The Foreign Service Journal - July/August 2014 - page 25

drafting officers. First and
foremost, the unauthorized
publication of such corre-
spondence seriously dam-
aged U.S. national security.
Apart from premature
revelations, the leaks exposed
foreign sources of informa-
tion to retribution, giving
other potential interlocutors pause about the risks of engaging
in dialogue with U.S. diplomats. It suddenly became harder to
win or retain the trust of foreign contacts, and elliptical refer-
ences to sources became more common (e.g., “a veteran party
insider told us…”).
The Foreign Service did win some new respect as the
commentariat extolled the quality of its writing and report-
ing. Some columnists even opined that the best missives had
a literary quality to them. As Fareed Zakaria wrote in
“When foreigners encounter U.S. diplomats and listen to their
bland recitation of policy, they would do well to keep in mind
that behind the facade lie some very clever minds.”
This should not have come as a surprise, of course. U.S. dip-
lomats have enviable access, speak foreign languages fluently,
and are steeped in local knowledge. They can also produce
clear and purposeful prose.
The Power of the Pen
Reporting from the field, in whatever form it takes, is still
the indispensable ingredient of any meaningful foreign policy
discussion. Our diplomats’ deep understanding of foreign
countries and cultures, and ability to discern political and
economic trends that matter to the United States, constitute
our comparative advantage in the U.S. foreign policymaking
Even so, knowledge does not necessarily equal power.
Foreign Service officers are called on to be versatile, and com-
munication is only one of the six competencies evaluated for
tenure and promotion. Written communication, in turn, is
only one of five subcomponents of that particular precept.
Washington readers are besieged by what Joseph Nye calls
a “paradox of plenty,” such that “attention rather than infor-
mation becomes the scarce resource.” It has probably long
been true that the time one has to write or read cable traffic is
inversely proportional to one’s decision-making authority. Nye
suggests that in such an environment, “Editors and cue-givers
become more in demand.”
I recall a Foreign Service
Institute instructor asserting
that, anthropologically speak-
ing, the Foreign Service is an
oral culture. In that vein, the
staff assistant regularly brief-
ing a senior State principal
has a distinct advantage over
the drafting officer who per-
formed the actual on-the-ground analysis.
Upholding the Value of the Reporting Function
During the 1992 presidential campaign, independent
candidate Ross Perot suggested that ambassadors were relics,
akin to “sailing ships,” and that Washington could accom-
plish its foreign policy goals by simply communicating with
foreign capitals by phone and fax. Friends of the Foreign
Service rightly responded that there is no substitute for having
diplomats on the spot who build relationships and advocate in
person with foreign governments and publics.
Somewhat lost in the debate was the fact that Perot’s com-
ment ignored a vital function of U.S. diplomats abroad: con-
veying to U.S. policymakers analysis of significant local events.
A data systems entrepreneur from Texas can be forgiven for
getting that wrong, but we would do well to remind ourselves
of that important job from time to time. All Foreign Service
work is vital, but the reporting function is truly fundamental to
the success of U.S. foreign policy.
It’s safe to say that the airgram is not coming back, not at a
time when the Associated Press is asking its reporters to limit
most of their stories to 300-500 words. The cable is still with
us, but is becoming ever leaner. Email updates, BlackBerry-
friendly digests and weekly roundups with cable links are all in
the ascendancy.
While the means of communication may change, the need
for bankable reporting and analysis does not. This is true
despite the fact that most writing we produce and see is decid-
edly temporal.
Still, the best Foreign Service reporting stands the test of
time. Look again at Kennan’s Long Telegram: “At the bottom of
the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and
instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” And then fast forward
to recent press comments (no cable revelations here) by Presi-
dent Obama: “Russia is a regional power that is threatening
some of its immediate neighbors—not out of strength, but out
of weakness.”
The means of communication
may change, but the need
for bankable reporting and
analysis does not.
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