The Duck of Minerva

American Foreign Policy research and Wikileaks

30 November 2010

There may not be a whole lot of diplomatic shockers in Sunday’s release, but this really has the potential to be a game changer for American foreign policy research over the next several years. I’m still not convinced we’ll actually see the full set of 250,000+ documents, but if we do, it will be big.

Most of American foreign policy scholarship evolves in subsequent waves over the course of 30 years or so. The first wave usually relies on press accounts, initial interviews with decision makers and other participants, and the quick turn-around journalistic books — on Iraq for example, we relied heavily on the books from Bob Woodward, Dana Priest, George Packer, Steve Coll, Seymour Hersch, etc…. All things being equal we are able to develop a pretty coherent factual basis in this initial wave.

The second and third waves — usually 5 – 20 years from the event/crisis — rely on those initial sources and subsequent secondary sources plus participant memoirs, more extensive interviews from a broader range of participants, field research, and an initial set of declassified materials through FOIA. These waves tend to branch into two streams – one that reinforces the initial conventional wisdom and a revisionist stream that re-examines alternative explanations, relies more heavily on counterfactuals, and exposes gaps or contradictions in the initial (conventional) explanations.

The fourth and subsequent waves — 20 and 30 years after an event or crisis — come after the release of archived materials. This usually begins with the initial declassification of documents through the Office of Historian at the State Department – the Foreign Relations of the United States Series (FRUS). Subsequent scholarship comes from the ensuing, declassification processes at the National Archives and various presidential libraries.

In short, by the time we see the raw,internal documents, we have a pretty good understanding of the context to determine the relative significance and importance of the classified materials to help us understand gaps in knowledge.

With Wikileaks we may be able to leapfrog the traditional 30 years process. On balance, I think this will contribute positively to scholarship on American foreign policy, but I do have a few concerns and warnings based on the initial press reporting and early blogging responses to the materials:

1. Sexy does not necessarily mean significant. The newspapers yesterday focused on the “raw” nature of the diplomatic discussions. Candid discussions are interesting to read, but not particularly enlightening in terms of the overall conduct of, and decision making in, American foreign policy. Such discussions are pretty standard stuff for anyone who has spent time in the archives or digging through FRUS. To the extent they are informative, they add a level of color about attitudes, but not necessarily much about substance of policy or strategy.

2. Don’t get seduced by classification. The documents released range from unclassified to Secret NOFORN. The tendency may be give more weight to more highly classified documents. As a former intelligence analyst and now a scholar, my sense is that unclassified documents and press accounts often add as much, if not more, to US government assessments and policy considerations than do many of the most highly classified documents. The classification – especially at the Secret level – is a reflection of the sources and methods used to collect the information or the specific sensitivity of an issue discussed. It is not a comment on the validity or significance of the substance.

3. Context still matters. It will be easy to jump to conclusions and cherry pick these cables. These are only a partial representation of U.S. policy deliberations. We can glean questions of interest to the US government from many of these cables, but to understand the dynamics of policymaking and deliberations requires more information. The FRUS series and the archives give us a much broader range on internal documentation ranging from CIA reporting, NSC deliberations, presidential memcons, etc…. This batch of Wikileaks documents are only a small representation of the overall internal documentary record. We’ll still have to wait 30 years or so for those documents.

4. Not all State Dept. cables are equal. I see at least three broad types of cables released so far: a) backgrounders and country analysis; b) memorandum of conversations between senior USG officials (SecDef Gates, Gen Petraeus, Adm. Mullins, and various assistant secretaries and ambassadors, etc…) and senior host government officials; and c) Congressional delegation conversations (CODELs):

a) The backgrounders and country analysis are not all equal. Some cables are written by seasoned political officers who offer candid and insightful judgment, but others are written by officers with only limited understanding of the country, the language, and US policy. Some cables are written by Ambassadors who are political appointees and may be highly ideological (e.g. see Eric Edelman’s cables from US Embassy Ankara) and some are written as part of on-going analytical feuds between the Embassy and the political appointees or the intelligence community back in Washington. In short, some are accurate representations of information that will be transmitted to the highest levels, many are not. Discerning the significance, the internal biases, and the quality of these cables requires more than a casual read.

b) The Memcons between senior administration officials and foreign officials. These can be the most valuable because they tend to demonstrate the range and prioritization of issues as well as the formal diplomatic positions. But many of these are already represented well in press accounts and may not shed all that much light on various subjects.

c) CODEL reporting tends to be a mixed bag and the relative importance of the discussions depends heavily on the interlocutors, the country in question, and the issues under discussion. Foreign government officials often see members of Congress as a different audience than administration officials and often shift their positions – sometimes as a calculated strategy to play Congress off the administration, other times it is simply to be polite or go through the motions of appearing to be interested in random members of Congress.

These documents reveal enormous amounts of information. But, quality scholarship will require commitment to traditional efforts – culling through the range of other primary sources, conducting interviews and field research, and more archival research. These documents are a great resource and, if used with a broader appreciation of process, sources, and context will almost certainly dramatically improve our understanding of American foreign policy of the past decade.