I am giving a paper at an academic symposium in Paris … on diplomats as authors from the 19th to 21st centuries … Your telegrams remain legendary in the Office. I am particularly interested in whether you believe there is – or was – such a thing as British diplomatic style … what were the hallmarks of British diplomatic writing at its best?’
I received this flattering email earlier this year and had a lively exchange with the sender. Diplomatic Drafting is a fascinating subject for professional diplomats (as I once was) and for those studying or teaching fine writing (as I now do).
When I was Ambassador in Poland, the FCO published a fat volume of diplomatic despatches from the 1950s and 1960s, so I could see how my long-lost august predecessors had analysed Polish affairs. A despatch was a special British diplomatic form: not an urgent report on a new development, but an extended learned essay on a particular theme thought likely to be of interest to the FCO community. These despatches would reach the FCO via the Bag, and unless they were totally hopeless would be sent off for printing on green paper for circulating to all embassies and senior Whitehall offices.
This great tradition suffered a painful death as e-communications came in. It lingered on in the form of the valedictory despatch, a round-up essay sent by an Ambassador leaving a post or ending a career which (after I set the precedent in 1998 when I left Sarajevo) was sent electronically and not by the Bag. This was suppressed in 2006: too many valedictories contained tedious moaning about modern diplomatic life and/or political correctness which tended to get leaked, making the FCO look like a care-home for pompous male fossils. BBC radio has run some good programmes called Parting Shots which looked at many of the best (and worst) examples of the genre, including one of my own droll parting shots from Warsaw. The series and accompanying book have been well received:
‘Parting Shots is a treasure trove of wit, venom and serious analysis … they shed light on Britain’s place in the world, and reveal the curious cocktail of privilege and privation which make up the life of an ambassador…’
Anyway, those Warsaw Embassy despatches from 50 years ago were cast in a style which has vanished without trace. The language was grand and unfailingly ‘heavy’ as the authors pored over absurd proclamations by Poland’s communist leaders and tried to make sense of unfeasibly large output statistics for coal or soap. Worst, the Polish regime was analysed as if it were a legitimate normal government. Lofty detachment was not supported by lofty disdain. There was no hard questioning of the regime’s oppressive behaviour, or suggestions as to how we might help Poland get back to democracy.
For me the very pinnacle of diplomatic drafting came in the early 1990s when Sir David (now Lord) Hannay as HM Ambassador to the UN presided over a mighty torrent of two-side telegrams from New York. This work combined terse analysis of complex diplomatic negotiations on the world’s toughest problems with magisterial advice on how to make the next moves. The technical quality, intellectual breadth and operational wisdom – the sheer authority – of this bloc of work have probably never been achieved in any other foreign service; the FCO itself now struggles to get to anything like the same standard.
Which brings us to Wikileaks and the outlandish leaking in 2010 of over 250,000(!) US diplomatic cables, now available online in original unredacted versions. Various senior news outlets (including The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel) which proudly worked with Wikileaks when the first vast tranche of material was leaked, have shed copious crocodile tears over the fact that unredacted cables have now been dumped into the public domain, putting contacts at risk:
‘Our previous dealings with WikiLeaks were on the clear basis that we would only publish cables which had been subjected to a thorough joint editing and clearance process … We cannot defend the needless publication of the complete data – indeed, we are united in condemning it.’
We mere members of the diplomatic public don’t wish to penetrate the scrofulous world of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and his motivations. Nick Cohen’s 18 September Observer article has done us a service by drilling down into the whole business. He finds all sorts of creepy, even openly anti-semitic people working with Assange and using the Wikileaks exposures to froth up anti-Western hostility. Cohen does not pull his punches:
‘The grass or squealer usually blabs because he wants to settle scores or ingratiate himself with the authorities. Assange represents a new breed, which technology has enabled: the nark as show-off.’
What should we make of the fact that this unfathomably vast bloc of contemporary American diplomatic traffic has been leaked? The infamous observation of Stalin comes to mind: ‘When one man dies it is a tragedy; when thousands die, it’s statistics.’ Where to start? In 2005, I had my own ghastly leaked email moment which made some fleeting headlines round the globe (see Diplomat, November 2009). But the Wikileaks document dump exists in a category of its own.
The material is so powerful precisely because it blows away Assange’s banal anti-Americanism. Yes, it’s horribly embarrassing for Washington that all these cables have leaked. Confidences have been ruined. Sources endangered. In terms of writing style the cables often err on the dense and overlong side.
However, far from exposing the dark side of American/Western policies they show as never before the strengths and values of the Western Anglosphere diplomatic method. The documents uncover mile after mile of sensible, balanced, practical, timely and reasonable analysis and comment by American diplomats, often with amusing extra insights and personal touches.
Sure, the media pounce on anything they find which (they assert) shows up the hypocrisy of US policy or some or other double-dealing. These examples themselves are powerful precisely because they serve to cast light on the workings of undemocratic or corrupt national authorities whose miserable antics are described so precisely. Searching the Wikileaks cables database for ‘corruption’ throws up 24,182 cables: without Wikileaks’ munificence how would the world know about the allegations concerning an Indian politician who sent a private jet to pick up some new sandals?
The database will give amusement and insight for years to come. One feminist website has been going through the archive to study how US diplomats report on sex-trafficking and other sex-related issues, finding (for example) that according to the US Embassies concerned, there are local homosexuals aplenty in Africa. Other cables give vivid analyses of the sex industry in Kenya and Cambodia. And if you like looking up rude words, they are there too (sometimes as the result of superb typos).
The hard-core stuff is all about serious policy issues. Take Serbia/Kosovo. One 2010 SECRET cable describes in conventional and rather laborious terms the first conversation between the new US Ambassador to Belgrade and President Tadic’s foreign policy adviser. The cable also reveals an important confidence (‘Please Protect’) on the Kosovo issue as given separately to the Americans by the then UK Ambassador. Kosovo diplomacy drags on. But while publication of this cable gives Serbs and Kosovars alike new allegedly ‘scandalous’ insights into how their differences are being managed at the top level in Belgrade, the trust and mutual confidence which make things happen in senior diplomacy – as in any other important walk of life – are eroded.
When I worked in the FCO Planning Staff in the mid-1980s, it occurred to me that it was a great pity that the vast bulk of FCO reporting was so little used. Superb work would be glanced at by busy people in London then sent off to the filing cupboard and thence The National Archives to rot for 30 years. Yet much of it was not really diplomatically sensitive.
So I devised a clever scheme. All FCO reports would be divided into sections which were Unclassified/Sensitive and Classified/Not for Release. Those sections which were Unclassified/Sensitive could be sold on subscription to trusted media or academic outlets, so that fine work conducted by British diplomats on behalf of the taxpayer could get the wider use and respect it so richly deserved.
This plan vanished without trace. The technical difficulties in that Jurassic pre-digital age were more trouble than the scheme was worth, plus the whole idea was just too radical and democratic.
Today we have the odious Wikileaks but also quite different and positive attitudes to freedom of official information. William Hague talks about reanimating the FCO. Maybe it’s time to set free for a wider readership much more of the fine work it performs?