28 Nov Latest Wikileaks Dump: Swan Song for the Diplomatic Cable?
I suspect this will be a much bigger story than the previous Iraq and Afghanistan disclosures, mostly because there will be something here for everyone. I’m not sure that the State Department looks particularly bad, as Timothy Garten Ash explains. It shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone that diplomats sometimes do something that looks like spying. This is much more likely to cause scandals in foreign capitals than in the US (which is not to say that it won’t hurt US foreign policy interests — it will). What you will see are lots of examples of US diplomats executing their briefs, in most cases pretty well.
One possible casualty is the venerable tradition of the diplomatic cable. There is an art to this medium. The best cables have a narrative arc. It would be fun to compose a full typology (including the serious policy assessment, the color story, the ambassador’s farewell cable, memcons, codel reports, and “scenesetters“, among others) — on top of the 250,000 wikileaks cables, we have more than a century’s worth of the Foreign Relations of the United States to work with. US diplomats have always represented the bureaucratic elite (remember the handkerchief-up-the-sleeve stereotype), and some write elegantly. As a sort of private reporting service for the US government, however, it must be getting tougher to add value as the sources of information multiply along with modes of diplomatic communication. With the rise of email and other channels, I wonder if ambassadors and their staffs still consider cables the primary medium for staying in touch. (Even less so in the Department itself, where a cumbersome inter-office clearance process has to make cables the choice of last resort.)
But this episode will surely make cables look less attractive still. It’s one thing to understand that your work will come to light 25 years hence, when you (and your interlocutors) will either be dead or retired, too old much to care; or else flattered to see your handiwork become the stuff of history. It’s another to have to worry about something being disclosed that might affect your ability to function in your next post (or whether you’ll get one at all). The result will be less interesting stuff on paper for the record, more stuff over the phone or scattered in the diplomatic equivalent of tweets. Diplomatic historians will be thrilled with this unexpected Thanksgiving weekend gift, but they may have a lot less to work with in the future.