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Wikileaks: Diplomacy vs. Policy

Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010

Having skimmed a few more write-ups of the Wikileaks diplomatic cables release, I have to sign on with the consensus that the revelations offer a very reassuring inside view on American diplomacy. (Sam Roggeveen here, Andrew Sullivan here, and Fred Kaplan here. Update: And the EU Observer, citing European diplomats, here.)

For his part, Art Goldhammer is underwhelmed by this Le Monde summary of the dispatches sent by the U.S. Embassy in Paris regarding French President Nicolas Sarkozy, from both before and after his election to the presidency. Goldhammer rightly states that the account reveals relatively little that any close observer of French politics wouldn't already know. And yes, the cables do track pretty closely with my own analysis of Sarkozy's foreign policy and posture toward the U.S. For Goldhammer, that's a sign of the limits of U.S. diplomacy. I'd argue the contrary, especially when you correlate the assessments with the dates at which they were made, and would be far more alarmed if the U.S. Embassy in Paris diverged dramatically from Goldhammer's analysis and my own.

What's most striking, though, as Kaplan underlines, is that at a time when it's become cliché to talk about America's decline, U.S. diplomacy has proven itself to be pretty skilled at its primary tasks: developing the relationships necessary for keeping Washington well-informed and well-advised, and for effectively carrying out the policy directives Washington uses that information and advice to formulate.

Also striking is that, again, despite America's decline, our partners still look to Washington for leadership and solutions on problems that they can't solve -- with Saudi calls for a military strike against Iran being the notable example.

In fact, if there's one takeaway for me from what I've seen of the Wikileaks release (an admittedly limited sample), it's that, in many ways and in many locations, the foreign-based diplomatic corps seems to outperform the Washington-based policymakers.

Unfortunately, at the same time that the Wikileaks release has helped us discover the hidden asset represented by our diplomatic corps, it has also very likely handicapped its ability to carry out its function, at the very least in the short run as foreign interlocuters manage the fallout. Indeed, the most embarrassing element of the cables is not what their frankness -- which is to be expected in confidential correspondence -- reflects on U.S. diplomats, but rather what they reveal about foreign officials' interaction with those diplomats.

Again, the closeness of that interaction and the care taken in foreign capitals to cultivate and nurture the relationship with the U.S. Embassy speaks to the enormous power and influence that the U.S. continues to wield globally. If Nicolas Sarkozy and his entourage took care to court the American ambassador to Paris, to the point that he revealed his intention to run for the presidency a year before publicly announcing his candidacy, one can only imagine the kind of influence wielded by U.S. ambassadors in smaller and less-powerful countries.

In the long run, that is not likely to be dramatically impacted. But in the short run, U.S. diplomats are likely to be kept at a distance, to their and our detriment.