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MAY 2015



Nice Guys Really

Do Finish First

Outpost: Life on the Frontlines

of American Diplomacy

Christopher R. Hill, Simon & Schuster, 2014,

$30/hardcover, $14.99/Kindle, 448 pages.

Reviewed By Steven Alan Honley

Foreign Service memoirs tend to come

in two flavors. Many retired FSOs

(legends in their own mind, if not their

own time) revel in detailing the myriad

ways in which they were absolutely

indispensable to the success of U.S.

foreign policy throughout their distin-

guished careers. The more generous of

them acknowledge that colleagues and

underlings may have been involved, as

well, but only in supporting roles.

Other memoirists choose a humble-

brag approach, professing to have

been just a small cog in the diplomatic

machinery—but then quoting slews

of folks who extol their role as actually

having been key. That attitude may have

been what inspired Golda Meir’s catch-

phrase: “Don’t be so humble! You’re not

that great.”

Four-time Ambassador Christopher

R. Hill’s career certainly gave him plenty

of material for a self-congratulatory

memoir in either of those traditions.


Outpost: Life on the Front-

lines of American Diplomacy

not only

adroitly avoids both traps, but stands as

an exemplar of its genre.

After a short prologue recounting an

especially eventful day during his year

as ambassador to Iraq (2009-2010), Hill

employs a straightforwardly chronologi-

cal approach for the rest of the book.

Normally, I’m not enthralled to read

about the early days of authors, but

his account of growing up in a Foreign

Service family, and spending two years

as a Peace Corps Volunteer in

Cameroon in the mid-1970s,

actually left me wanting to

hear more. (Admittedly, that

could also be at least partly

due to the fact that during my

own Foreign Service career, I

spent three years as the desk

officer for that fascinating


While it seems likely to me

that someone with Hill’s diplomatic and

linguistic talents would have advanced

in any case, the retired ambassador

readily acknowledges that he was highly

fortunate in his mentors, chiefly Larry

Eagleburger (the only career FSO to

serve as Secretary of State) and Richard

Holbrooke. Hill gives us lots of stories

about the latter figure; indeed, it is rare

for him not to mention Holbrooke at

least once in every chapter, if only in


Over the course of his career, Hill

was entrusted with increasingly promi-

nent roles in handling momentous

negotiations, from the 1995 Dayton

Accords to the Six-Party talks with

North Korea a decade later. Though he

is, understandably, no fan of Serbian

President Slobodan Milosevic, he does

give the devil his due. The same is true

for other difficult characters with whom

Hill butted heads.

Still, as Hill observes, some problems

remain intractable no matter how hard

you work. This is especially true when

key policymakers in your

own government oppose

the very concept of nego-

tiations, as Hill’s frustrat-

ing encounters with Vice

President Dick Cheney

and Kansas Senator Sam

Brownback, among others,

make painfully clear.

On a brighter note, one

of my favorite episodes in


comes from Hill’s too-brief stint

as ambassador to South Korea (2004-

2005). Determined to get off on the right

foot, he asks a group of young Korean

contacts how Embassy Seoul can

improve its website. “Get a new one!”

is the immediate response. Instead of

being offended or seeking a more palat-

able answer from another group, Hill

does just that.

Then, when a Foreign Service

National employee confirms Hill’s sense

that his inaugural posting on the new

and improved site is “extremely boring,”

the ambassador asks him to take his

chair while he dictates a new message:

“It was also boring, but at least it came

directly from me and gave the audience

a sense that they were communicating

with the U.S. ambassador.”

One also gets that strong sense of

connection throughout this masterful

memoir, which is anything but boring!


Steven Alan Honley is

The Foreign Service


s contributing editor.

Still, as Hill observes, some problems remain intractable no

matter how hard you work. This is especially true when key

policymakers in your own government oppose the very concept

of negotiations.