Friday, December 3, 2010

Diplomatic cables: "Is the Pulitzer board reading this stuff?"

Christopher Beam over at Slate writes about embassy cables as literature.

Is the Pulitzer board reading this stuff? The disclosure by WikiLeaks of 250,000 diplomatic cables this week doesn't just shed light on international issues like what to do about Iran's nuclear ambitions or a collapsing North Korea. The leaks also illustrate the art of cable-writing itself. True, most of the documents don't rise above stenography—diplomat X met with foreign leader Y to talk about Z. But at their best, these cables read like their own literary genre, with an identifiable sensibility and set of conventions.

When it comes to the style of diplomatic cables, context matters. Like journalists or novelists, diplomats are writing for a market. Cables are meant to brief the diplomatic and military communities on a particular issue, whether it's Afghan power broker Ahmed Wali Karzai or Muslim unrest in France. But they're also written to impress the boss back home. State Department officials receive thousands of cables a year. If you're a foreign service officer stationed in Molvania who wants to stand out, writing a colorful cable could be your ticket. Diplomacy requires observation, intelligence, and a keen understanding of people and their motivations. Cables are an opportunity to show off.
Part sociology, part travel writing, the cable uses the techniques of journalism to draw conclusions about policy.
Spinning narratives is an important skill for diplomats. Aside from storytelling as a social grace, they must be able to communicate how other countries fit into the American narrative and vice versa. Stories help highlight shared histories and mutual interests.
Stories are especially useful when dealing with hypotheticals, as diplomats constantly do. They can show that one event leads to another—how, say, Saudi Arabia might pressure Iran to back down from its nuclear ambitions. The ability to tell a convincing narrative may be the difference between strengthening an alliance and weakening it. If the WikiLeaks cables are any indicator, this job is in capable hands.

Read the whole thing here.

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