideological spectrum.  This leads him to refer to “the unholy alliance of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives.”   He says that “in the 1990s… the triumphalist mood in the United States was palpable.  No problem, no matter how gritty and entrenched in decades or centuries of miserable and sordid history, was outside our capacity to solve, usually by force.”   Continuing with the same criticism, he writes that “Americans on the left and right increasingly asserted an American exceptionalism that seemed to many across the globe to put us above the law.”  This has involved “our tendency to reduce enormously complex historical issues into Manichean morality plays.”

These observations by a senior Foreign Service officer offer such profound lessons that we have chosen to place them prominently at the beginning of this review.  Surprisingly, however, what we have quoted is the sum total of Hill’s ruminations about the misdirection of American hubris and sentimentality.  Even though he came to occupy four ambassadorial assignments, his career was as a State Department operative, an executor carrying out American policy as set by those above him.  This means he was active in the very overreach he thought so unwise, although in telling about it (the above observations aside) he seldom seems to chaff at doing so.  His role, as he saw it, was to do his job well, as a competent and conscientious professional. 

He even accepts some views that contradict the insights we’ve quoted.  He is able to say “we must always be clear about human rights.  These rights are a set of international values….”  This, of course, is a near-universal sentiment in the West, though far less so in many of the exotic cultures of the world.  It’s surprising that Hill doesn’t see its implications.  It means totally reversing John Quincy Adams’ admonition against the United States’ “going abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”  A lot of what the West now considers a human rights violation is normal practice in much of the world.  A consensus in Europe, say, strongly opposes the death penalty; but legislatures and juries in Florida, Oklahoma, Texas and various other American states don’t consider putting a serial killer to death a “human rights violation.”  There is no way to militate against the many customs without constantly hectoring peoples everywhere and without disregarding their rights of self-determination and sovereignty.    Hill seems not to have considered how much interventionism – liberal or neoconservative – the “universal human rights” premise requires.  It evokes a “clash of cultures” in which the West presses with varying degrees of aggressiveness against assorted religions and customs on such issues as women’s and homosexual rights.  It places those other peoples, in effect, under siege.  Quite predictably, they will resent it as wrongheaded and presumptuous.

What Hill is doing on this point is adhering to thinking that is conventional among his peers, even though it is at odds with his own insights.  This is to be expected, since he could hardly have survived in his career if he had not absorbed the prevailing ethos.  As he recounts his many experiences, he rarely tells the reasons for U.S. policy.  Outpost is, accordingly, best seen not as a work of serious contemplation, but instead as an eminently readable, engrossing account of Hill’s more than three decades of service on behalf of several American administrations in many of the world’s hotspots.  It’s a memoir that brings recent history to life through the eyes of a man who lived much of it.

After his Peace Corps tour in Cameroon, Hill entered the Foreign Service in 1977 and was sent to Belgrade as a commercial attaché.  He served in Warsaw and South Korea before winding up in Albania in 1991 as Deputy Chief of Mission.  He became Director of Balkans in the U.S. State Department, and was active as an assistant to envoy Richard Holbrooke in the extended negotiations that led to the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords pertaining to Bosnia.  His first ambassadorship came the next year, in 1996, to Macedonia.  During his assignment there, he was very much involved in shuttle diplomacy between Kosovo and Belgrade that led to the European- and U.S.-backed secession of Kosovo from Serbia.  In 1999, Hill began a one-year assignment in Washington as a staff member of the National Security Council, serving as senior director for the Balkans.  His second ambassadorship followed, this time to Poland, after which he became ambassador to South Korea.  His time there saw him in charge of the years-long negotiations with North Korea, which proved ultimately unsuccessful as an effort to end that country’s nuclear weapons program.   He wound up as “assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs” before in 2009 he was called upon to serve as ambassador to Iraq under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  After retiring from the Foreign Service, he became dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

This is quite a list, taking Hill repeatedly from central Europe to the Far East and back again to the cauldron of Iraq.  Each stop gives the reader an insider’s view of the local situation, much like a travelogue, but this time enhanced by the intricacies of geopolitics.  The telling is speckled with humor and interesting anecdotes.  For example, we get a glimpse into the closed society of North Korea: on one of Hill’s trips there for the nuclear negotiations, he reports that the television in his room provided just one channel, and that the library’s shelves “were completely filled with Kim Il Sung’s life works, as well as various books about communist worker movements in such places as Romania.”  In Pyongyang, “many buildings did in fact have electricity in the form of single, naked lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling of apartments, most of which seemed to be without curtains.”  Hill declined taking a tour to see “Kim Il Sung’s plasticized remains under glass.”  The humor is well illustrated by a scene in which Hill was being interviewed as part of the screening before being nominated for the Iraq ambassadorship.  A pleasant young woman about Hill’s daughter’s age complimented him profusely and told him “It is such an honor for me to meet someone like you.  So if you don’t mind I just have a few questions on this questionnaire that we ask all our prospective appointees.  The first is: Have you ever been arrested for public drunkenness?”

A few little quirks play so small a part in the total narrative that it is hardly worth mentioning them, but we will do so because each is provocative of reflection in its own way.  There are some occasional odd insights, such as when Hill comments about the U.S. bombing of Serbia that “bombing to change someone’s mind [in this case about releasing Kosovo] is a new one in the annals of war,” somehow forgetting Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just to mention the most prominent instances.  He writes of the United States having “liberated” a certain Iraqi city in 2003, a strange word in light of the indifference he observed among the inhabitants.  It’s curious to speak, too, of United Nations “peacekeepers” in Bosnia at the very same time the United States was bombing Bosnian Serb targets.  A reader might accept his description of the regime in Syria as “hideous” until reading what he tells us about the chaos and blood-letting that its enemies have themselves visited upon Syria and Iraq.  The semantic often seems divorced from reality, indeed Orwellian, even though Hill himself comes across generally as level-headed.

Occurrences while Hill was ambassador to Macedonia provide a microcosm of a much larger problem faced by Europe and the United States.  This is the problem of demographic swamping from the “less developed world.”  It is met by a prevailing worldview among the elites that places no value on the preservation of an existing culture or the integrity of a given people.  During the conflict between Serbia and Albanians in Kosovo, “Macedonia continued to fill up with Albanian Kosovo refugees.”  Hill says “Macedonia’s total population was barely 2 million and there was already a population of some 450,000 Albanian citizens of Macedonia.”  With hundreds of thousands more pouring in, “the specter of Albanians actually outnumbering ethnic Macedonians” made the government begin to panic.  What was Macedonia urged to do about it?  “The international community’s response was by and large to accuse the Macedonian government of not living up to its international obligations to take in refugees.”  On behalf of the United States, Ambassador Hill “met often with Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski to urge him simply to open the border….”  The memoirs don’t discuss the rationale behind the “international community’s” or United States’ indifference to Macedonian nationality or ethnicity.

A contradiction within American policy between “a people’s right of self-determination” and “respect for a country’s historical heritage” shows the confused thinking that has prevailed.  With regard to Kosovo, great weight was given to the population’s having become heavily Albanian and Islamic, a fact that under the self-determination principle militated in favor of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.  The historical meaning of Kosovo to Serbia, going back several centuries, was brushed aside.  The United States has followed precisely the opposite rationale with regard to Ukraine, where insisting on the preservation of Ukraine’s boundaries is thought paramount to the fact that the population of the eastern half of the country is heavily Russian.  Self-determination doesn’t apply, apparently, to those people.  The point we just made about Macedonia also relates to this contradiction.  When Hill, as the American ambassador, urged Macedonia to adopt on open door policy toward mass immigration from Kosovo, this showed concern about the immigrants but none about Macedonia’s well-being.

This reviewer wishes Hill had explained why there was a continuing animus, from the very beginning of the conflict over Bosnia and Croatia, and long before there was any “over-reaction” by the Serbs to the guerrilla activities of the Albanians seeking independence for Kosovo, against Serbia. We simply glean from Hill’s narrative who the “good guys” were and who the “bad guys.”  Hill personally shared the animus, and wasn’t just carrying out the attitudes of those above him.  It all seems very much at odds with the insights we’ve quoted from him at the beginning of this review.

Although these points have been worth discussing, it would be a shame to allow them to detract from our overall recommendation of Outpost.  It’s a personal account that provides a window into many of the more important events of recent decades.


         Dwight D. Murphey