Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan sparked a brief outbreak of violence on the West Bank—an inauspicious start, to say the least. Still, the president’s unique brand of statecraft has produced more hits than misses.
Despite his diplomatic bad-boy reputation, the current president has done as well as some, better than many. And we have all seen far worse—in real life and on the silver screen.
Fumbling inept American diplomacy is a standard idiom of our cinematic history. Here are some undisputed howlers.
1. One, Two, Three (1961). The Cold War’s on but the wall’s not yet up when a Coca Cola executive is dispatched to Berlin. He spends most of his time trying to prevent the boss’ daughter from marrying an avowed communist and moving to Moscow.
The plot gets a bit complicated (as director Billy Wilder’s comedies usually do). Suffice to say, it takes a harebrained, mixed-up, faux diplomatic intervention to resolve the crisis. That’s the way it was back in the day when American money talked. “Coca Cola Diplomacy” was a real thing.
Sadly, by the time this film came out, audiences couldn’t relate. International relations weren’t funny anymore. A full blown world struggle was underway, and America was no longer calling all the shots.
We actually see that in the film’s last scene. The executive is at the airport, having resolved the diplomatic crisis, makes for the nearest vending machine only to discover that the Coke machine has been stocked with… Pepsi.
2. The Ugly American (1963). As the Cold War heats up, an American ambassador is dispatched to a Southeast Asian country ripped by conflict. He assumes it’s all a black-and-white struggle between democracy and communism. It’s not. Does he make everything worse? He does.
This film is a homage to diplomatic nihilism. Its premise: Americans can do no good in the world. In addition to its Debbie-downer of a plot, the film was hamstrung by the fact that a lot of good, actually entertaining movies (like The Birds and The Great Escape) came out that year. So a lot of people didn’t go see it. It’s probably good that director George Englund did only a handful of films after this ugly movie about ugly diplomacy.
3. Charade (1963). Often called “the best movie director Alfred Hitchcock never made,” a representative of the U.S. embassy in Paris is dispatched to help a grieving widow. Nothing turns out like it seems, including the embassy official who is really a CIA spy, who is really not a spy. Super confusing—just like U.S. diplomacy sometimes.
4. Dr. Strangelove (1964). When an inadvertent nuclear crisis breaks out, the Russian ambassador is dispatched to the White House. He proves no help. After the ambassador starts trading punches with an Air Force general, the president intervenes with one of funniest lines in movie history: “Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!”
Director Stanley Kubrick actually started out making a serious film about the arms race, but found mutually assured destruction so absurd he turned the film into a black comedy. Taking the subject seriously didn’t work out much better for the diplomats. In the drama Failsafe, which came out about the same year, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow and the Russian representative at the UN are both incinerated in nuclear infernos.
5. Protocol (1984). A cocktail waitress (Goldie Hawn) is dispatched to the Middle East on a desperate diplomatic mission. (Diplomacy, you see, had sunk to its absolute nadir under that clueless cowboy Ronald Ray-gunzz).
Director Herbert Ross no doubt hoped his film would do for the State Department what Goldie Hawn did for the Army in the hit film Private Benjamin (1980). No such luck. It was not nearly as funny or as entertaining—and it did little more than a third as well at the box office.
6. Wag the Dog (1998). When the president gets embroiled in a domestic scandal, a political fixer is dispatched to make war on Albania. With the collapse of the Soviet Union leaving America the lone superpower, who needed diplomacy?
Life imitated art. When President Clinton took NATO to war against Serbia he was accused of manufacturing a distraction from his own impeachment scandal. Barry Levinson’s comedy is a clever premise that doesn’t stretch out into a sustainable cinematic satire.
7. 13 Hours (2016). A team of security professionals is dispatched to Libya to guard the U.S. ambassador. What follows is director Michael Bay’s take on a true story—a tragic, unforgettable, avoidable and unforgivable disaster that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three more Americans.
No one connected with this real-life catastrophe, from the Oval Office on down, has anything to be proud of. But the rest of us can be proud of the incredible courage displayed by the “secret soldiers” who tried to the impossible, under the worst of circumstances.
There is a lesson to be learned from this that can’t and should not be forgotten. We don’t throw our diplomats in harm’s way and then abandon them to their fate.
This piece originally appeared in The National Interest