Charles Hill

Charles Hill

Charles Hill, a career minister in the US Foreign Service, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Hill was executive aide to former US secretary of state George P. Shultz (1985–89) and served as special consultant on policy to the secretary-general of the United Nations (1992–96). He is also diplomat in residence and lecturer in international studies at Yale University. He is a co-chair of Hoover’s Islamism and the International Order Task Force.

On the Syria Crisis


Edward Snowden, now in Moscow as special assistant to President Putin, has given us a highly classified telegram, drafted by Russia’s chief diplomat for the Middle East Georgi Kennankov to President Putin, “eyes only.” The telegram was sent from the Russian embassy in Tehran, Iran.

It is a long telegram; I can only read to you the main points.


BEGIN TEXT: The situation is unprecedentedly excellent. Let us review it.

President Obama four and a half years ago launched his major plan to “fundamentally transform the United States of America.” To achieve this, he would have to take the US out of its leadership role in international security, a role it has carried out for nearly a hundred years.

He has succeeded in doing so to a remarkable degree making him potentially the most consequential president in American history.

Of course we are delighted with this American abdication of its leadership.

At this moment the situation is exceptionally favorable to us. When chemical weapons – nerve gas – was used in Syria to devastating, horrifying effect, it violated a fundamental principle of the international state system, a system which had relied upon American resolve. It also crossed a “red line” that President Obama himself had set, probably inadvertently.

So Obama declared that the US would take military action. But the success of his own strategy for transforming America meant that the country was unprepared psychologically, morally, politically, and militarily for such a military operation.

This led Obama to explain, for several days, what he was not going to do. (We found this amusing, because the first rule of strategy is “never tell your opponent what you are not going to do”). All the while, Secretary of State Kerry was delivering powerful speeches on the need for immediate, forceful armed intervention.

Suddenly President Obama added another “not”; he was not going to decide to act. Instead, he would put the decision in the hands of Congress. Congress quickly read the opinion polls, which reflected the success of President Obama’s approach: the American people saw no reason to get involved. So the Congress, it appeared, was not going to authorize the President to take action.

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To the American imagination over more than two centuries, some nations have seemed more “real” than others – and it is in fact true that a few states in today’s international world convey a seemingly eternal essence while most are ordinary modern creatures.

Egypt and China have engraved scratches on the American mind. Their images may fade in or out, be impressive at one time or decadent at another, but seem permanently lodged in our national consciousness. Mysteriously, Egypt’s hieroglyphic and China’s ideogramic systems of pictured meaning were a powerful lure to the life of the mind of the United States in the formative years of the republic. Champollion’s 1822 deciphering of hieroglyphics opened a time of “Egyptomania” in America.

Still, the adoption or attraction of neo-Egyptian styles remains to be fully understood, from the selection of an Egyptian-like obelisk as the Washington Monument to the “Egyptian Revival” architecture of Yale’s Skull and Bones society to Walt Whitman’s early fixation on Egyptology to the nation’s operatic infatuation with Aida all the way to the extravagant King Tut exhibition of the 1970s, which Henry Kissinger intervened to acquire for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, claiming that such a display of Egyptian antiquities in New York would be a factor of consequence in his Middle East diplomacy.

This Yankee fascination was not wholly Pharaonic. Nineteenth-century American missionaries immersed themselves in Arab and Muslim thought, faith, and culture and, when their conversion strategy proved a nearly futile undertaking, turned into educators, founding the American University in Cairo.  Their offspring, as natively fluent Arabic speakers, took diplomatic and political positions in support of the causes of “heart-beguiling Araby,” with some becoming influential in American foreign policy as the State Department’s “Arabists.”

Now once again Egypt is the focus of intense American interest and concern, this time aroused by the July 2013 military coup to overthrow the elected Muslim Brotherhood government and the huge pro- and counter-demonstrations that have followed. Just when the 2011 “Arab Spring” eruption and the ensuing region-wide violent incoherence was causing a certain American sense of “Middle East” fatigue, Egypt’s new upheaval has re-ignited American concern.  But the imagined Egypt of the American mind seems impossibly remote from the multifarious afflictions ravaging Egypt today.

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Nixon Predicts


“World order after Pax Americana?”  As Virgil would say, ‘Horresco referens:”  Telling it makes me shudder.

A few years ago the wise political columnist Bill Safire occasionally would interview Richard Nixon in Hell (there for having imposed wage and price controls). So let’s get the old master of strategy on the “hot line” and ask him about it.

RMN: “Sorry about the crackling noises on the line; I can hear you perfectly well.”

“Rome did not fall so much as it changed.  My current successor in the White House has announced his goal of fundamentally transforming America, and he is doing it brilliantly, with the ‘opposition’ party falling in line.

“World orders do not last forever; most come to an end through a declining vision of wide horizons, increasing focus on the self, and a disinclination for the difficult.  The ‘meaning of life’ itself changes as revealed in that full-page ad in the New York Times (we read it like Pravda down here) depicting the chief ambition of today’s young Americans is ‘to retire earlier than your father did.’ So the country has retirement on the brain and this will continue whether the next presidency is won by Elizabeth Warren or Rand Paul.

“As Pax Americana fades, each pillar of world order will weaken, causing its neighbor to slide as well; not a cascade, but a slow downward spiral of the entire international structure.

“World order requires diplomacy and power to be used in tandem; but following the Europeans, we want diplomacy to work on its own.  Our flawed approach has been exploited by one dictatorial regime after another to play games with our negotiators.  Iran’s nuclear weapons drive is a long-running example, and by now is unstoppable.  This will undermine the nonproliferation treaty, itself a pillar of world order.

“The Arab Spring, begun with youthful hope for a freer, better life, has been commandeered by the old military, Islamist, and political gangs.

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World Order in the Age of Obama


The mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler prophesied that “We shall not get through this time without difficulty, for all the factors are prepared” Kepler was predicting the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, that would launch the modern international state system in which America and the nations of the world still operate.

What ominous factors caused Kepler to shiver? Disturbances, uphealvals and conflicts. Merchants moaned about untrustworthy bankers. Diplomats strutted even as they wavered. The masses sullenly made deals they needed to survive when the gathering storm broke. Varieties of religious fervor caused many to prepare to be slain rather than submit to rule by others.

The 1648 settlement at Westphalia, though setbacks were many and vicious, enabled procedures fostering what eventually would be called “the international community,” a term that curled many a lip in the midst of twentieth-century world wars. Those wars were attempts to overthrow the established world order. Those wars failed, but in recent decades have become seemingly interminable, and have required the stewards of world order to confront what George Shultz labels “asymmetrical” warfare in which professional standards have been turned into self-imposed liabilities by enemies who reject civilized international conduct.

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Their Time

Diplomacy – not as some claim, journalism – is the second oldest profession. As such, a lot can go wrong. The upheaval in the Middle East, and the heightened drive for an Islamist Ascendency which it has propelled, require a reassessment of this art for the new century.

The “Embassy to Achilles” in the Iliad is an ancient example of the complexity of a diplomatic mission. Three envoys were dispatched to try to persuade Achilles to fulfill his responsibilities to the Greek army: Odysseus dangerously failed to follow his instructions; Phoenix took what we would call a “track two” approach; and Ajax conveyed the moral argument. All failed. Achilles could not be moved.

Such problems arise across diplomatic history from Homer’s time to ours. But diplomacy took on enhanced meaning when it became one of the foundations for the modern international system, as explained in Garrett Mattingly’s Renaissance Diplomacy, Sir Harold Nicolson’s Diplomacy, and Henry Kissinger’s far-ranging work of that title.

The fact that we now must speak starkly in terms of “talking” indicates that a reappraisal, perhaps agonizing, is necessary. In four main categories of diplomacy today, recent U.S. approaches define what should not be done:

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Under Eastern Eyes

When Alexander the Great led soldiers of the world’s sole superpower into Afghanistan he did not fulfill the requirements of today’s counterinsurgency doctrine.  He “cleared”, and he “built” – the cities today called Herat, Kandahar, and Bagram – but he didn’t “hold”.  He moved on in such haste that he had no time to solidify the governments of the lands he had taken.

We are like Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer in Rembrandt’s great painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  We look with a faraway gaze at the strategic void beyond.  The lesson’s of Homer’s war epic, The Iliad, are carried into Aristotle’s mind and then down the philosopher’s golden chain to a medallion bearing the image of his former pupil Alexander.  Aristotle’s eyes as yet reveal no conclusion, while Homer’s eyes are sightless, and Alexander’s are not visible at all beneath his helmet’s visor.  “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.

Significantly, Rembrandt has portrayed Aristotle dressed in the 1648-era clothing of a Stadholder of the Dutch Republic, a victor in the Thirty Years’ War which spelled the beginning of the old age of empires and the start of the modern international state system.  The future of this world order now led by the United States may be determined by what happens next in Afghanistan, a war fought to enable Afghanistan to consolidate itself as a legitimate member of the international state system.

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“What are the range of options open to the United States, and other powers, in the face of the large-scale violence that the Assad regime has unleashed on the Syrian people?”

Reporters covering the Obama Administration’s foreign policy have provided the answer: “the U.S. sees few good options in Syria” (Washington Post, 12 Feb 2012).  Those living in a time of revolution, it has been said, often don’t realize it.  Washington does not seem to understand that what is going on in the Middle East is a world-historical (not merely regional) event.

Whatever is to be done or not done about Syria has to start with the recognition that the U.S. must now devise a new foreign policy, or grand strategy, toward the entire Middle East; nothing can make much sense outside a new departure of that magnitude.

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