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.)
In January 2010, a message went out from the State Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. to every U.S. embassy around the world. In this message, the State Department instructed each of its embassies to conduct a formal diplomatic démarche with their host governments on a pressing topic the State Department had recently grown quite concerned with: texting while driving. In practice, this meant that somebody from the U.S. Embassy would have to go in person to find a counterpart in the host country’s government, explain to them how concerned the United States was becoming with the problem of “distracted driving,” ask them what policies/laws their country had concerning texting while driving, and then report that information back to Washington.
At first, one might wonder why American diplomats all around the world had to scramble to set up governmental meetings about distracted driving–does the State Department really have nothing better to do? In the State Department’s defense, however, traffic accidents are a big deal everywhere, and are one of the leading causes of human death. It’s estimated that there are about “1.24 million traffic deaths a year – nearly triple the UN’s estimate of annual murders, and twenty times the estimated annual total of deaths in wars.” The World Health Organization is quite concerned, noting that traffic accidents are the single most important cause of death among those aged 15-29 worldwide, and further estimating that traffic accidents cost the planet about 3% of global GDP annually. So it’s very likely that the impulse behind the U.S.’s worldwide démarche was humanitarian in nature. Still, while the WHO’s most recent report does note that “distracted driving is a serious and growing threat to road safety,” it nevertheless appears as seventh out of seven reforms countries should undertake to improve road users’ behavior (behind things like increasing motorcycle helmet use, increasing seat-belt usage, and reducing drunk driving), suggesting that road safety experts do not accord it topmost priority at the moment.
More broadly, the démarche illustrates a disturbing one-size-fits-all diplomatic mentality, as well as some of the perils of America’s hegemonic influence. The WikiLeaks-hosted Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy records the responses that 62* U.S. embassies sent back to Washington after having completed their missions: everywhere from Bangui to Budapest, Sana’a to Seoul. And reading between the lines, it’s pretty easy to get a sense of how many American embassies, particularly in the developing world, thought their instructions from Washington were rather ridiculous and very poorly tailored to the actual conditions in their host countries. Some expressed their dissatisfaction via arch terseness, whereas others were more than happy to explain in great detail how their host governments might have more pressing matters to deal with than texting while driving laws:
Many roads in Chad are so deeply pot-holed, or function so much like sand-traps, that they are suitable only for travel via camel, horse or donkey. There are few police on public thoroughfares except in large towns, few hospitals to which to take accident victims, no real ability outside the capital to enforce existing driver’s license or vehicle maintenance laws, and little formal driver’s training. Driver’s licenses can be obtained in many locations through bribery. Regulations on how vehicles may be used are spotty: it is not against the law to pilot a motorcycle with four riders, or to carry a 50-gallon drum filled with gasoline on the back of a motorcycle and a live goat on the handlebars. Transport vehicles are often overloaded to the point where they collapse under their cargo, and passenger vehicles designed for eight routinely carry 20 inside and one or more hanging out the open doors. Recent laws ban carrying more than 20 passengers in the open back of pick-up or transport trucks unless seats and an overhead cover are installed. The 1980-era Peugeots that serve as taxis in N’Djamena are know euphemistically as “neuf morts,” as they are assumed to kill an average of nine people when they crash. Chad recently followed Cameroon in passing motorcycle helmet laws, but many of those who possess helmets carry rather than wear them when they ride.
Taking a step back, very few other countries around the world besides the U.S. would attempt to unilaterally conduct a worldwide governmental information campaign on this scale, particularly unprompted and for an issue that is unquestionably within the remit of countries’ domestic politics. For better and worse, this is the unique role the United States continues to play in global politics, and the U.S.’s influence is such that countries have to pay attention when it speaks. In Tanzania, the démarche seems to have been conducted at the very high level of a direct meeting between the U.S. Ambassador and the Tanzanian Foreign Minister–one can only wonder at what was going through the Minister’s mind during the meeting…
* Because of the semi-random nature in which the Cablegate cables were collected, only some of the cable traffic in a given year was recorded and leaked. Presumably all or almost all U.S. diplomatic missions in the world undertook the démarche as requested.