An expert's point of view on a current event.

U.S. Diplomats Aren’t Stupid After All

How WikiLeaks restored one journalist's faith in the State Department.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

As a journalist covering international affairs, I have long wondered: Are U.S. diplomats ignorant or lying? I have talked to countless numbers of them in dozens of countries in "on background" interviews, that staple of foreign reportage. Readers recognize a background interview by its citation of "a Western diplomat," and theoretically that anonymity frees the diplomat to talk frankly. But in practice, I’ve found that when that diplomat is American, the result is still often nothing more than warmed-over talking points, displaying a level of knowledge that suggests a cramming of the Wikipedia entry on the country in question. "Of course things could be better, but overall the situation is improving," they’ll say blandly, while I scribble "BLAH BLAH BLAH" in my notebook, hoping they can’t see it, to maintain the fiction that I’m interested in what they’re saying.

This is not the case with other countries’ diplomats. When I travel to a foreign capital, I will ask the U.S. Embassy there for a background briefing, but I know not to expect much from it. I’ve found it far more useful to set up meetings with the Europeans — Germans, French, or Swiss, especially. Those are the diplomats who will give you the real dirt: juicy details about corruption and political infighting and what nefarious schemes the Russians or Chinese (or Americans) are up to in the country. The difference is so striking that I long ago concluded that the Americans — the product of a Foreign Service selection process that encourages dutiful ladder-climbers rather than creative thinkers and then sends them out to be walled up in overprotected embassy compounds far from town — were just not as sharp as their wilier continental counterparts. (I exaggerate here slightly — I also have met very savvy American diplomats, including all of you who are reading this article right now.)

In any case, this is what I thought until I started reading the diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks has started making public. U.S. Foreign Service officers might not like their confidential correspondence aired in public, but overall, the cables portray them as smart and perceptive, and with no illusions about the countries they are dealing with.

This summer, I was in Kazakhstan on a reporting trip and arranged a background interview with Ambassador Richard Hoagland at the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Astana. Most observers of Kazakhstan agree that it is an autocratic state with a bit of "political reform" window dressing. Hoagland seemed to have a far more credulous take. He described the Parliament — which has only one party, that of President Nursultan Nazarbayev — as "relatively independent." Of the country’s beleaguered NGOs, he said: "For the most part, civil society here is growing and strong, and except for a few instances it operates quite freely." Although he also threw in some tepid criticisms, his overall tone was positive. Later, when I repeated the quotes to a representative of Kazakh civil society, he rolled his eyes.

I had interviewed Hoagland for a magazine article I’m working on, and after I got home and went through my notebook, so many of the quotes were anodyne that I wondered whether I could use them on the record. My intention was slightly devious: In my article, I wanted to set this guy up as a chump who naively believed the rhetoric Nazarbayev and his cronies were feeding him. So I emailed the embassy’s press officer and asked whether the ambassador would allow me to use these quotes with his name. And he agreed.

But in the two cables written by Hoagland that WikiLeaks has released, he certainly does not come off like a chump. "Corruption is endemic among Kazakhstani officialdom…. [T]hey’re stealing directly from the public trough," he wrote in a cable that portrays an ongoing so-called "anti-corruption campaign" as merely a means for settling intragovernmental scores. Another cable from Kazakhstan (written by a political-economic officer) snarkily describes the nouveau-riche lifestyles of the country’s leaders. One U.S. Embassy official spotted the country’s prime minister, Karim Massimov, popping into an Astana discothèque at 11:30 pm: "His companions quickly tired but Masimov remained, dancing alone and animatedly on the stage for another 15-20 minutes."

These don’t necessarily contradict what Hoagland told me. We didn’t talk much about corruption, and none of the documents leaked thus far discuss his perception of their political reforms. But the tone is certainly different. His description of Kazakhstan in his interview with me did not jibe with the reality of Kazakhstan. His cables do.

Many of the others also describe the world I know rather than the sterile world of diplomat-speak. One of my favorite cables of the recent release — a vivid account from a wedding in Dagestan — could have been a Slate dispatch. Others are really funny: calling Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin "Batman" and President Dmitry Medvedev "Robin," or the dry skewering of Prince Andrew’s boorish British pomposity among the Kyrgyz.

So why don’t U.S. diplomats usually talk like this? Tautologically, yes, talking like this is "undiplomatic." But the Kazakhs surely know they are corrupt and aren’t fooling anyone. Meanwhile, they are probably saying equally harsh things about the United States. So why can’t the Americans just sit down with the Kazakhs and say, "OK, you’re crude and corrupt, and we’re oafish neoimperialists. But you have things we want, and we have things you want. So let’s do business." Why wouldn’t that work?

My theory: It would work fine with the Kazakhs, but it’s the American people who would flinch at it. Perhaps not so much at frank talk about Kazakhstan, but about other, more high-profile countries with which the United States does business despite their dubious ethics — China or Saudi Arabia, for example. Americans like to believe in American exceptionalism, that the United States is a force for good around the world, not just another country pursuing its interests via geopolitical horse-trading. This is part of why there is such a visceral public backlash against WikiLeaks — because it lays bare U.S. diplomacy in all its blunt, unromantic reality.

Europeans are more comfortable with political reality, which is why their diplomats can speak more freely. Their U.S. counterparts, though, know this is distasteful to the people they represent, so they are more circumspect when they talk. With 99.9 percent of the WikiLeaks cables still yet to drop, the American people are going to learn a lot more about how their Foreign Service works. And if that means they can all start talking about their foreign policy like adults, that’s a good thing.

Joshua Kucera is the Caucasus editor of Eurasianet, based in Tbilisi.