Public Diplomacy vs. Private Diplomacy

Are American diplomats lying to reporters because they figure our citizens can't handle the truth?

In a New Atlanticist piece titled “WikiLeaks Show American Diplomats in Good Light,” I rounded up some analysis showing that the recently leaked diplomatic cables showed an American foreign service that is highly professional and insightful and argued that, to the extent the private and public diplomacy differed, it was necessary.

But Joshua Kucera has a slightly different take.  His title “U.S. Diplomats Aren’t Stupid After All” and subtitle (“How WikiLeaks restored one journalist’s faith in the State Department“) suggest otherwise but his compliments are decidedly backhanded.  Basically, his dealings with American diplomats had convinced him that they were mindless drones.

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.


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.

He notes in particular a briefing from Ambassador Richard Hoagland on Kazakhstan which seemed totally divorced from reality, portraying the corrupt autocracy as if it were more-or-less democratic and progressive.  Happily for Kucera, the cables displayed a different picture.

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.

Well, great. But why are American diplomats lying to American journalists in off-the-record sessions?

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.

See, I happen to find that troubling.   In “WikiLeaks Show American Diplomats in Good Light,” I defend misdirection when necessary to give leaders of these autocracies plausible deniability at home or in the region.  Further, one sometimes has to bite one’s tongue rather than offend distasteful leaders with whom alliance is necessary. And I recognize that, as an indirect result, this means giving a false public impression to Americans.   But that’s a far different thing that lying for the purpose of hiding from the American public just how corrupt the people we’re dealing with are.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    I don’t know what the diplomats of other countries think, but US diplomats are government employees working for the President of the United States, not gossip mongerers looking to score brownie points with reporters. They know whatever they say to reporters will eventually make it into the news. Like it or not, they have to support US policy. If they don’t they can quit and then say whatever they please. That they can express their true feelings in confidential cables back to Foggy Bottom is what I expect, but not in the open press.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @DC Loser: I don’t think they should reveal secret negotiations to reporters. But they shouldn’t lie to them, either.

    Nor, with some pretty rare exceptions for national security, government employees should not be in the business of lying to the American public. If the president’s policy in Kazakhstan is based on a lie, we sure as hell have a right to know that.

  3. John Burgess says:

    I think there are two determinative factors when it comes to the frankness with which an embassy officer will speak to a journalist: 1) the journalist and 2) the officer.

    Who is the journalist? Is he known to report what he’s told? Will he abide by the ground rules for ‘off the record’ or ‘background’ or ‘deep background’? Has he already written his story before he even got to the country and is seeking only confirmatory facts? Has he burned this officer or other embassy officers in the past? Does the journalist operate from an obvious agenda?

    Who is the officer? Is he both authorized and qualified to speak with a journalist? There are lots of officers whose job is focused on one narrow aspect of a country, say its trade or military. His speaking outside that aspect can often amount to no more than hearsay, what he picked up from other officers, what he read in the local media, what he understood from reading (or glossing) a cable.

    The bulk of my career in USIA and State was as an Information Officer. I was authorized, to varying extents depending on just what my position was, to speak with journalists. I could tell when a journalist was clueless on arrival and when he was working from his own talking points. If it were an utterly unknown journalist, I’d certainly be reticent about spilling the beans on whatever local dirt I happened to know. What’s he going to do with that information? Was he (or she) looking for the scoop that would make his/her career, and damn the costs and mess he left behind?

    My jobs tended to have me in the loop on most issues, at least to some degree. On some issues, particularly those concerning security, I was never going to trust a reporter with everything I knew. Never mind that some or all of that info was classified, if I couldn’t trust the reporter, he wasn’t going to be getting a whole lot. If a reporter evidenced no understanding of complexity, then he’d get the brief and oversimplified briefing that used short words. A known reporter, with a good record of following the rules and clear knowledge of the society and situation, on the other hand, might get several hours’ worth of discussion.

    On many issues, reporters wanted a degree of specificity that I couldn’t give. That would mean that I’d ask other officers to talk with the reporter. While I had both experience and training in dealing with media, other officers did not. That raised their discomfort levels. Some would simply refuse to talk with a reporter as they saw no up-side in doing so. Others would and could, many very successfully and frankly. But talking with the media was not in these officers’ job descriptions; they couldn’t be awarded much for it, but could be very severely punished for being misquoted.

    There’s an structural problem as well. State Dept. rotates its officers far more quickly than do the diplomatic services of other countries. In places like Saudi Arabia, in the best of times, a tour of duty is two years. When bombs were going off in residential compounds (i.e., from roughly 2004 until 2010) tours of duty ran six months. Even two years is not long enough to get really down and dirty; six months is barely long enough to learn which way is up. I was lucky in that my last tour was my second tour there, representing my third and fourth years of experience.

    If a reporter wants the skinny, an officer halfway through a short tour simply may not have anything other than ‘talking points’ to offer.

    As DC Loser said, FSOs work for the President. They hold commissions as officers in the US Foreign Service. They are not handmaidens of the media. Of course they are going to say what US policy is. If they like their jobs, they’re not going to go off the reservation very much. In fact, it is constantly drilled into them that while they are serving officers, they have no opinions about US foreign policy other than the stated policy. While popping off about policy disagreements may not result in time in the brig, it does lead to short careers.

  4. DC Loser says:

    I have no problems with the diplomats just not talking to reporters. Agree that out and out lying about what everyone knows to be reality is counterproductive. Sometimes “no comment” says a lot.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I think a more pressing question is whether our diplomats lie routinely to the elected leadership. The disdain in which some State Department permanent staff hold elected leaders has frequently been remarked upon.

    As I’ve noted before there is tension between the needs of an informed electorate and the needs of diplomacy. I think that American diplomats lying to American reporters is a step over the line.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    I agree with DC Loser above on “no comment”.

  7. DC Loser says:

    @Dave Schuler – I have seen no evidence of your hypothesis. You may disagree, but I see no evidence of State employees acting to undermine US policies. You are probably correct that some DoS staff hold elected leaders in disdain, but that’s always been the case in every administration and every Congress. And it’s not limited to DoS. DoD is the same way everyday. But I have only encountered professionals who put their personal politics aside when performing the nation’s work.

  8. Tano says:

    I get the sense that the diplomats of other, smaller countries, do not have even the shadow of a fantasy that they, or their governments are in any sense controlling what happens in the world. Their job is primarily to understand what is happening, with the eventual goal of exerting some small influence in some specific area. Thus, as individuals, they are likely most proud of gaining insights into the world that they serve in, and are always glad to show off that knowledge.

    American diplomats, on the other hand, may well have this underlying sense that they represent, indeed are “officers of” the most important and powerful country in the world, one that, while it doesn’t actually run the world, is the ultimate responsible power. As such there may be a certain security defensiveness about information – what we learn is for our own use in managing this crazy world, and what we share with reporters must be calculated to insure that the dissemination also serves those goals.

  9. John Burgess says:

    I definitely agree that ‘no comment’ is often the best answer one can give. It avoids all sorts of problems, but does lead to pissy reporters angered at being, as they put it, ‘stonewalled’ by ‘uncooperative’ embassies.

    There are many State employees who hold Republican administrations in disdain. The bureaucracy definitely leans leftward. Few of them, however, are able to actually turn that disdain into action. While they can, of course, leak information, they don’t have immediate access to the media. They can shade or shape reporting to fit their agendas; they can overlook–consciously or not–issues or facts that don’t fit those agendas. There are not many, though, who can do actual damage. While the few conservatives/Republicans to be found within State can do the same, there are far fewer of them to do so.

  10. Are American diplomats lying to reporters because they figure our citizens can’t handle the truth?

    Perhaps American diplomats are lying to reporters because they figure our reporters can’t handle the truth.