The Foreign Service Journal - July/August 2014 - page 24

1967), Kennan modestly sug-
gested that his message had
such an enormous influence
because of the receptivity of his
audience. Six months earlier,
he argued, it would have been
received with “raised eyebrows
and lips pursed in disapproval.” Six months later, “It would
probably have sounded redundant, a sort of preaching to the
Kennan’s Washington readers in all likelihood received
batches of cables, delivered to their real (not virtual) inboxes,
once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Handling
cables mandated some engagement with these texts, even
if only to glance at the summary paragraphs, or at least the
subject lines, before marking them for shredding. Readers
would annotate noteworthy missives by highlighting sen-
tences, scribbling notes in the margins, or sharing them with
It is hard to imagine an 8,000-word telegram on any subject
being read today, let alone having a similar impact. Kennan
himself acknowledged that he divided the telegram into five
sections so it would not appear “so outrageously long.” And
therein lies an intrinsic tension. Most Washington readers
would counsel, “the shorter the better,” while most drafters in
the field bristle at “oversimplifying” for the sake of brevity.
Today, Washington readers enjoy the advantages of paper-
less systems, but they also generally devote far more attention
to their email inboxes than their cable queues.
News Washington can use is often quickly conveyed to tar-
get audiences via email in easily digestible form. In contrast,
a reporting cable on the same subject is more cumbersome
to access, or it may be drowned out by the sheer volume of
telegrams that pour in from embassies and consulates daily. It
may even seem duplicative, merely “memorializing” previ-
ously communicated information.
From Action to Reaction
Foreign Service officers at home and abroad must con-
front what Marshall McLuhan, in
The Medium Is the Massage:
An Inventory of Effects
(Bantam Books, 1967), had already
branded a “global village” of “allatonceness.” McLuhan argued
that the speed of communication, which keeps increasing,
forces us to “shift our stress of attention from action to reac-
The breadth, depth and pace of news and commentary
today are so colossal that there is
precious little time for delibera-
tion and reflection. Diplomacy
was once likened to three-dimen-
sional chess, but today the more
apt simile would be speed chess.
In such an environment,
cables that have real impact are likely to have been shared
as an email attachment with someone’s strident exhortation:
“Read this!” They also most likely mimic email messaging by
frontloading conclusions, using ticks or bullets, or employing a
breezy sentence structure. A snappy subject line always helps,
and embedded images may attract attention.
Even so, how many overtaxed desk officers, working hard
to meet the everyday operational needs of their office, would
prefer to plead the Fifth Amendment than honestly answer the
frustrated query of a political or economic counselor: “Didn’t
you read our cable?”
A Massive Breach of Confidentiality
It’s not just the short attention span of harried Washington
audiences with which drafting officers must cope, however.
They are also working in the wake of an unprecedented assault
on the integrity of classified communications systems. Diplo-
mats rely on confidentiality just as much as doctors, lawyers
and the clergy. That’s why the State Department waits at least
30 years before publishing diplomatic correspondence in its
Foreign Relations of the United States
Previous experiments in speedier public access fared
badly. William Seward, President Abraham Lincoln’s Sec-
retary of State, opted to print recent letters between his
office and American ministers abroad for public inspection.
Seward biographer Walter Stahr quotes the American minis-
ter (ambassador) to London as complaining that the “rather
liberal publication of my more confidential dispatches may
stand in the way of my future usefulness at this post” (
Simon & Schuster, 2012).
Nor is the United States the only country to have its diplo-
matic correspondence leaked with deleterious consequences.
The British Foreign Office once had a storied tradition of
ambassadors sending valedictory dispatches as they prepared
to leave their posts. That custom reportedly ended in 2006, in
large part due to the difficulty of keeping the wit, candor and
condescension of departing chiefs of mission confidential.
The illegal transfer of an enormous trove of alleged diplo-
matic cables to WikiLeaks in 2010 posed new challenges for
Are reporting and
analytical cables going
the way of the airgram?
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