WikiLeaks Show American Diplomats in Good Light

US Diplomatic Passport

The WikiLeaks fiasco has doubtless lowered confidence in the American government’s ability to keep secrets and manage classified information.  The latest dump provided some embarrassing moments for the State Department in particular.  But they also showed that those handling America’s day-to-day foreign policy are quite capable.

Historian Timothy Garton Ash was perhaps the pioneer in this line of thought, writing in Sunday’s Guardian,

[F]rom what I have seen, the professional members of the US foreign service have very little to be ashamed of. Yes, there are echoes of skulduggery at the margins, especially in relation to the conduct of "the war on terror" in the Bush years. Specific questions must be asked and answered. For the most part, however, what we see here is diplomats doing their proper job: finding out what is happening in the places to which they are posted, working to advance their nation’s interests and their government’s policies.

In fact, my personal opinion of the state department has gone up several notches. In recent years, I have found the American foreign service to be somewhat underwhelming, reach-me-down, dandruffy, especially when compared with other, more confident arms of US government, such as the Pentagon and the treasury. But what we find here is often first rate.

As readers will discover, the man who is now America’s top-ranking professional diplomat, William Burns, contributed from Russia a highly entertaining account – almost worthy of Evelyn Waugh – of a wild Dagestani wedding attended by the gangsterish president of Chechnya, who danced clumsily "with his gold-plated automatic stuck down the back of his jeans".

Burns’s analyses of Russian politics are astute. So are his colleagues’ reports from Berlin, Paris and London. In a 2008 dispatch from Berlin, the then grand coalition government of Christian and Social democrats in Germany is compared to "the proverbial couple that hated each other but stay together for the sake of the children". From Paris, there is a hilarious pen portrait of the antics of Nicolas (and Carla) Sarkozy. And we the British would do well to take a look at our neurotic obsession with our so-called "special relationship" with Washington, as it appears in the unsentimental mirror of confidential dispatches from the US embassy in London.

On Monday, Slate columnist Fred Kaplan asked, "Beyond the questions surrounding the massive nature of their disclosure—right or wrong, catastrophic or merely embarrassing—what do these documents reveal about U.S. foreign policy and the nature of diplomacy?"  His answer:

Mainly they illustrate principles about the "great game" of power politics dating back to Thucydides—that nations behave according to their material interests and that a big part of diplomacy lies in appealing to, threatening, or manipulating those interests.

And they show that, within the narrowing realm in which the United States (or any country) can influence others in the post-Cold War world, the Obama administration has been playing the game fairly well.

He goes on at some length with examples. They were joined Tuesday by Leslie Gelb, who weighed in with a Daily Beast column explaining how "WikiLeaks Accidentally Helps U.S."

The Wikileakers dumped a vast pile of secrets to prove that the United States was selfish, stupid and wicked–but their revelations proved just the opposite. When you remove the gossip and obvious trivia that mesmerized the press, you clearly see what the Wikileakers never expected: A United States seriously and professionally trying to solve the most dangerous problems in a frighteningly complicated world, yet lacking the power to dictate solutions. U.S. policymakers and diplomats are shown, quite accurately, doing what they are supposed to do: ferreting out critical information from foreign leaders, searching for paths to common action, and struggling with the right amount of pressure to apply on allies and adversaries. And in most cases, the villain is not Washington, but foreign leaders escaping common action with cowardice and hypocrisy.


Time and again, as one actually reads these cables, one has to be heartened by the professionalism and the insights of U.S. diplomats. What are they doing? They are not lying, and U.S. leaders are not lying. They are actually, believe it or not, trying to solve problems. That seriousness of purpose and the professionalism to execute it is what jumps out at you in these materials.

Today, Time‘s Fareed Zakaria joins the fray with a piece titled "WikiLeaks Shows the Skills of U.S. Diplomats."

I don’t deny for a moment that many of the "wikicables" are intensely embarrassing, but the sum total of the output I have read is actually quite reassuring about the way Washington — or at least the State Department — works.

First, there is little deception. These leaks have been compared to the Pentagon papers. Which they are not. The Pentagon papers revealed that the U.S. engaged in a systematic campaign to deceive the world and the American people and that its private actions were often the opposite of its stated public policy. The WikiLeaks documents, by contrast, show Washington pursuing privately pretty much the policies it has articulated publicly. Whether on Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan or North Korea, the cables confirm what we know to be U.S. foreign policy. And often this foreign policy is concerned with broader regional security, not narrow American interests. Ambassadors are not caught pushing other countries in order to make deals secretly to strengthen the U.S., but rather to solve festering problems.


The WikiLeaks data powerfully confirms the central American argument against Iran’s programs: that they are a threat to regional stability and order, not merely to Washington’s narrow interests. (Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu quickly pointed this out.) In fact, the simplest confirmation of the fallout can be found in Tehran’s reaction to WikiLeaks. Alone among world leaders, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims that the documents were actually leaked by Washington. After all, they expose as an utter lie Ahmadinejad’s constant claim that he has befriended all Arab states and that, if not for Washington, Iran would be beloved by all in the region.

With the possible exception of some murky revelations about the State Department gathering intelligence on senior UN officials, little that has been revealed thus far will surprise those who follow international affairs closely.  That diplomats occasionally use undiplomatic language or that functionaries sometimes say things in private about heads of state that they wouldn’t dare say in public should shock no one who’s spent any time in the work force.  So, yes, our representatives abroad in the main look good in these releases.

As to whether this all makes the releases a good thing, I share Gelb’s view:  "Give me a break. Ask any American diplomat to choose between looking intelligent in leaked cables and making progress toward avoiding war."  

The United States is a representative democracy and its people have every right to know what is being done in their name.  But that doesn’t mean that the proverbial "sausage making" should always be done in the light of day.  Officials need to hold discussions about policy options in private, lest candor be lost.

This is particularly true in foreign affairs, where American officials need the cooperation of unsavory regimes in order to protect broader interests.   In an ideal world, U.S. diplomats could negotiate openly with the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India and arrive at mutually beneficial policies. But the reality is that internecine disputes make that impossible.  Similarly, getting support from rulers in the Arab Middle East on vital issues related to Iran and Israel often means allowing them to say one thing in private and other in public.   That’s the world we live in.

Or, at least, it used to be. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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