Diplomatic Bloggers: Web 2.0 Door Opens

Once, a Political Counselor had a small dinner with his local contacts in a foreign country. He was very well liked and his host government contacts all showed up. After good food and wine, while sitting around in his living room, one of his closest contacts cornered him and asked, “C’mon just between us, what do you really think about ….?” The seasoned Political Counselor never skipped a beat, smiled and replied, “I am a diplomat, the official position of my government is my opinion.”

And such is the life of a diplomat in the service of his/her country: that he/she spends a good chunk of his/her life abroad; that he/she knows when to keep his mouth shut; and that his/her personal opinion has no place in official discourse and severely limited even in private capacity. And this one, from Kenneth Thompson: “The diplomat is the bearer of a view of the outside world which his fellow citizens cannot entirely follow or accept.”

The central uniqueness of service in the Foreign Service or any diplomatic service is that the employee is a representative of his/her government, considered to be on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And in the FS employees “must observe especially high standards of conduct during and after working hours and when on leave or travel status.” Carl Rowan who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Kennedy Administration even had this advice to diplomats in 1963: “My advice to any diplomat who wants to have a good press is to have two or three kids and a dog.” The idea presumably is that the diplomat’s life even in private must reflect well and favorably on his/her employer.

Applicants to the U.S. Foreign Service are routinely asked during the hiring process if they can support the position of their government even if they personally disagree with it. When they are hired, they become not only “world-wide available,” they also are required to publicly support the policy of the U.S. Government. If you disagree on substantive foreign policy issues, you may go through the official dissent channel. And when the time comes when you are no longer willing to serve where they want to send you (in case of directed assignments) or can no longer publicly support the official position of the government, then the only choice left is to hang up your hat and walk away.

There is an old State Department saying about the caution of bureaucrats: “There are old bureaucrats and there are bold bureaucrats, but there are no old, bold bureaucrats.”

This is kind of a roundabout way of introducing what I want to write here – about those blogging diplomats. But the preceding entry is hopefully helpful in understanding the universe from which these folks operate.

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The 9/11 Commission quotes US Ambassador Richard Holbrook wondering, “How can a man in a cave out-communicate the world’s leading communications society?”

[…] the United States Government is behind nearly everybody, except in certain discrete areas, in terms of technology. And we are, in my view, wasting time, wasting money, wasting opportunities, because we are not prepared to communicate effectively with what is out there in the business world and the private world. So I care passionately about this, especially since I’ve been deprived of my Blackberry, so – at least during the day, anyway – so, I am, again, soliciting your advice.

That’s Secretary Clinton during her first town hall meeting at the State Department. She acknowledged that “there are legitimate concerns about security, but I believe we cannot just take that at face value and stop thinking about it. We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to be smarter about using technology. […] On the security issue and on outreach and public diplomacy, we must figure out a way consistent with security to use these new tools. There is no doubt in my mind that we have barely scratched the surface as to what we can use to communicate with people around the world, and in fact, to use them as tools, as this gentleman pointed out, to further our own work and to be smart about it.

The Web 2.0 door is now open. State has jumped on the Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and the blogging bandwagons, but it’s also running a social networking site and official public diplomacy site (See The State Department’s Online Ventures).

If you open the door, will they come?