European Affairs

Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy by Christopher R. Hill. Simon & Schuster. 431 pages.     Print Email

Severe turmoil makes diplomats in Haiti fear violence from government goons called Ton Ton Macoutes. Chris Hill, age ten, realizes the danger when his parents show him how to aim the loaded pistol they keep at home. “Don’t use it unless you have to,” his mother says. He doesn’t have to. The State Department soon evacuates all diplomatic dependents. That was in 1963.


Fast forward 33 years. Christopher R. Hill, having followed dad into the Foreign Service, is the first U.S. ambassador to the infant Republic of Macedonia. His role as mid-wife at the country’s birth during the first phase of Yugoslavia’s implosion had prompted Macedonia to request Hill’s appointment. He remains very popular in Skopje.

But in March 1999 the worsening Kosovo conflict -- including serial massacres of Kosovar  peasants by Serb militias -- prompts NATO to begin bombing Serbia. This intervention into the second Balkan battle outrages Macedonians, who sympathize with fellow Christians. A mob besieges the embassy, which Washington had deemed too small and safe to warrant Marine guards.

Skopje police look the other way as rioters menace the chancery. Hill orders his staff into a basement vault, a so-called safe room. He wonders about the danger of suffocation if the embassy catches fire. And he worries about his daughter Clara, eleven, who is visiting that day. But she remains cheerful, chatting up her elders in the crowded safe room, until American soldiers arrive.

These are among the colorful, revealing vignettes that adorn “Outpost.” The book also provides sober – and sobering – accounts of critical negotiations in Europe, Asia and the Middle East during Hill’s 33 years representing America abroad. Anyone contemplating joining the Foreign Service will find “Outpost” invaluable. So will citizens curious about how diplomacy really works – or fails to.

If any diplomatic career merits a hefty memoir it is Hill’s. He was Richard Holbrooke’s second banana in achieving the Dayton Accords that settled the Bosnian war. Later Madeleine Albright put him in charge of the Kosovo crisis while he still served in Macedonia. That mission accomplished, he took over the embassy in Warsaw.

In 2004 George W. Bush named Hill ambassador to South Korea at a time when relations with both Koreas were vexed. The administration had abandoned Bill Clinton’s approach to the North Koreans, which included direct contact in the effort to talk them out of their nuclear weapons program. Seoul didn’t get it.  This long-term ally perceived in Bush’s first term                                                                                                                                                                              “a radicalism that was disconnected from the reality on the ground.”  

Given ongoing mayhem in Afghanistan and Iraq, the context was intimidating. As Hill writes: “The administration was adrift in a sea of crises that seemed to offer no respite.” In his view, the navigators who had steered the U.S. into such troubled waters were the neo-conservatives typified by Paul Wolfowitz, principal author of George W. Bush’s Iraq policy.  Abetted by Vice President Richard Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during Bush’s first term, they constituted what Hill calls the “America-as-empire group.”

Bush’s second Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, represented a different species. Immediately after Bush’s re-election she offered Hill a plum – Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. But Hill would simultaneously become the chief U.S. negotiator in the Six Party Talks.  The participants in that hitherto fruitless endeavor, in addition to the U.S. and North Korea:  South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

She woos and wows Hill by telling him that the Asian scene demanded more active diplomacy, less static posturing. Further, Bush now understood the need for some form of direct discussion with the North Koreans (“Norks” in Foggy Bottom slang) though that was still anathema to many in his own administration.  “No one liked talking with them,” Hill writes, “but no one had a better idea either.”

In early 2005,  Hill enters a diplomatic labyrinth in which progress seems tantalizingly near before another dead end looms. The goal: get Pyongyang to cease plutonium production, gradually abandon other elements of its nuclear program and agree to a long-range verification protocol. Carrots in exchange would include fuel oil and removal of North Korea from Washington’s list of terrorist nations.

 Beijing is often helpful. To accommodate the continued neuralgia about direct contact – or any symbol of recognition – a Chinese official sometimes plays the beard, as if Hill is conducting an illicit affair with the Nork envoy. But America’s ally, Japan, delays movement because it wants closure on the issue of abductees – Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korean agents.

Static from Washington also intrudes. In September 2005, hours before a promising joint statement is to be announced, Rice phones Hill in Beijing with a demand: the term “peaceful co-existence” must be excised. Some in Washington consider it reminiscent of Cold War Soviet-speak. The text has been months in the making, already approved by all parties. Hill’s Chinese counterpart becomes apoplectic. Finally Hill finesses the issue by substituting the phrase “exist peacefully together” in the English version. Everyone acquiesces.

Then a larger made-in-the-U.S.A. problem appears. The Treasury Department, as part of its anti-terrorism program, freezes assets of an obscure Macao bank. Pyongyang happens to have a $25 million account there. Thaw our funds, assert the Norks, or we abandon the Six Party Talks. Impossible, says the Treasury, because of American law and regulations stemming from 9/11. As it often does when peeved, Pyongyang stages a test launch of missiles.

The imbroglio paralyzes the talks for more than a year. Finally Washington allows a Russian bank to assume custody of Pyongyang’s account. Between February and June 2007 – for the first time in six years -- North Korea halts production of nuclear fuel. It admits some international inspectors and demolishes a reactor’s cooling tower while CNN films the scene. 

Then North Korea’s interest in the process gradually wanes. When Hill makes a second trip to Pyongyang, in October 2008, the mood is as chilly as the weather. Perhaps because their leader, Kim Jong Il, has suffered a serious stroke, the Norks refuse to conclude a comprehensive verification protocol.

After a final meeting of the six parties, Rice tells him: “Come home. You’ve done all you can do.”  One consolation is that Seoul-Washington relations are sound again and that North Korea, rather than the U.S. is widely recognized as the obstacle to settlement.

Over four years, Hill had made 40 trips to the region focused on the Korean question – a process that “consumed me as nothing else I had ever been involved with.” He had been responsible for running the East Asia Affairs Bureau at the same time. After 32 years in the Foreign Service, he wanted to retire.  

Not yet. In a meeting he had envisioned as ceremonial, the new Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, astonishes Hill with an invitation to become ambassador to Iraq. Reluctantly, he accepts one last challenge -- with the proviso that he will serve just one year.

Barack Obama entered office determined to draw down the American military presence. The force surge ordered by Bush had ostensibly improved security to the point where Iraq’s newly democratized politics and war-shattered economy could both move forward. One of Hill’s main jobs: to make the U.S. profile gradually more civilian.

As an initial gesture, he asks to land in the civilian sector of Baghdad’s airport. Instead American security officials insist on the military field for safety’s sake. He has to don a helmet and flak jacket for the drive to the embassy. American money is still underwriting many construction projects. Contractors from several countries employ thousands of workers from all points of the compass. Very few of the jobs go to Iraqis, Hill learns, because of security concerns.

A huge priority, in spring, 2009, was to coax the many Iraqi factions into agreement on a new code that would underpin a national election fair to all the players. Hill and his political section strive to be honest brokers, while parrying Washington’s demands for speed. “In diplomacy,” Hill remarks in one of his many world-weary asides, “being in a hurry never makes things easier, or even faster.”

It takes until year’s end to close the deal – Obama phones his congratulations to the embassy – and the election is set for March 7, 2010. The incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has managed to make many enemies among his domestic rivals and his foreign allies. His party comes in a very close second to a more secular faction also headed by a Shia, Ayad Allawi. But neither is close to commanding a viable parliamentary majority. Given Maliki’s tendentious ways, it is widely assumed that the U.S. will somehow arrange to ease him out.

Given the calamities of 2013-2014 in Iraq, a school of thought has developed contending that Washington could have and should have induced Maliki’s ouster four years ago. If it had, presumably, Iraq might have fared much better. Hill avoids the “should” part of that debate. But he argues cogently against the “could” assertion. Immediately after the election, it was clear that, despite a two-seat disadvantage, Maliki was a good bet to prevail. Why? Hill explains: “Maliki went to work [seeking deals with smaller parties]. Allawi went on CNN.”

At one point a power sharing arrangement seemed plausible. Hoping that might work, the embassy gives Maliki and Allawi each other’s private cell phone number. Nothing happens. Weeks become months. Iraq needs a legitimate government, not a caretaker. Finally, Hill treks to Irbil, where the Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, teaches him to jet ski. By pre-arrangement, Vice President Joe Biden calls from Washington. Barzani – though never a fan of the prime minister -- agrees, as Hill puts it, “that there were no good alternatives to Maliki.”

Hill rushes back to Baghdad, tells Maliki what concessions Barzani requires. Maliki agrees, makes his own journey to Erbil, and the two announce an entente. The new government is to be diverse, with ample representation for Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds. The agreement appears promising. Iraq would have a legitimate government, democratically elected. Hill, having stayed 16 months instead of 12, having performed his last diplomatic feat, goes home within days.

Soon after his official installation in December, 2010, Maliki began to break his promises to coalition partners – Kurds and Sunnis alike. Maliki deserves much of the blame, Hill concedes, for the ensuing descent into chaos, though important Sunni elements still have not come to terms with Shia empowerment. And Hill still finds incomprehensible the concept, framed by the Bush administration, that a Shia-led Iraq would inspire democracies in Sunni Arab neighbors.

Though not in the genre of score-settling memoirists, Hill cannot conceal his contempt for Wolfowitz & Co. “The failure of neoconservatives and their fellow travelers to explain what they were trying to accomplish in Iraq,” he concludes, “remains one of the most disgraceful performances by a foreign policy class in America.”

A somber tone runs through Hill’s epilogue. The world still looks to the United States for leadership, he points out. But the nation’s ideologically riven politics and demand for quick, simple answers impair its ability to respond. While he considers the Obama administration’s goals basically sound, its actual performance underwhelms him. 

Patient pragmatism, he argues, is the key to sound foreign policy. The country needs Foreign Service officers who understand that “diplomacy is more complex than three-dimensional chess in that time, the fourth dimension, is also a crucial factor.”

Having won and lost his share of matches, Hill seeks to train future players. That’s why he became dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

Laurence Barrett, associated with Time Magazine for 28 years as a correspondent and editor, is the author of several books including “Gambling with History: Reagan in the White House.”


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