Diplomacy in the Midst of Civil War

Dante Paradiso

Earlier this Fall, at the Half King pub, I got to hear Dante Paradiso, a US Foreign Service Officer read from and speak about The Embassy, his just-published an account of the Liberian civil war of the early 2000’s. (You can watch his talk here) The book focuses on events that took place between June and August of 2003, a period of complete chaos –   the warlord Charles Taylor, who had supported rebel movements in Sierra Leone and other places, was  fighting two rebel armies in Liberia, where he was nominally in control.   At the same time, he was attending peace talks with them in Ghana, when, unexpectedly,  an international court indicted Taylor for war crimes.  Almost every country closed their embassy in Monrovia – no place in the country was safe.  The US was preoccupied with Iraq, and  many in Washington wanted the US to also leave Liberia, as the ragtag militias and child soldiers fighting Taylor advanced on the capital.  The book recounts how US Ambassador John W. Blaney made the courageous decision to keep the US Embassy open and go personally to the front lines to broker a cease fire. 

Paradiso wrote the book because he felt it is important for people to know what happened in Liberia, and because he was inspired by the bravery of Ambassador Blaney and his team.

During his remarks, Paradiso noted how, to be effective in a combat zone, diplomatic personnel need to be on the ground to work on problems so they don’t get worse – there is a risk to staying, but things could get worse if they leave.  Good information is vital, so diplomats need to talk to people on all sides and all around to get a full picture.  It’s only in this way that they can assess the risks to peoples’ lives, and devise a plan to get to a better place.  Not surprisingly, there’s often a wide gulf between perceptions on the ground and the ones in Washington, DC (substitute the capital of your choice), which makes the situation precarious, because in a conflict zone, it’s vital for the Embassy to have the backing of the policy makers and politicians back home.

He offered up three key elements needed to solve a complex international crisis:

  • international consensus on the way forward
  • credible partners on the ground
  • communication with people on the ground to know what all the different factions want

I’ve only started the book, and I think it would be a delight if you want to know about the nuts and bolts of diplomacy.  Because there are so many actors, from so many different agencies, and the story moves between Liberia and the US, sometimes you have to go a bit slow to keep the characters straight, but the book keeps the story going while conveying the confusion of the situation and demonstrating the courage of the Ambassador and his staff who stayed in Monrovia. 

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