Micro-Managing on a Global Scale: In Private, American Diplomats Can Be Extremely Hands-On

Joint US-Tanzania Pandemic Preparation Workshop, March 2011
U.S. defense officials address Tanzanian counterparts at a Pandemic Preparation Workshop, March 2011. Photo by Khalfan Said (U.S. Embassy, Tanzania). Used here under a CC license.

The 250,000+ State Department cables released by the whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks in the 2010 incident know as Cablegate can seem like old news nowadays.  In the 7 years since, we’ve had several other leaks of sensitive data troves, including the Sony emails, the Panama Papers, the DNC Committee emails, and the national security dossier compiled by Edward Snowden.  But for me Cablegate remains interesting, even after all this time, because of the unique corpus of diplomatic cables it provided to researchers and ordinary citizens alike.  Taken collectively, the documents offer unique insights into the practices of recent U.S. diplomacy.

For instance, one interesting story that emerges from the cables is how U.S. diplomats are crucial linchpins in the diffusion of transnational modes of governance.  State Department personnel lie at the uneasy juncture of global governance and American hegemony, and are repeatedly seen in the WikiLeaks cables persuading, exhorting, cajoling, wheedling, inducing, and threatening foreign partners to accept (Americano-centric) “international” norms and standards.

Let’s consider a few examples, all drawn from the cables sent from U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam (since those are the ones I know best).  In December 2005, it was American diplomats based in Tanzanianot Tanzania’s delegation in New York City or any UN official—that passed on names that had been recently added to the UN Security Council terrorist watchlist, just to make sure the relevant Tanzanian authorities had taken note.  A follow-up cable noted that actually Tanzania did not maintain its own terrorist watchlist and quoted a senior Tanzanian bureaucrat (in a rather frank admission) as saying that “the Government of Tanzania and the Bank of Tanzania depend on information from the U.S. Government to keep its list of terrorist entities updated.”

Or consider how, beginning in early 2006, American diplomats sought to get Tanzania to enact domestic legislation as required by its obligations under Article VII of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).  The cables show that U.S. embassy officials met with Tanzanian counterparts on at least seven occasions between February and November 2006 to discuss the issue.  One of those meetings involved a U.S. diplomat sternly warning that Tanzania was likely to miss internationally-mandated deadlines.  Another featured a high-level delegation from Washington visiting Tanzania to conduct (Newspeak-approaching) “compliance diplomacy.”  The write-up of that visit contains an admission that “most [Tanzanian] officials seemed concerned that the purpose of the trip was to chastise them for some compliance shortfall.”

A third meeting involved a U.S. Embassy official meeting with the Principal Parliamentary Draftsman at the Tanzanian Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to inquire about the status of the draft legislation regarding the CWC.  Assured that the legislation had already been submitted to the Cabinet for consideration, the Embassy official followed-up separately with the Cabinet Secretariat, apparently “just to double check”… and discovered that the relevant legislation had been passed on the day after his/her visit to the Draftsman.  In a scathingly deadpan summary, the official noted that the Tanzanian government may be “overly optimistic” about their implementation timelines.

By November of 2006, the draft legislation was almost ready to be formally unveiled in the Tanzanian parliament–at which point a savvy Tanzanian interlocutor approached the U.S. Embassy with a request for unspecified “assistance”:

“Before we move the bill to Parliament,” she explained, “we would like to hold seminars to sensitize the Parliament.” [She] asked Poloff [Political Officer] what U.S. assistance might be available for sensitization seminars. She noted that, if the [Government of Tanzania] adequately briefed Members of Parliament on the importance of the CWC, the process would move more efficiently.

Due to the unfortunately incomplete nature of the Cablegate files, this is where our knowledge of the story ends.  It’s unclear if the U.S. provided any further help with the legislation, nor whether it was ultimately adopted and implemented by the Tanzanian government (I strongly suspect it was, although a quick (English-language) Googling session didn’t turn up any results).

All in all, though, these brief anecdotes reveal at least three broader lessons about the realities of contemporary American diplomacy. For starters, the degree of paternalism on display is striking–in private, American diplomats speak of actively shepherding desired legislation through the legislative processes of friendly countries.

Second, it’s worth noting the extent to which both terrorist watch lists and the CWC were issues for the United States but largely unimportant for the Tanzanians, who explained that they were (in the words of an American participant) “a poor nation that did not possess missiles or WMD and had as its primary concerns improving the economic and energy situation and eliminating poverty.”  The cables tend to show that American priorities outweigh Tanzanian ones in their bilateral relationship: for instance, only once does the documentary record show Tanzania’s deep reservations about how the U.S. has shown zero indication over the last 50 years of taking seriously its obligations under Article VI of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which mandates that state parties begin negotiations about complete nuclear disarmament “at an early date.”  At the same time, however, power is a slippery thing, particularly in the diplomatic realm.*  The weak almost always have weapons and tactics available to them, chief among them foot-dragging.  And the misalignment of incentives between the two parties did open up space for Tanzanian state actors to seek various forms of compensation in exchange for their efforts.

A third ironic takeaway from the episodes above is that while American diplomats in the Global South are constantly out doing the legwork of making sure that other states abide by their international legal commitments, their government back home is notoriously loath to accept any international legal obligations on itself (cf. Wikipedia’s handy list here).  This is a major difficulty with having the hegemon’s diplomats play the role of international bureaucrats–ultimately there is no replacing the legitimacy that comes from having a genuine international mandate.

Overall, a close reading of the WikiLeaks cables complicates simplistic understandings of policy diffusion by looking at how direct, embodied interventions by the agents of powerful actors have often facilitated the spread of norms, laws, and ideas in recent global politics.  It moves our attention away from “networks” and the digital realm to the flesh-and-blood human beings who send nagging emails and forward on important messages.  As with so many other aspects of human behavior,  pestering others does seem to like an effective way of getting things done in international diplomacy.


* Occasionally, the WikiLeaks cables reveal the shoe to be on the other foot in terms of their relative knowledge and expertise.  In May 2007 the U.S. Embassy’s economic officer was asked to lobby experts in the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism about adding and removing specific animal species from the CITES treaty.  Writing back to headquarters, the officer sounded out-of-his-depth and out-maneuvered, describing his interlocutor as “a seasoned CITES COP veteran and very diplomatic,” and requesting significant amounts of supplementary information from Washington to defend various American proposals.

(If you enjoyed this, you might also like this previous post I wrote about American diplomacy using the WikiLeaks cables.)

There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Federal Agency: With Its Budget on the Chopping Block and Severely Understaffed, the State Department Is at an Impasse

The State Department’s HQ in Foggy Bottom. Copyright by AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Early hints of what U.S. President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal might look like emerged two weeks ago, and much of the discussion has focused on which U.S. federal agencies stand to win and lose in the Age of Trump.  In keeping with its avowed “America First” policy, the Trump administration proposes increasing American defense spending (which already surpasses the defense budgets of the next 11 biggest spenders) to $603 billion a year, while slashing the budgets of the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) by around 37%.  In interviews and speeches, Trump and his subordinates have argued that the State Department is wasteful, focuses on the wrong priorities, and may even be inherently un-American.

Fortunately, America’s foreign ministry still has some friends in the U.S. Congress, including powerful Republican Senators like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and John McCain, all of whom spoke out against the proposed cuts.  Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pooh-poohed the enactment of such dramatic cuts, thereby providing tacit support for Senate Republicans to cross party lines and vote down any eventual Administration budget proposal that would gut the State Department.

America’s military establishment also rushed to defend their diplomatic brethren: 121 retired U.S. generals and admirals released an open letter to Congressional leaders asking them to fully fund America’s diplomatic and foreign aid initiatives.  In the letter, they cited earlier Congressional testimony by current U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who as an active-duty general in 2013 said: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Given that Congress has the final say over budgetary matters in the U.S., the State Department will probably survive budget season with its funding mostly intact.  But the politics surrounding Trump’s budget proposal are distracting attention from a different way in which the Trump administration is hobbling the work of America’s foreign ministry.  According to DiploPundit.net, a website which closely follows the inner workings of the State Department, only 4 of the ministry’s 39 most senior positions have been filled by the Administration thus far.  To a certain extent, this reflects the normal practice of new incoming administrations asking for the resignation of all senior management in order to staff Foggy Bottom with their own people.  But by historical standards, Trump has been incredibly slow in naming staffers to key positions, nor does he seem to be allowing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to simply appoint whoever he wishes either.  The same startling degree of inaction has also carried over to the State Department’s sister agencies, such as USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which together oversee the bulk of America’s foreign assistance.  Trump has not yet seen fit to appoint a single senior individual to either agency.

It deeply cripples the ability of federal agencies to act in a meaningful way when their topmost administrators are only in an acting capacity.  Not only can new policies and priorities not be enacted, but it also makes it more difficult for agencies to attract top-level talent moving forward and contributes to an overall loss of institutional memory.  Even day-to-day activities suffer when there is no clear leadership at the top: for decades the State Department has held a near-daily press briefing where reporters can ask for the opinion of America’s foreign ministry on issues from around the world.  Since President Trump took office on January 20th, the State Department has held only four.

At this point, it seems like keeping the State Department on the back foot by holding up the appointment of senior officials is a deliberate move on the part of the Trump administration.  And since appointments are purely a Presidential prerogative, there is little Congress can do to change the situation.  For a State Department already used to operating on a shoestring budget mentality, it looks like a grim year ahead.

(See also my previous post on the State Department in the Age of Trump.)