Diplomatic Cables: The Ties That Bind Foreign Policy

The State Department

Hundreds of diplomatic cables between U.S. embassies and the State Department were published by WikiLeaks, prompting officials to worry whether diplomats can continue to be frank in their written assessments. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Thanks to WikiLeaks, diplomatic cables have dominated the news this week, revealing what foreign service officers really think about U.S. allies and enemies all around the world.

For decades, diplomatic cables have been the primary means of communication between U.S. embassies abroad and the State Department. Even in the age of e-mail, thousands of diplomatic cables a day continue to play a central role in shaping how the U.S. conducts foreign policy.

The question, in the wake of the WikiLeaks revelation, is whether foreign service officers will remain as candid in writing cables as they have been. Since they provide eyes and ears globally not just for the State Department but for much of the U.S. government, their unvarnished reports have been essential.

And the massive leak also seems likely to stem the post-Sept. 11 tide toward wider dissemination of information among government agencies.

"The culture of secrecy within the State Department and the Defense Department will be stiffened," says Daniel Hamilton, a former State Department official who is now at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Cables let embassies know how to carry out official policy and conduct delicate negotiations. In turn, ambassadors and their staffs use them to provide Washington with constant information about how things are playing out in the real world.

"What the State Department calls cables is, in effect, just another form of e-mail," says James Dobbins, director of international security and defense policy at the Rand Corp. and a former assistant secretary of state. "But they're a more official form of communication than your Hotmail account."

How Cables Work

In olden times, emissaries such as Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin sent reports back to Washington through diplomatic pouches and even the mail. For decades, however, cables have been the reporting vehicle of choice.

They touch on everything from changes in policy during war to instructions on care and feeding of visiting dance troupes traveling on goodwill missions.

All cables sent from Washington carry the signature of the secretary of state, while those sent from abroad bear the name of the local ambassador. These imprimaturs are symbolic of the fact that cables go through an official vetting process.

"There are 10,000 of them a day, so Hillary Clinton obviously doesn't see most of them, but they can only be signed by somebody who has authority to send them out with her name at the end," Dobbins says. "They have to be carefully drafted so that they reflect that degree of authority and formality."

Many cables may be trivial, but they are not the lone-wolf work of some random junior officer. Those who receive them can be certain that all relevant personnel — perhaps from several different U.S. agencies — have signed off on them.

That's why they continue to carry much more weight than standard e-mail.

"One of the things drummed into you when you become a diplomat is, don't take any actions based on a phone conversation," says Shaun Donnelly, a former ambassador to Sri Lanka. "You should only do it if it's a formal cable."

Read By All The Right People

All cables from abroad are read by desk officers at State who oversee an individual country. But important ones may work their way up the department's chain, while also getting looked at by officials at relevant departments such as Treasury, Agriculture or Transportation.

It's a rare cable, though, that's read by top officials.

"It's information overload for the U.S. government," says Hamilton of SAIS. "The idea that a secretary of state or even a deputy assistant secretary of state would on a daily basis read a lot of cables isn't reality."

The desire to break through the clutter may be one reason that some cables contain provocative language — such as the one in the WikiLeaks trove that described Russian leaders Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev as the "Batman and Robin" of that country's politics, which were likened to a "virtual mafia state."

The Long Telegram

The most famous diplomatic cable in U.S. history also involved Russia. The so-called Long Telegram sent by George Kennan from Moscow in 1946 helped shape U.S. containment policy toward the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War.

In it, Kennan outlined the political ideology and collective psychology of the Soviets, saying that the "problem of how to cope with this force is undoubtedly [the] greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably greatest it will ever have to face. ... But I would like to record my conviction that problem is within our power to solve — and that without recourse to any general military conflict."

Kennan's 5,300-word telegram was widely disseminated within the government, on up to President Harry S. Truman — and read with interest by Soviet spies — before eventually being published.

But Nicholas Thompson, author of The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan and the History of the Cold War, points out that despite its fame and influence, the Long Telegram was not a stand-alone document that suddenly caused a shift in U.S. policy.

Instead, it was the culmination of a series of exchanges about how to handle the Soviets. "Cables are a hugely important method for working out policies," Thompson says. "Kennan worked out for himself intellectually, and then for the whole U.S. government, what U.S. policy toward Stalin should be after the war."

Changing Minds Over Time

Countless cable exchanges have let Washington know that given policies aren't playing out as hoped and need to be reworked, on everything from the Marshall Plan to the Iraq war.

Subsequent evolution takes place through cables. It's that kind of give and take — not just candid language — that has been threatened by the WikiLeaks disclosure.

"You can't have the work done all out in public," says James Collins, a former ambassador to Russia who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Trial and error is often the way things are worked out," he says. "And in Washington, you're never supposed to change your mind."

Leaking Ship Of State

Cables are meant to do more than serve as a form of private journalism, transmitting basic information back and forth. What adds value is the insight and knowledge diplomats on the ground can offer Washington.

That's what observers worry has been put at risk by WikiLeaks.

"To understand what is really going on in a country, Washington policymakers need to know something about the personalities and the temperaments, who seems to be corrupt and who doesn't," Donnelly says. "If foreign leaders don't think they can speak with some confidence, we're going to be out of the game."

Along with distrust from abroad, there will be less sharing of information within the U.S. government. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, there has been a push to share information more broadly between agencies. Now, in response to WikiLeaks, there have already been changes in procedure to make sure that fewer people can see most cable traffic.

Ensuring that only the people who need to see cables gain access to them — while sorting through the thousands that come in daily to ensure that all relevant officials across the government are in the loop — will be no easy task.

"It can have a chilling effect on willingness of agencies to share information," says Collins, the former ambassador to Russia. "And, in terms of relations with foreigners, it will have a somewhat chilling effect for a while.

"For an awful lot of senior people, they have to wonder whether they can speak with candor to their American interlocutors and not have this stuff plastered all over the media," Collins says. "And that's going to be a problem."

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