Diplomatic Practices

“The success or failure of a country’s foreign policy and its ability to preserve peace will depend upon the reliability of the diplomat’s reports.” – Hans Morgenthau

How do diplomats learn about the world?  How do their bureaucratic, social, and epistemic practices shape what they think, say, and write?  These are important questions at the heart of the IR sub-field of Diplomatic Studies.

In a paper, Jeremie Cornut and I approached these questions by employing an unusual set of primary documents: the 250,000+ U.S. State Department diplomatic cables released by the whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks in 2010.  The documents scholars a large, unvarnished, publicly accessible, and searchable set of diplomatic documents.  I hand-coded a sample of 408 cables along several dimensions to study how contemporary U.S. diplomats both learn and write about the countries they are posted to.

Here’s the money chart:

Chart 1

It shows that, at least in our sample, American diplomats rely heavily on local elites for knowledge about the country they are posted to, and secondarily on other foreign diplomats/bureaucrats posted in that country.  Far less frequently used are local non-elites and direct observation.  References to historical and sociological knowledge are relatively rare, with American diplomats seemingly having an implicit “Big Men” view of politics where outcomes are determined by individuals at the very top of society.  (Equally rare are references to media reports, although during our participant-observation we observed American diplomats eagerly consuming local media, suggesting that what may be happening is that they are unwilling to attribute their knowledge to the local morning newspaper.)

Other short takes on American diplomacy that also draw from the WikiLeaks cables can be found here and here.