Diplomatic cables: "Is the Pulitzer board reading this stuff?"

Christopher Beam over at Slate writes about embassy cables as literature.

Is the Pulitzer board reading this stuff? The disclosure by WikiLeaks of 250,000 diplomatic cables this week doesn’t just shed light on international issues like what to do about Iran’s nuclear ambitions or a collapsing North Korea. The leaks also illustrate the art of cable-writing itself. True, most of the documents don’t rise above stenography—diplomat X met with foreign leader Y to talk about Z. But at their best, these cables read like their own literary genre, with an identifiable sensibility and set of conventions.

When it comes to the style of diplomatic cables, context matters. Like journalists or novelists, diplomats are writing for a market. Cables are meant to brief the diplomatic and military communities on a particular issue, whether it’s Afghan power broker Ahmed Wali Karzai or Muslim unrest in France. But they’re also written to impress the boss back home. State Department officials receive thousands of cables a year. If you’re a foreign service officer stationed in Molvania who wants to stand out, writing a colorful cable could be your ticket. Diplomacy requires observation, intelligence, and a keen understanding of people and their motivations. Cables are an opportunity to show off.
Part sociology, part travel writing, the cable uses the techniques of journalism to draw conclusions about policy.
Spinning narratives is an important skill for diplomats. Aside from storytelling as a social grace, they must be able to communicate how other countries fit into the American narrative and vice versa. Stories help highlight shared histories and mutual interests.
Stories are especially useful when dealing with hypotheticals, as diplomats constantly do. They can show that one event leads to another—how, say, Saudi Arabia might pressure Iran to back down from its nuclear ambitions. The ability to tell a convincing narrative may be the difference between strengthening an alliance and weakening it. If the WikiLeaks cables are any indicator, this job is in capable hands.

Read the whole thing here.

Quickie: The editorial genius of U.S. diplomats

Via Colum Lynch from FP’s Turtle Bay blog

Like good magazine editors, America’s cable writers have developed an ear for punchy, irreverent headlines, the better to attract readers’ eyes. U.S. diplomats from Buenos Aires to Moscow spare nothing in their competition for the attention of hyper-busy senior policy makers in Washington.

Click here for a “sampling of their best editorial artistry.”

Quickie: WikiLeaks Accidentally Helps U.S.

Via the Daily Beast by Leslie H. Gelb

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.

So, the naïve say, it’s good to show the effectiveness of our diplomats. Give me a break. Ask any American diplomat to choose between looking intelligent in leaked cables and making progress toward avoiding war.

Read the whole thing here.

Fareed Zakaria on "the scandal that needs fixing"

Fareed Zakaria via time.com | WikiLeaks Shows the Skills of U.S. Diplomats 

A remarkably broad consensus has formed that WikiLeaks’ latest data dump is a diplomatic disaster for the U.S. While there are debates over how the Obama Administration should respond, everyone agrees that the revelations have weakened America. But have they? 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.
When foreigners encounter U.S. diplomats and listen to their bland recitation of policy, they would do well to keep in mind that behind the facade lie some very clever minds.
If we’re looking for bad government policies, perhaps the place to look is not in the cables but in the new data-sharing craze. The leaks are, in some ways, an unintended consequence of Washington’s finally getting its information act together. For more than a decade, one often heard complaints that the U.S. government was a dinosaur in the information age. The 9/11 commission charged that various departments’ computer systems could not share information. Well, the government solved that problem, allowing Defense Department computers to reach into the foreign service’s cable traffic.
Turns out, that may not have been such a great idea, especially when this information-sharing ethos was taken one step further during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “We should be providing soldiers with all the intelligence and information possible,” the argument went (and no one can ever say no to the Pentagon in Washington). So we have ended up with a private at an Army base in Iraq able to download secret readouts of conversations between the Secretary of Defense and the French Foreign Minister. If Private Bradley Manning had not gone to WikiLeaks, he would have found some other outlet to disseminate the data. Our anger at WikiLeaks should not obscure the fact that it is Washington’s absurd data-sharing policy that made this possible. That’s the scandal here that needs fixing.

Read the whole thing here.