In the “Deciphering Diplomatic Writing” class I’m teaching at George Washington University this semester, my students and I spend a fair amount of time reading U.S. State Department cables available through WikiLeaks’ “Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy“. Most are from the 1970s, but there’s also many from the 2000s. Here are some of the funnier entries I’ve spotted in recent days:
The U.S. State Department would like you to know that Disney’s Cinderella is “an outstanding film.”*
Which is worse here: the egregious “–as a Harvard man–” or the casual throw-away of “internal violence is rising to unprecedented levels just now” to describe Indira Gandhi’s India not long before the Emergency?**
* The actual history here seems pretty interesting. Five years after Nixon’s “opening to China,” before the U.S. had fully opened an embassy in Beijing and was instead only working out of a “Liaison Office” without sufficient office space, the United States Information Agency was already organizing relatively large-scale public diplomacy campaigns in urban parts of China. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger seems to have personally followed up on the Cinderella film screening (see here and here).
** I haven’t yet been able to figure out who Gandhi would have had working for her who had spent time at Harvard.
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 Tanzania—not 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.)
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.)
HippoReads.com has kindly published a piece of mine about how the names we give to different regions of the world matter. I’m reprinting it here in case it would be of interest to this blog’s readers.
In the 1990s, Australian policymakers faced a serious problem. They were increasingly being sidelined in important decisions in the rapidly growing regions of Southeast and East Asia. As a mostly white, settler nation, Australia was left out of Southeast Asia’s preeminent regional grouping, ASEAN, despite its geographic proximity. And on the occasions when Australian politicians and diplomats were able to participate in pan-Asian gatherings, they ran headfirst into the exclusionary “Asian values” discourses of leaders such as Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. Isolated and peripheral, Australia risked missing out on one of the greatest economic booms in world history.
Under Foreign Minister Gareth Evans (1988-1996), Australian diplomats deliberately sought to counter these trends by promoting the idea of an “Asia-Pacific region,” whose membership would depend less on culture than on geography. They figured that while some might deny that Australia was an “Asian” country, it would be much harder to refute its location in the Pacific Ocean. Significant rhetorical, financial, and institutional resources were devoted to facilitating the emergence of the new concept, and to provide it with an institutional anchor Australia championed the newly-formed Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping.
Not all of the aims of the Australian Foreign Ministry ultimately succeeded. For instance, APEC subsequently lost a lot of its initial momentum and has been eclipsed by rival forums, such as the ASEAN+ formats. But the concept of an “Asia-Pacific region,” which Australia naturally belongs to, has firmly taken hold and seems uncontroversial today (see the figure at the end of this article). Ultimately, a seemingly innocuous name change helped Australia to achieve a deeper level of economic and political integration with its neighbors than ever before. Indeed, the invention of an “Asia-Pacific region,” practically out of whole cloth, was probably one of Australia’s most significant diplomatic feats in the 20th century.
The case of Australia in the 1990s has great relevance for Indian diplomacy today, but in an inverted fashion. Australia’s problem was that the country did not fit well into the existing regional frameworks, and it took significant resources to change that perception. India’s problem is that although it is already linguistically and geographically at the heart of an impressive region—the Indian Ocean region—it does not always avail itself of easy opportunities to ensure that things stay that way.
It is an incredible boon to Indian policymakers that the body of water between Cape Agulhas and the Straits of Malacca is referred to around the world as the Indian Ocean. Not only does it help keep India’s name at the forefront of people’s minds, it semantically signals that India has a preeminent role to play in shaping affairs everywhere from Maputo to Perth. While the appellation of the South China Sea grows more contested every year, there are currently no serious efforts to rename India’s ocean. But there could be some day! The relatively rapid invention of the “Asia-Pacific region” should remind Indian diplomats that without rhetorically and financially tending to the concept of an “Indian Ocean region,” it could conceivably be called “the West China Sea,” “the East African Ocean,” or even “the Bay of Pakistan” in a few decades’ time.
To its credit, the Modi government seems to recognize this, having embraced India’s role as an emerging naval power much more seriously than previous Indian governments. The Prime Minister has repeatedly spoken of India’s role in helping ensure “Security and Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR, a play on the Hindi word for “sea”). Military cooperation with other littoral states has increased significantly, and the Indian government is also helping the region’s small island states develop “blue economies” that make better use of the Ocean’s potential riches. Furthermore, Prime Minister Modi has wisely accorded the Indian Ocean region priority in his foreign travels, conducting state visits to Sri Lanka (the first visit by an Indian head of government in 28 years), the Seychelles (33 years), Australia (28 years), and Mauritius (although not the Maldives).
Still, there remain a great deal of low-hanging fruits that Indian diplomats are not picking. For instance, the Indian Ocean Commission (more usually referred to by its French name, Commission de l’Océan Indien) is a regional grouping comprised of Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles, and Réunion (an overseas region of France). Despite its SAGAR policy, India has never applied for membership or even observer status in the IOC; meanwhile, the European Union provides the Commission with millions of Euros every year and maintains significant influence in those countries.
A bigger prize is the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Founded in the mid-1990s at the instigation of South African President Nelson Mandela and Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, the organization is the closest entity the Indian Ocean has to a bona fide regional organization à la ASEAN or Mercosur. Today the organization has 20 members and conducts periodic meetings, but it has not lived up to the high hopes of its founders. Despite promising work in technical areas, like fisheries management and maritime search and rescue, IORA has not carved out a role for itself in helping to manage the region’s trade flows or political disputes. Perhaps part of the reason it has failed to capture the public imagination is that its meetings have been conducted only at the level of foreign ministers, at least until now. Indonesia, which currently holds the association’s rotating chair, will host a high-level summit of IORA in Jakarta in early March. The Prime Minister’s Office has yet to announce whether or not Mr. Modi will be in attendance. It would be a shame, however, if he did not go, given the rare opportunity to further promote the importance of the Indian Ocean region and highlight India’s role therein.
If India does not do more to shape its namesake region, others will happily step up to rechristen it, with unpredictable political and economic ramifications. The time to act is now. Already those wily Australian diplomats have for several years been hard at work on a new scheme: promoting a novel “Indo-Pacific region” which, conveniently, they would be at the heart of.
If 2016 has taught me anything, it’s the folly of making predictions. Accordingly, this post represents not a prediction about the future, but instead a way of thinking about how President-Elect Donald Trump seems to be approaching foreign policy and especially diplomacy as the January inauguration draws near.
Feminist thinkers have long used the phrase “The personal is political.” In an unintended way, this phrase arguably captures a great deal of Trump’s mindset. Many observers have noted Trump’s preference for people over institutions; he seems to put his trust in flesh-and-blood individuals over disembodied organizations, and loyalty and personal connections go a long way with him. Furthermore, while his own promises seem important to him (although perhaps selectively), policies, practices, and traditions he has not personally helped develop seem to hold little sway. All of this leads to a personalization of policy-making: an environment where Trump and a small, inner band of confidantes formulate policy on topics that directly matter to him while keeping established stakeholders at arm’s length.
It will of course not be the first time in American history that the Diplomat-in-Chief has evinced these tendencies: the Nixon White House was permeated by a thick atmosphere of paranoia, racism, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualism that even Trump and company will have trouble rivaling. (Those interested in India and desirous of a close-up look of the Nixon White House should pick up Gary Bass’ excellent The Blood Telegram.) And look, even that human-rights-abusing, genocide-enabling administration managed to generate a few foreignpolicy successes. So perhaps not all is lost.
Yet, personalizing American foreign policy opens the door to a wide range of potential pitfalls. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it can become difficult for third-party observers to separate the signal from the noise in highly personalized atmospheres, since there aren’t the lower echelons of the bureaucracy to consistently reinforce the desired message. Did Trump’s decision to accept a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president represent a drastic rethinking of America’s diplomatic stance towards the island? No one really knows (including perhaps Trump), because the policy is not broadly emanating from across the communications apparatus of the American state.
Making politics personal carries other risks. For instance, in a thoughtful articleBloomberg Businessweek discusses the heightened risks that Trump-branded real estate, particularly skyscrapers, are likely to face during his administration. Who should pay to secure these highly visible, newly prominent buildings? (For a map of their locations around the world, see here.)
One way increased personalization may be measurable in the near future could involve seeing if Trump nominates a larger-than-usual number of political appointees at the ambassadorial level. Over the past half-dozen administrations, the percentage of American ambassadors drawn from outside the State Department’s pool of career diplomats has varied between 26% and 38%, according to data maintained by the American Foreign Service Association. (For those curious, after several bungled nominations early on, the Obama administration ended up clocking in at around 30% political appointees over his two terms – which, depending on the exact data you use, is either the lowest or second-lowest number of political appointees by a modern 8-year president.)
A larger number of political appointees by the Trump Administration would signal a desire to bypass the State Department and keep its “experts” at bay, as well as political patronage on a larger-than-usual scale, even for Washington, D.C. Indeed, we’ve seen Trump advocate for political appointees like Anna Wintour (!?) in the past. And in an interesting twist, Trump is not limiting himself to nominating American ambassadors: he suggested a few weeks ago (via a tweet, of course) that he wouldn’t mind if the United Kingdom appointed former UKIP leader Nigel Farage as its ambassador to the United States.
Fortunately, there is probably a ceiling on how many political appointees Trump could name, if only because few well-heeled Americans are clamoring to be the U.S.’ top representative in Dushanbe.
This post is the first in an irregular series of blog posts titled “Surprising Findings in IR” which will highlight political science research that is counter-intuitive or unexpected.
I was at a dinner several weeks ago where a friend criticized the Obama administration, and Obama specifically, for issuing threats and then failing to back them up. “Obama keeps telling other countries not to do things, but then they do them and the U.S. does nothing in response. This emboldens our enemies and makes us look weak.”
Now, my goal here is not to engage in either a defense or a critique of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Instead, I’m interested in this prevalent idea that failing to carry out foreign policy threats causes a state to be perceived as weak or otherwise encourages its rivals. It turns out that there is a literature in IR that deals with precisely this topic: studies of credibility. And a major study within that literature that directly speaks to the topic at hand is Calculating Credibilityby Daryl Press.
In the book, Press examines the archival record of top-level leaders during several major crises in international politics: the “appeasement” crises that pitted Nazi Germany against France and the United Kingdom in the run-up to WWII; a number of instances during the early Cold War where the Soviets threatened war if the Western allies did not pull out of West Berlin; and that perennial favorite of IR scholars, the Cuban Missile Crisis. What did Press find digging around in all those archives?
The conventional wisdom holds that credibility depends on a country’s past behavior–its history of keeping and breaking commitments. Like people who keep their word, countries that keep their promises will be believed when they issue new assurances. And like people who casually break their promises, countries that renege on their commitments soon discover that their promises carry no weight. […]
This book argues that the conventional wisdom about credibility is wrong. A country’s credibility, at least during crises, is not driven by its past behavior but rather by power and interests. If a country makes threats it has the power to carry out–and an interest in doing so–those threats will be believed even if the country has bluffed in the past. […] When assessing credibility during crises, leaders focus on the “here and now,” not on their adversary’s past behavior. Tragically, those countries that have fought wars to build a reputation for resolve have wasted vast sums of money and, much worse, thousands of lives.
Find this hard to swallow? I invite you to take a close look at Press’ case studies, such as the West Berlin impasse, where fascinatingly senior officials never refer to the past even though the practically the exact same situation keeps playing out over and over again every few months. Instead, decision-makers myopically focused on the present, treating each new crisis on its own individual terms. Furthermore, Press notes the tragic irony that the same countries that themselves never consider others’ past behavior when assessing credibility nevertheless feel very strongly that maintaining their own credibility at all times is crucial, no matter the cost.
Now of course Press’s book is not the definitive final word on credibility (for the curious, see Daniel Drezner’s primer), but at least it might somewhat reassure those worried that Obama has frittered away America’s standing in the world. More generally, Press’ work shows us that relying on analogies and heuristics developed at the everyday level of interpersonal relations does not always translate upwards to the realm of states, international relations, and foreign policy. As easy as it is to do, anthropomorphizing the state can be quite misleading. There are significant differences between how we deal with our friends, colleagues, and children and how states interact with one another: the raw number of interactions, the time that elapses between interactions, the difficulty of sending clear signals from one state to another, the difference between a single individual’s memory and the diffuse and generally far less effective institutional memory of governments, etc. This same caution also applies to international economics, where one well-known fallacy is thinking that government finances are akin to household budgets (debunked here, here, here, here, and many other places on the Internet).