The Foreign Service Journal - July/August 2014 - page 66

FS Reporting: Craft,
Context and Practice
The Craft of Political
Analysis for Diplomats
Raymond F. Smith, Potomac Books, 2011,
$23.62/paperback, $16.50/Kindle Edition,
174 pages.
Reviewed by Stephen W. Buck
Three years after its publication, retired
FSO Ray Smith’s
The Craft of Political
Analysis for Diplomats
holds up very
well. He starts with a clear definition of
political analysis as “the attempt to con-
vey an understanding of how authority
and power relations operate and evolve
within and between governments and
between government and society.”
This is not an academic tome, how-
ever. It focuses on the practical and is
particularly relevant for Foreign Service
officers. In a foreign affairs universe filled
with organizations pursuing worthy
goals, he reminds the reader that “the
diplomat works with a specific primary
objective in mind: to protect and pro-
mote his country’s interests…not those of
all mankind.” Accordingly, in the end all
diplomatic reporting needs to answer the
question, “What does this mean for my
Smith does a good job of delving into
the different purposes of diplomatic
political analysis “to inform, explain or
influence the universe of Washington
audiences” for Foreign Service report-
ing. He quotes one colleague as observ-
ing, “Embassy reporting must add value
to what policymakers learn from news
reports; it cannot hope to substitute for
or compete with news organs in report-
ing ‘fast facts.’ The
primary value of a
field report, then,
is to tell policymak-
ers what they need
to know and to sort
out what’s important
from all the other
things Washington is
So how to do
this? This is where
Smith really shines.
In chapters titled “The
Analyst’s Personal Tool Kit,” “The Analyti-
cal Tools,” “Criteria for Political Report-
ing: The State Department View” and two
case studies from his own reporting from
Embassy Moscow on the collapse of the
Soviet Union, he probes deeply into what
is needed and what works.
While he occasionally allots more
space to theory than I needed, Smith
makes very useful points about the
importance of clear, concise writing to
attract policymakers’ attention and, in
particular, the importance of sources
and a real understanding of the culture—
political, religious and social—of the host
Smith’s research into the criteria cited
by State awards committees leads him to
rank the following attributes in descend-
ing order of importance: usefulness;
analytic and interpretive content; sources
and contacts; style; and cultural and
linguistic skills. He then excerpts some
declassified cables that won the Director
General’s Reporting Award, and explains
why they won.
His thoughtful penultimate chapter,
“The Compass and the Weather Vane,”
addresses the fraught question:
“What does the professional
diplomat do when he thinks his
government’s policies are wrong
or counterproductive?” He
answers by citing examples of
how Embassy Moscow’s reporting
helped reshape U.S. policy over
Pursuing the chapter title’s
metaphor, Smith wisely con-
cludes: “The best diplomatic
professionals, like good sailors,
know they need both the weather vane
and the compass. The weather vane tells
you the course that you can steer. You
cannot sail directly into the wind [i.e.,
challenge established policy]. You must
choose a course that allows you to keep
your boat under control while heading as
closely as possible towards your desti-
nation. Keeping your internal compass
working while the wind is not under your
control and shifting erratically around
you is one of the conscientious diplo-
mat’s fundamental personal challenges.”
The book’s final chapter, which
discusses the impact of technologi-
cal change and the risk of irrelevance,
reminds us that the Foreign Service
milieu so many of us operated in years
ago—reading and assessing clues hidden
in newspapers in the fashion of Krem-
linologists—is gone. Sometimes CNN
and other media outlets report what
is happening overseas before the post
knows it has even happened. Moreover,
Washington can Skype, tweet or email in
an instant.
Yet this does not eliminate what
Edward R. Murrow called “the last three
feet” between a reporter or diplomat and
his contact. Equally important, it does
not eliminate the understanding that can
only come from seasoned reporters who
really knows the country they are in—and
This book focuses on the practical and is particularly relevant
for Foreign Service officers.
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