Oldies But Goodies: Reading U.S. Diplomatic Cables with Students

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 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.

Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Evolution of the “Repertoire of Contention”

Way back in April 2018, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies at Jindal Global University hosted a day-long workshop to revisit Dr. King’s legacy.  The Centre kindly invited me to speak at the workshop, and the contributions of speakers were recently published in the December 2018 issue of Delhi-based monthly magazine Seminar.

My contribution examined how King, Mahatma Gandhi, and the contemporary American left all attempted to use innovative protest tactics to change the “repertoire of contention,” a term sociologists use to refer to the set of actions most individuals in a society recognize qua protest tactics.  If you’re interested, you can find the whole long piece on my Academia.edu page, but I’m excerpting a portion of it here because I think IR scholars and students aren’t sufficiently familiar with the term.

Happy 2019, everyone!

*************

In both the cases of the Indian independence movement and the American civil rights movement, the protesters ultimately proved successful by combining savvy media courtship with innovative,  powerful, and non-violent protest techniques.  In one of his last published pieces, Dr. King wrote at length about the importance for black protesters to become “creative dissenters” (“creative” appears 9 times in the essay). This notion of breaking down the apathy of the audience via the  popularization of novel forms of political protest was central to the missions of both Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King. Today, sociologists refer to the same idea with the term the repertoire of contention.”  This concept, first developed by Charles Tilly, asks the question: how do you recognize a given action as a form of political protest? How do you know if something you see is a political protest or not?
While this may seem like an easy question, it is not always. For instance, I recall an evening when I was studying abroad in Buenos Aires during my university years. I was in my host family’s apartment when suddenly a terrible racket could be heard in the street below.  I looked out the window and saw a long procession of people walking along banging on pots as loud as they could.  “What in the world was this?”, I thought to myself. My host family could tell that I was very confused, and they told me that this was a cacerolazo, a form of grassroots political  protest common in Latin America where people try to direct attention to a political issue by, at a set time, collectively making as much noise as they can using household objects.
A much more chilling example is given in the chart below from the work  of sociologist Michael Biggs. It shows how suicide began catching on as a form of political protest in the early 1960s. In particular, self-immolation was pioneered as a protest tactic by Buddhist monks against the draconian South Vietnamese government, and has stayed in the worldwide repertoire of contention so forcefully that even in 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi wished to make a statement about economic injustice in Tunisia, he chose the immediately recognizable form of setting himself on fire, thereby helping to ignite the Arab Spring.
https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/files/2016/07/2-2.jpg

Did We Almost All Die in November 1983?

ss20

For years now I’ve been telling my students that the closest the United States and the Soviet Union came to using nuclear weapons against each other was during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  But a new book by British television-producer-cum-historian Taylor Downing has convinced me that perhaps the closest the world came to an exchange of nuclear weapons was on November 9th, 1983.  Does that date not ring any special bells for you?  That’s precisely what makes Downing’s 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink such a frightening and unsettling read.

Downing begins by ably chronicling how US-Soviet relations reached a nadir during the first three years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency (1981-1983).  On the American side, the Reagan administration kept upping the Cold War ante: giving harsh speeches denouncing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”; pursuing new weapons systems that threatened to completely upend the existing strategic balance of power; and evincing little interest in conducting normal diplomatic relations with the USSR.  On the Soviet side, its top leadership was “geriatric,” sick, and increasingly paranoid.  Soviet premiere Yuri Andropov spent most of his time in office in a hospital bed hooked up to a dialysis machine in a highly guarded military hospital.

The Kremlin’s mistrust of the West was fed by a KGB intelligence network that had strong incentives to tell its masters what they wanted to hear, as opposed to what the KGB actually believed to be true.  Beginning in 1981, the Soviets launched “Operation RYaN,” a worldwide spying program designed to spot any clues that the US and its NATO allies were preparing for a surprise attack against the Eastern Bloc.  While this option was never seriously considered by the Reagan administration, Downing shows how over the course of 1983 the Soviet leadership interpreted many US actions as preparations for war.  For example, following the October 23rd terrorist attack on the US Marines barracks in Beirut, all US military facilities around the world went on a heightened state of alert as a precaution.  But the Soviets ascribed this worldwide increase in US military readiness not to the terrorist bombing, but instead to preparations for a surprise attack.  Similarly, another key indicator that the KGB tracked was the amount of communications traffic between Washington and London, on the grounds that if NATO were gearing up for war there would be an increase in contact between the US and its most important ally.  At the end of October, communications traffic between Washington and London spiked off the charts… but Soviet analysts did not connect this uptick to the fact that the US had just suddenly invaded the former British colony of Grenada, much to the consternation and vociferous protests of Margaret Thatcher and her government.

Matters came to a head during early November, as NATO began its annual Able Archer military exercises from its headquarters in Brussels.  The Soviet leadership became genuinely convinced that that year’s exercise—Able Archer 83—was merely a ploy, cover for the surprise all-out nuclear assault that the West had been organizing.  As the West’s practice war games reached their apex, the Soviets went to their highest level of military preparedness: the top leadership descended into bunkers deep underground; fighter jets were pre-positioned on tarmacs with their engines left running, capable of being airborne within 3 minutes; the Soviet Navy left port and took up its battle stations; and mobile ballistic missile launchers were instructed to leave their bases, disperse across the Russian countryside, and stand by for orders to launch their deadly payloads.

In the end, the long night of November 9th, 1983 passed without any nuclear missiles being launched.  Able Archer 83 quietly concluded without incident two days later, and slowly the Soviets relaxed their guard.  But for Downing the kicker is that the West had absolutely no idea at the time of how afraid the Soviets were.  What was just another pretty routine week in Brussels and Washington had been experienced as near-existential terror in Moscow, but no one in either the CIA or the Pentagon realized it.

It wasn’t until 1990 that the first reports began to circulate in American intelligence circles of how close the November 1983 war-scare had come to becoming a reality, and not until 1996 that the CIA commissioned an internal review of the episode.  Nowadays senior American intelligence official like Robert Gates agree that the inability of the CIA to pick up on the signs of extreme panic that had gripped the Soviet leadership in 1983 was an immense intelligence failure: “We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.”

All of this of course makes for very timely reading today, as a new American administration casually insults foreign countries, refuses to engage in the day-to-day work of diplomacy, plays politics with the findings of the intelligence community, and engages in needless bellicosity.  But while Downing nods in this direction at the very end of his book, the main strength of his work lies in rendering this era of the Cold War in vivid, engaging prose combined with excellent historical insights.  Downing doesn’t write like an academic at all, and I very much mean that as a compliment.  He’s particularly adept at putting disparate historical events all into the same narrative; he shows how different episodes like the downing of Korean Airlines flight 007 or Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit of London in December 1984 all interconnect.  All in all, 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink is an excellent piece of historical writing perfect for students and the general public; it’s well worth your time if you’re interested in either the Cold War, nuclear weapons, or espionage.

The Four Questions I Get Asked About E-Sports

I’ve now twice had a chance to give a talk to some aspiring sports lawyers about the continuing growth of e-sports.  I’ve noticed that when discussing e-sports, I tend to get asked the same few questions, so I thought I’d jot down my current answers here.

1)  Are e-sports a sport?

Well, it depends on how you define a sport.  Do you have a minimalist definition, which usually says something like “a sport is any type of competitive yet recreational activity centered around human skill,” in which case e-sports can safely be said to be sports, alongside activities such as chess, poker, billiards, bowling, curling, and competitive eating?  Or are you a maximalist, holding out for a definition that would also require that a sport have elements of significant physical exertion, fast reflexes, and major teamwork?  (For an extended discussion of these and other criteria, see this scholarly paper by Jenny et al. 2016).

Personally, I don’t think the question matters.  If it looks like a sport, walks like a sport, and quacks like a sport, it’s a sport.  Consider the following: more people (60 million) watched the finals of the League of Legends Worlds tournament in November than watched the most recent finals of the MLB’s World Series (28 million) or the NBA finals (24 million).  Professional e-sports players have agents, coaches, analysts, physical trainers, and nutritionists.  And they compete in tournaments where the prize pool can run in the tens of millions of USD (the prize pool for a major pro golf tournament in the US typically runs between $10 and $12 million; the prize pool for Dota 2‘s The International 2017 was $24.7 million).

Basically, if there are player associations, teams, tournaments, umpires, professional dispute arbitrators, production crews, videographers, play-by-play announcers, color commentators, translators, hair and make-up people, grueling practice schedules, and hundreds of millions of fans, how are e-sports not sports?

2)  What’s the appeal of e-sports?

For the most part, fans of e-sports watch for the same reasons people watch “off-line sports” (the genius moniker e-sports fans have bestowed on traditional sports).  There’s the appeal of rooting for your team; the gripping narrative arcs that emerge over time; the preternatural reflexes that are showcased; the intricate teamwork that is required to win at elite levels; and the combination of high-level strategy and split-second tactical decision-making that must be mastered to be successful.

In addition, there are probably two additional factors that contribute to the appeal of e-sports.  One is the sense of trendiness the whole enterprise retains–it’s cooler to be seen around campus wearing a Fnatic t-shirt than a Lakers jersey.  The final element, I would argue, is that e-sports taps into novel forms of masculinity that are resonating with young men around the world, but particularly in East Asia.  It’s relatively rare to find examples of Asian male athletes who can attract a global following.  There are several, of course (Jeremy Lin, Sachin Tendulkar, Manny Pacquiao, for starters), but the somewhat parochial appeal of many Asian sports combined with the continued marketing dominance of U.S. and European sports makes it difficult for young Asian athletes to break out onto the world stage.  Or at least that was the case until the advent of e-sports, which is allowing young South Korean athletes like Flash or Faker to become household names for millions.  This strong presence of East Asian athletes in most e-sports is contributing to the emergence of potentially less aggressive and “macho” models of masculinity.  It’s important to remember that this ongoing transformation is still occurring in an all-male space—-there are currently zero professional female players in most e-sports–and I don’t want to downplay the widespread sexism, misogyny, and homophobia prevalent in the e-sports world.  But from my perspective there does seem to be a widespread shift in the type of masculinity an athlete is expected to perform.

Contrast, for instance, these two recent hype videos, the first from halfway through the recent League of Legends tournament, the other previewing the 2017 NFL Superbowl match-up.*  While both videos attempt to depict their athletes as cool, powerful, motivated, and skilled, I would argue that the masculinity on display in the first video is markedly different: the men are younger, quieter (no player shouts in the first video), and less physically imposing (crossed arms and stoic faces are favored over dashes and leaps).  I suspect that ultimately it will be these boyish, bespectacled, beardless-yet-immaculately-coifed, and occasionally rotund young men who will go on to reshape our image of what an athlete is in the coming decade, in part because they seem so much more relatable to fans who live increasingly sedentary lives.

3)  Why do some countries have well-developed e-sports scenes while others don’t?

Some countries have very well-developed e-sports scenes, with numerous players, teams, and fans.  Other countries do not.  While some of this variation can be explained on demographic grounds, much of the rest remains a mystery.

There are some basic variables that explain why e-sports are bigger in some countries than others.  All things being equal, we would expect countries with faster internet rates, higher disposable incomes (to be able to afford fast broadband connections), youthful populations, and greater amounts of leisure time to both play and spectate e-sports more.  Accordingly, rich countries with fast Internet and lots of leisure time like South Korea, Taiwan, Sweden, and Denmark have well-developed e-sports scenes, despite relatively older populations.  E-sports are also strong in the United States and China, two countries with large youth bulges, booming tech sectors, and governments which are actively lending their support to the nascent industry.  (In the U.S. this has taken the form of official recognition of e-sports athletes for visa purposes, while China has gone further by integrating e-sports into its national sports training academies and setting up an official national team in 2015.  Analysts note that China seems to have decided to highlight its strength in e-sports as part of its “soft power” outreach to the rest of the world.)

If we were to use our basic variables to predict the relative strength of each country’s e-sports scene, we’d quickly discover a number of outliers—countries located either very above or below the regression line.  I suspect some countries which would be plotted well above their predicted scores might include Brazil (dominant in CS:GO), Vietnam (where a TV station airs e-sports full-time), and the Philippines (with strong Dota 2 teams).

Conversely, I expect we would find Australia and Mexico to be punching below their weight.  Also worth considering is the case of Japan, whose e-sports scene lags far behind East Asian peers like South Korea, China, and Taiwan.  A while back Bloomberg ran an article examining why e-sports aren’t more prominent in Japan, given Japanese young people’s love of most things digital.  Fascinatingly, the article advanced a path-dependency argument, proposing that the current disinterest stems largely from an obscure piece of legislation from the 1980s that defined illegal gambling in an overly broad way.  (The law has just been repealed.)

Perhaps the country whose e-sports deficit I’m most interested in understanding at the moment is India’s.  Yes, India’s Internet is slow and unreliable, and yes, there’s a cultural taboo against playing video games.  But if you consider India’s massive youth population, you’d think it would have a far more developed e-sports scene.  A Taiwanese team once managed to win the LoL Worlds Tournament, but India, with 56 times the population, isn’t home to a single professional LoL team.  Some online commentators blame India’s under-representation on an early Indian e-sports tournament held in Noida in 2012 that at the very least was quite poorly organized and at the worst was a deliberate scam.  But while it’s true that the fiasco may have “dragged [the Indian e-sports scene] five years back,” I feel like there must be other factors at play which I don’t fully grasp as yet.  Hopefully recent investments of money in the Indian e-sports scene can shake it out of its present lethargy.

4)  Is there anything uniquely different about e-sports qua sports?

The International Olympic Committee has said it is open to considering including e-sports events in future Olympics.  Does this mean that e-sports and offline sports are fundamentally the same?  Or are there unique aspects to e-sports without precedent in traditional sports?

Consider, for instance, this list Forbes published about ten emerging legal issues related to e-sports.  For the most part, the article simply lists legal issues that apply to any professional sport: the importance of well-structured contracts; the need for appropriate revenue-sharing to keep leagues, team owners, and players all content; the perennial difficulty of obtaining visas for foreign players.  There’s nothing really new or distinctive here (except perhaps the point that existing sports stadiums are often ill-suited to displaying e-sports in their best light, which may require new types of infrastructure to be built).  Similarly, a lot of the scandals that have already occurred in the e-sports world will be familiar to fans of offline sports: match-fixing; illegal gambling; young players trying to skirt minimum-age requirements; pervasive racism; etc.

But there are a few genuinely novel aspects to e-sports that will require athletes, fans, and regulators to adopt new practices and attitudes in the coming years.  Unsurprisingly, most stem from the virtual nature of the software systems that undergird e-sports.  There are several I could discuss, such as how e-sports will deal with the existence of in-game bugs, but in the interest of space let me focus on just one, illustrative example: the frequency with which the rules change in e-sports compared to offline sports.

Consider that the Laws of Cricket were codified in 1788 and have largely remained the same since then, with only a few minor revisions.  In contrast, as of mid-March 2018, League of Legends has had over 267 significant changes to its rules since its creation in 2009 (see the complete list of these “patches” here).  This is a difference of orders of magnitude!  Freed of any hard-to-change physical components (like the cleats, balls, nets, goalposts, and fields of soccer) and with total control over their IP (whereas no one “owns” soccer, even if it is governed by FIFA), the game companies that own the software that enables e-sports have shown no compunctions about constantly tinkering with their products, ceaselessly altering them to encourage certain types of behavior, prohibit others… or sometimes for seemingly no reason whatsoever.  This can be infuriating for professional teams, who often find that strategies and techniques they have carefully prepared and honed are deliberately invalidated by the game’s developers, as happened to Alliance’s “rat Dota” strategy circa 2013 and the use of “lane swap” tactics by many North American LoL teams shortly before the 2016 Worlds Tournament.  Defenders of the frequent rule changes argue that they help keep e-sports fresh and “balanced;” to succeed in e-sports, pros must constantly innovate and adapt rather than rely on the same strategies.  Whether or not that’s a compelling argument, there’s also a cost to spectators as well: because the rules of the games change so often, casual fans who are not constantly keeping up may find the sport nigh unrecognizable if they revisit it after an absence of several months or a year.  Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer for how often the rules of e-sports should change, but it is unquestionably a significant difference in comparison to offline sports, and one which is tied to the virtual nature of the underlying software.

As e-sports continue developing and becoming ever more popular in the decades to come, players, fans, owners, coaches, and game developers alike will collectively have to determine how best to govern and oversee this emerging form of competition.

 

* I couldn’t easily find online the equivalent video for the most recent Superbowl LII.

The Koreans Are At It Again…

For the 2016 Summer Olympics, the New York Times made some beautiful charts displaying which countries have dominated which Olympic sports over time.  You should really check out all the charts for yourself here, but just to make things easier here are two of them:

Total Medals Across All Sports

(My goodness was East Germany a sporting powerhouse during the Cold War, especially compared to West Germany, which had four times its population–16 million vs. 63 million in 1990!!!)

At the level of individual sports, the dominance of specific countries is even more clear-cut.  Here’s the chart for the medals just in long-distance running events (the 5K, the 10K, and the marathon):

long-distance-running

Ethiopia and Kenya nowadays account for well over half the medals in these sports, although that honor used to go to Finland (of all places) during the interwar period.

This relationship between sport and nationalism, about a country performing well on the international stage is important to a lot of people, which is why some governments are willing to spend $7.2 million in training and support for each Olympic medal their athletes bring home.

Entering into this potent mix of nationalism, money, and athletics are the new e-sports (about which I’ve written here previously and will again shortly).  One thing that’s interesting thus far in the brief history of international e-sports competition is that it’s not the usual suspects bringing in the loot.  Over-generalizing somewhat, the U.S. and Russia tend to be conspicuously absent from elite global tournaments, which are instead usually dominated by the South Koreans and the Chinese.  Indeed, in the ongoing League of Legends Worlds 2017 tournament, for a remarkable *third* year in a row the two finalists are Korean teams, ensuring a Korean threepeat regardless of the outcome of the matches that will be played in the sold-out “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing on November 4th.

As my own just-updated-but-much-less-pretty-than-the NYT‘s graph shows, this isn’t because more Korean teams are qualifying for the World Championship, but rather because of simply outperforming teams from other countries during the tournament itself:

Geographic Origins Chart

The last aspect of this story to consider is that the International Olympics Committee, with its finger in the wind, has just formally offered to consider e-sports for inclusion in the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics and beyond.  Now, if I’m the next South Korean minister for culture and sports (not the one that was recently convicted of perjury as part of the corruption investigation into now-ousted President Park), I’ve got to figure that for a tiny fraction of the £350 million the British spent acquiring their medal haul in the Rio Olympics, I can simply lobby the IOC to include as many e-sports in future Olympics as possible.  The medals should simply drop into my country’s lap, although only time will tell…

The Rise of a New Regulatory Power in the East?

One form of power states can have in global politics is regulatory power (also sometimes called market power).  The idea is that if your state contains a large, rich domestic market, you can derive influence over other parts of the world eager to gain access to it.  For instance, the United States is by far the largest market in the world for pharmaceuticals, which gives decisions taken by the U.S.’ Food and Drug Administration a significant international impact.  Pharmaceutical companies from all over the world have lobbyists in Washington D.C. who carefully scrutinize the agency’s every move (in fact, Big Pharma is the industry that spends the most on federal lobbying).

Scholars of the European Union (EU) in particular have seized upon the idea of regulatory power.  Most international observers agree that the EU is a powerful actor on the global stage, but few agree as to why.  The EU doesn’t have the most jaw-dropping military in the world (as Donald Trump seems to have recently discovered, the U.S. accounts for the bulk of NATO’s combat readiness – one NATO estimate claims that US defense expenditures effectively represent 72% of the Alliance’s overall defense spending).  And while the EU collectively provides just over half of the Official Development Assistance in the world, claims that it is a significant “civilian power” have yet to attract many adherents.  Others argue that the EU’s power stems from its consistent commitment to human rights and other global norms, but critics retort that the EU is just as hypocritical as any other great power when its interests are on the line.

All of which leaves some EU-philes to fall back on the size of its market and argue that the EU’s main influence in the world comes in the form of regulatory power.  And it is true that the EU’s Common Market is the richest market in the world, even with the U.K. poised to leave in a few years’ time.  Industries in developing countries sometimes live and die as the result of internal EU regulatory whims.  On topics like vehicle emissions standards and food safety regulations, when the EU speaks, the world listens (especially at places like the WTO).

As with so many other things, however, the emergence of China as the major new economic power threatens to disrupt this regulatory status quo.  You can see it in lots of places (for example, regulations surrounding renewable energy), but recently it’s become apparent to me in an unusual corner of the world economy: digital games.

Both the Chinese government as well as Chinese society more broadly are worried about their children spending too much time playing digital games, particularly on mobile phones.  In 2008, China became the first country to officially declare internet addiction a clinical disorder, and the country’s relationship with digital gaming has only become more complicated in the years since.

For instance, earlier this year the Chinese government forced all digital game companies that release games in the PRC to publicly report the formulas that calculate their in-game item drop rates.  For context, in many kinds of digital games, you get rewards for accomplishing various in-game tasks: perhaps a better sword or a cool-looking suit of armor if it’s an RPG, or perhaps a unique color scheme for your character in an MMO.  Game makers discovered decades ago that having an element of randomness to these rewards kept people more engaged (and playing longer) than if it was a simple matter of doing X leading to Y.  Accordingly, semi-randomly generated items that “drop” when the player is successful remains a core mechanic for many of the world’s leading digital games.

The Chinese government is now forcing game makers to publicly reveal the rates at which such items are generated. While the government’s announcement didn’t give a lot of detail about its rationale for the move, most observers agree that the main goal is to try and limit excessive gaming: if players can do the math themselves and realize that it will on average take them dozens or even hundreds of hours of performing a same repetitive action to obtain a given piece of loot, they might just give up on the whole thing.  (Or they might just decide to buy the desired loot at the in-game store using real-world currency, but that’s a separate problem.)

Chinese gaming companies are increasingly paying attention to these signals emanating from Beijing.  Last month, the world’s biggest digital game maker, Tencent Holdings,  took the unprecedented move of voluntarily restricting how many hours a day its younger users could play King of Glory, the leading mobile game in China.  Henceforth, players younger than 12 will be restricted to only one hour of playtime per day, and those between 12 and 18 will be limited to two hours a day.  (In addition, the age-verification system, which is already linked to real-world identities, will be beefed up).

Why would a publicly-traded company interested in its bottom line volunteer to limit access to one of its most profitable products?  Perhaps because the influential state-run newspaper People’s Daily had recently run a slew of editorials against the game, calling it “poison,” with a predictable drop in the company’s share price.

Overall, the big takeaway here is that the Chinese government is displaying a willingness to directly regulate a global media industry in a way that used to largely be the domain of Western nations.  What we are witnessing emerging in China right now has the potential to re-shape the global entertainment industry in a way not seen since the rise of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its film ratings system in the 1930s.  With digital games having overtaken movies in terms of both their sales and cultural salience, China is taking the lead on regulating an industry that promises to be one of the most dynamic of the 21st century, with consequences that will likely ripple out for decades to come.  Stay tuned… and don’t spend too much time grinding for that loot.

 

Painting Nationalism in the 19th Century

Three places, three artists, a 75-year time span, one recurring artistic motif: depicting an entire nation through a female figure.

Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple

Eugène Delacroix, “La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple” [Liberty Leading the People], 1830.

American_progress

John Gast, “American Progress,” 1872.

Bharat_Mata

Abanindranath Tagore, “Bharat Matā” [Mother India], 1905.

And the legacies of all three depictions, all of which resonated widely at the time they were produced, continue to produce effects over a hundred years later, for both good and ill.

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

United_States_Department_of_State_headquarters
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.)