The Foreign Service Journal - July/August 2014 - page 36

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JULY-AUGUST 2014
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THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
saw and what “they” saw was so great that the contrast yielded
the deliciously absurd. In that world, State Department cables
translated faraway events, large and small, obscure and evident,
into understanding. Narration, local color, interpretation, analy-
sis—the tools of the magazine writer, of William Shawn’s
New
Yorker
—produced both excellence and excess. Now that world is
gone, and those tools have fallen into disuse.
—Kathryn Hoffman
For better or worse, the Cold War world offered my colleague
Kathryn and other American diplomats a natural narrative
framework. They wrote to connect local events to the global nar-
rative, and to show how they diverged, offering insights the D.C.
desk jockeys could not. There is no clear picture window on the
multipolar world we face as new diplomats.
If today’s cables sometimes lack context and interpretation,
perhaps that is because today’s world is more complex, Amer-
ica’s role is harder to define—and crafting big-picture analysis
feels like hubris. But if by oversimplifying we risk misinter-
preting; by confronting complexity without analysis, we beget
misunderstanding.
My history teacher, Ernest May, said when American officials
bring to a “bewildered, confused, globalizing world a bewilder-
ing, confusing mélange of policy ideas—trade, the environment,
growth,” we “strike a hundred notes, but make no melody.” He
called for a concise, compelling new foreign policy narrative—a
“Capital ‘P’ Policy” to win the world to a more meaningful idea
of American leadership in a “world of diverse cultures on com-
mon human ground.”
Perhaps this call also hints at how State Department report-
ing sometimes comes up short, and how we can fix it. Reading
a recent cable on a tiny country’s coming election, I found an
unimpeachable primer on the rules of the race, but no hint of
how the election might matter beyond those borders. In today’s
interconnected world, surely it would. As Foreign Service offi-
cers, our job is to explain why.
—Samuel C. Downing
We could do with more, and more innovative, training in
writing. We could do with less make-work and a streamlined
process for mandatory annual reports. But we could also do with
a little less modesty. We are America’s frontline foreign affairs
professionals. Why not challenge ourselves to contribute to this
new narrative?
When we neglect the difficult discipline of regular writing—
telling ourselves that cables don’t matter, that an email will
do and that we should instead focus, relentlessly, on outreach
and conference calls—we treat diplomacy like the kind of war
that is won through action at any cost. We forget that writing is
a tool for thinking, and that we will be better at our jobs if we
better understand the challenges we are facing.
The core of diplomacy is the belief that an exchange of ideas
can change the world. As American diplomats, our job is not
merely to note our own doings, or even new facts, but to draft
cables that interpret and help steer events. It is to help shape the
world, through the power of our ideas.
—Kathryn Hoffman and Samuel C. Downing
Kathryn Hoffman is a political officer now serving as the deputy of the
economic/political section of Consulate General São Paulo in Brazil.
She has previously served in Port au Prince, Khartoum, Kabul, PRT
Nuristan, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as well as in Washington, D.C. She
joined the U.S. government in 1987 and the Foreign Service in 2003.
Samuel C. Downing joined the Foreign Service in 2012 as a politi-
cal officer. He is serving his first tour at Consulate General São Paulo.
The #Twitterfication of Political
and Economic Reporting
By Travis Coberly
Consulate General Hyderabad
“Give me your analysis on the impact of the terrorist attack on
the national elections in 140 characters or fewer.”
No, it hasn’t happened yet—but we are getting there. Instan-
taneous digital communication has created a paradox wherein
our ability (and desire) to instantly transmit information has
actually diminished our ability to process, understand and use
that information. In the universe of political and economic
reporting, this paradox has manifested itself in the call for
“shorter” and “even shorter” cables.
Admittedly, I have only been with the department for five
years and I don’t know how things were back in the day, when
everybody had to trudge uphill through the snow both ways just
to pound out a cable on the single Wang machine in the office.
But even in my short tenure, I have noticed that the trend in
reporting has been toward shorter and shorter cables. Nobody
has time to read the vast amount of material being produced.
Just imagine if George Kennan sent his celebrated “Long
Telegram” today. Instead of launching Kennan on a path of for-
eign policy fame, that cable would die an ignominious death by a
thousand clicks of the delete button.
We’ve all been there—on both sides. As consumers, much
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