Chicago politics diplomatic reporting? "Don’t write if you can talk; don’t talk if you can nod; don’t nod if you can wink"

Via FP | Stephen M. Walt, ‘Don’t Write if You Can Talk…’: The latest from WikiLeaks

“But there is a real downside, which is why I retain some concerns about this latest batch of revelations. If diplomats start fearing that any conversation or cable might get leaked, they will either stop talking, stop taking notes, or stop sending message back to headquarters in any sort of republishable form. There’s an old line from Chicago city politics: “Don’t write if you can talk; don’t talk if you can nod; don’t nod if you can wink.” Somehow, I’m not sure our diplomacy will be enhanced if our representatives are reduced to making facial gestures, and communicating back home only through secure telephones.”

We hope no one is going to start having ideas about using Morse code in wink mode. That would be very bad.

As John Brown writes for HuffPo: [T]he cables demonstrate:

American diplomats can write. If you read the missives — and, granted, no way I could read them all — they provide strong evidence that Foreign Service officers (FSOs) construct solid, logical, and detailed analyses that (if not always correct) are thoughtful and carefully crafted. Compare them to the instant, superficial reporting of the mass media, and you can see the importance of diplomatic dispatches not only for giving Washington the background and nuance to a given situation, but also for providing a reliable historical record of major global events.

American diplomats are not naive, an all-too-frequent characterization of US officials by their foreign counterparts. FSOs, as their candid, sometimes critical portraits of their overseas contacts suggest, strive to be subtle judges of character; of course, they are not always right, but they are intelligently seeking to understand, as best they can, the nature of their foreign interlocutors, and their reporting demonstrates it. Far from permanently embarrassing the U.S., the WikiLeaks disclosures may, in fact, result in increasing respect overseas for American diplomats, as their communications to headquarters (now made public, regrettably or not) demonstrate they seek to be insightful observers, and are not gullible country bumpkins who believe everything they hear.

American diplomats are not inhuman automatons but have a sense of irony and humor. To cite one example, the Moscow US Embassy’s characterization of Putin and Medvedev — Batman and Robin — is not only funny, but may end up in the history books as a “catch-the-moment” way to describe this odd, sinister duo.

On the negative side, the WikiLeaks’s damage from a US perspective may be that:

Some foreign officials may be offended by how they were “treated” in the cables.
American Embassy contacts overseas, especially dissidents, will be reluctant to stay in touch with US diplomats for fear of being revealed to local authorities.
American diplomats will no longer provide candid assessments in classified communications to Washington, for fear of being “exposed.”
The State Department may urge FSOs not to “write it down,” but “say it over the secure phone.” Or not say it at all. That is the greatest danger: silencing our diplomats.

On the whole, though, the WikiLeaks episode is not a disaster for America from a public diplomacy or “behind closed-doors” diplomacy perspective, so long as diplomats are not “shut up” by a State Department overly concerned about future leaks.

Read the whole thing here.

John Brown is a former senior FS officer. He also writes the John Brown’s Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review, Version 2.0