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by Bruce K. Byers


Osama bin Laden is gone and the U.S. government has been analyzing the trove of information the Navy SEALS took with them from his compound in Abbottabad on May 2. His careful record keeping has provided analysts with unprecedented insight into the structure and working of al Qaeda. Initial readings showed that bin Laden was actively planning future attacks on U.S. cities. In the aftermath of bin Laden’s death, tectonic shifts and realignments within global terrorist networks are already happening. It will take time before these become apparent. Through all of these developments the need for careful diplomatic analysis and reporting has never been more important.

The 2010 WikiLeaks releases of classified State Department cables revealed a consistent and accurate record of Foreign Service reporting from overseas posts. While the unexpected releases jolted many in the Washington foreign policy establishment into recognizing that unknown actors can exert an influence on U.S. foreign policy without warning, they did not reveal any major failures in reporting from the field. If anything, the leaks exposed a disconnect between diplomatic reporting and Washington policy formulation. They were due, in large part, to a series of missteps and decisions in Washington that apparently started with sloppy security procedures.

Osama bin Laden and WikiLeaks are, in part, creations of the United States. In the 1980s bin Laden participated as an Arab mujahedeen in the American-backed war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. After fighting the “godless Communists,” bin Laden turned against the U.S. allegedly for its military presence in Saudi Arabia and desecration of Islam. While he and his allies took up arms against the United States, the members and supporters of WikiLeaks are in their own way enemies of U.S. policy. They have challenged U.S. cyber security and serve as a self-proclaimed public funnel for classified information that might reveal the inner workings of U.S. diplomacy and more to the world.

It is ironic that the WikiLeaks disclosures were an unauthorized form of “public diplomacy” that introduced an element of chaos onto the international stage. Publication of selected classified communications has revealed some hidden aspects of diplomatic relations between sovereign states in the age of “global transparency.” Most diplomats would not be startled in reading the releases since gathering and analyzing information about the activities of other governments and their leaders is their primary responsibility. It is too early to tell what further consequences might issue from WikiLeaks, but senior foreign policy experts already see a serious need for reform in our international diplomatic strategies.

The WikiLeaks people view their actions as rational in a world they perceive to be dominated by self-appointed political elites that determine the fate of millions of ordinary citizens without having experienced the traumatic events that have disrupted and even torn other societies apart. While they are myopic in judging U.S. diplomacy, ignoring its many positive achievements, especially in crisis regions like the Horn of Africa, the leakers seem intent on provoking controversy in the name of “transparency” within and between institutions that have long dominated foreign policy around the globe.

The WikiLeaks revelations have exposed a long-standing tendency in U.S. foreign policy formulations to view the world and events through the prism of our own cultural and political biases and to judge what is happening in other societies and governments on this basis. At the same time many of the leaked cables show that U.S. diplomats have been accurate and diligent in their reporting of events overseas. They have been doing their job of informing the State Department and other government agencies of breaking developments and mid- to long-term trends. Sometimes their reporting has run counter to established policies, but their job is to tell Washington what is happening in other governments and societies rather than to pander to the political tastes of the moment. They also report on how U.S. policies and actions are perceived abroad.

It is not news that hackers pose a growing threat to the integrity of secure diplomatic communications. More profoundly, they challenge our assumptions about international information environments and the limits of diplomacy. The leaks are one consequence of too much systematic rationalization for the sake of saving money and streamlining the flow of sensitive information. As events have shown, SIPRNet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network developed by the Department of Defense) was only as secure as the weakest link in the chain of those who used and guarded it. For all of the top-secret compartmentalization within different units in the State Department, an Army private stationed overseas managed to access and release not only military communications but hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables.

The leaks are a sign of overwrought organization in our government that can reach a point of critical instability. The perpetrators of the leaks claim to act ethically against political leaders who, they feel, often act unethically and carelessly. They are ferrets running about a seemingly orderly maze of states and governments whose officials struggle to maintain various secure systems of sensitive information in the name of foreign policy and international stability.


In a discussion August 16 at the National Defense University in Washington, DC Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Panetta emphasized the need to better coordinate all efforts to maintain U.S. national security strength. Both emphasized that the U.S. is a world power and that any drastic cuts in national security budgets and resources would severely cripple the United States, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, in the Western Pacific, or in other regions. This would lead to greater international instability. Both Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta understand that U.S. foreign engagement is necessary, often very difficult, and requires sufficient resources to maintain the ability to deal with unexpected international crises. They expressed keen awareness of what the stakes are for the U.S. in Afghanistan and other critical areas. They stated that the U.S. cannot simply fold up its tents and march away. They stressed that a sudden reduction in congressional appropriations for national defense and diplomacy would have severe repercussions for U.S. domestic and global security and would send a message to allies and adversaries alike that the United States could no longer be counted on to play a major role in promoting international stability.

Secretary Clinton emphasized that results count for much more than rhetoric and that both she and Secretary Panetta are working together to reduce wasteful spending, streamline different programs, and achieve greater syncretism in U.S. foreign policy and national defense. Secretary Clinton said that this takes time and resources. Secretary Panetta emphasized that the diplomatic and development missions of the State Department and USAID are vital to sustaining the achievements that U.S. military forces have secured in different crisis regions. They expressed their dedication to current and long-term foreign policy goals. Secretary Clinton underlined the need to apply “smart power” in U.S. diplomatic and military missions abroad. The question is will the right people listen and heed their words?

In his 2009 book The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We can Do About It, Joshua Cooper Ramo urges readers to discard conventional ways of thinking about international relations. In one chapter he discusses the work of Danish physicist and mathematician Per Bak who, in the 1980s and 1990s, developed a hypothesis for models of self-organized criticality. Using mathematical calculations he experimented with sand piles to see at what point a sand pile would suddenly generate an avalanche. His goal was to study the tension between maintaining stability and reaching a point verging on instability. He learned that beyond a point of self-organized criticality, avalanches must occur. Bak could not predict the frequency or the size of avalanches, but he knew they would happen once a critical number of sand grains had raised the pile’s cone to a certain height. He could not say exactly when this critical point would be reached or where on the pile an avalanche would take place. He was able to say that there could be different points, but he could not say precisely what was happening within the sand pile or what its deep dynamics were.

His hypothesis has major significance for the analysis of social and political behavior in different societies. Critical points vary depending upon a host of cultural and other factors within individual societies that are not necessarily under the control of national leaders or democratically elected governments. Recent and ongoing popular protests in Greece, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya and other countries on the verge of a supercritical collapse are examples of this. The surprising and destructive rampages in London and other British cities in August show that even in democracies such avalanches occur. The Foreign Service officer’s task is to look for and examine factors that could lead to super critical situations and to make intelligent inferences from them about matters that might not be readily apparent.

On one level popular protests against authoritarian rulers and their policies and actions appear to be rational. People want to live in a stable, peaceful environment but not in one that so limits their choices that they see no hope for a better future. On another level, as we have seen in events in Syria, popular protests in the face of gunfire and death may seem irrational, especially when police and military forces supporting a dictator are unwilling to reduce violence and protect the general citizenry. Using Bak’s hypothesis as a basis for analysis, diplomats should ask what factors and events drove Tunisians, Egyptians, and other oppressed people to overcome their fears of police and government reprisals and flood the streets in protest. What cultural values continue to drive thousands of unarmed civilians in Syrian towns and cities to brave police and military gunfire and tanks and call for the end to Bashar al-Assad’s reign? How do groups from very different socio-economic strata of society coalesce around a few symbols at a central point and move together in unison against an entrenched and powerful regime? How do dictators react to such popular protests?

A partial answer can be found by analyzing the behavior of dictators and their immediate advisors, as in the case of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. As external factors – popular protests against armed police and soldiers – continue to increase, despite civilian deaths, dictators can become trapped in a very narrow response repertoire. When this does not work to quell popular uprisings, they are faced with a choice to flee, apply extreme violence, or face potential death.

In international diplomacy Foreign Service officers encounter many problems in trying to ferret out useful information. They have always faced the problem of getting close enough to key host-country officials and other major players in the political, cultural, and economic arenas to learn what is going on behind the scenes. In the current era of instant Internet communications on social web sites, they also face an expanding universe of players whose actions are less predictable. They have to expand their reporting not only to capture sensitive discussions and otherwise hidden activities and decisions among political elites but also to analyze cultural and social trends among women, educated and unemployed youth, disenfranchised social and religious minorities, and dissident groups.

It is clear that Foreign Service officers cannot conduct in-depth sociological studies of events in the countries where they serve. Their focus must be on developments that impact U.S. policies and actions. And yet it is worth asking whether there are better analytical tools and methods that might improve diplomatic analysis and reporting in rapidly changing political and social environments.

One part of the answer lies in redefining the purpose and methods of reporting. Another part would be in accepting a different way of looking at events than the more traditional ways that characterize much of Washington thinking. This would entail more language training so that Foreign Service officers would be more at ease in the countries where they serve and able to interact with many different people in their native languages. Another part of the answer lies in a greater acceptance in Washington of reporting from our overseas diplomatic missions rather than criticizing our Foreign Service officers for their evaluations of events on the ground when these contradict conventional Washington wisdom.

Yet a third part of the answer may lie in our cultural ways of observation and focus. Certain approaches to problem solving have been inculcated into us since childhood. These help to shape our view of the world and can create hurdles when diplomats are analyzing developments in other cultures where different ways of communicating and other values determine government policies and actions. It might be useful to ask how diplomats from other cultures – Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Indonesian, and Indian, to name a few – analyze events in countries where they are stationed.

One difference between U.S. practices of diplomacy and those of many other nations is that our Foreign Service officers tend to spend only a few short years in each assignment before moving on. Diplomats from other countries often spend five or ten years in a country and learn and use its language fluently. They are more at home in its culture and able to interact with their contacts with greater personal experience. This reflects their governments’ long-term foreign policy investments and their conviction that maintaining a cadre of experienced diplomats in the same country or region for many years is a better way to strengthen and maintain bilateral relations. This is not the way the U.S. State Department manages its Foreign Service today.


If U.S. diplomats apply “smart power” in their efforts to understand ongoing developments in other countries, they might do well to examine Per Bak’s theoretical work and the experiments that American physicist Glen A. Held and colleagues conducted to test his hypothesis. These suggest that complex systems self-organize into structures that reach points of critical stability beyond which instability ensues. If diplomatic observers working in states controlled by repressive regimes were to analyze characteristics of such regimes along the lines that Bak and Held have tested, they might be able to achieve more useable conclusions about events that are unfolding at any given time. Is it worth trying?

It is. Yet so long as elected and appointed leaders in Washington continue to operate from outdated assumptions about how the world works, there won’t be any significant change in the impact of diplomatic reporting. Most of our political leaders hold deeply ingrained beliefs that more open, democratic societies are less likely to cause international crises that could disrupt and threaten peace. Some of them assume that by spreading democratic values, they can strengthen international security and regional stability. It follows from this that undemocratic states are trouble makers and prone to violence that can threaten U.S. national security. Such a conclusion may have motivated members of President George W. Bush’s administration to push for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At the same time many of our national leaders have been hesitant or even unwilling to withdraw support from friendly dictators like Mubarak who have received billions of dollars in U.S. aid and supported U.S. interests in unstable regions. And if the best State Department reporting and recommendations are discounted or ignored at more senior decision making levels, the efficacy of “smart power” is undercut.

The foreign policy values that emerged from the victories over Fascism and, later, Soviet Communism after World War II tended to validate many of our assumptions about American global power. They came to define how the U.S. should conduct international affairs and use its political, economic, and military power. Now, however, events in the Middle East and South Asia have elicited more caution among Washington foreign policy experts and political leaders in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Diplomats and U.S. political leaders are taking another look at the promise of greater political and social stability when authoritarian leaders are challenged and, in the case of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and most recently Libya, toppled.

In an essay in the August 8 TIME Magazine, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, called for a new, restorative emphasis in U.S. foreign policy, drawing a firm distinction between restoration and isolationism. While he does not refer to WikiLeaks, he stresses the need for a rebalancing of U.S. priorities and resources to address domestic challenges and rebuild America’s institutional and strategic strengths in the world.

He fails to discuss the need for greater recognition and acceptance of what our Foreign Service officers are telling Washington policy makers. When the word from the field does not mesh with their political conceptions of American power and influence on the international stage, policy makers often blame diplomats for being too empathetic towards foreign leaders and for getting policy wrong. This blame game has been around at least since State Department diplomats were accused of “losing China” in the late 1940s.

Since the end of World War II the key foreign policy goal in U.S. and other Western strategies has been to protect national security and preserve peace through a system of international alliances with checks and balances that may approach but not exceed a point of criticality. U.S. political, economic, and military power has been applied in pursuit of this goal for many decades at great expense and sometimes doubtful gains. This has, at times, required making deals with autocrats and their police and military support systems that have trampled on human rights in contravention of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

U.S. and other Western leaders have long advocated the growth of democratic governance and economic and social reforms as a better means to secure political stability. Yet, we have seen that holding elections is not necessarily the key to creating lasting democratic institutions in societies where there has been no tradition of representative government. In the decades since World War II Western democracies have long maintained close relations with authoritarian regimes, starting with Iran and Iraq in the 1950s and including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other Arab nations. The U.S. and other democratic states have frequently chosen to support stability under repressive leadership over social and political reform even when political leaders and their foreign policy experts knew or suspected that despotic rulers employed oppressive measures against their populations, amassed great fortunes, ran their bureaucracies on patronage and corruption, and increasingly ignored societal needs that begged for reform.

After working to keep a lid on volatile political and social unrest in Arab countries for the past half century, the United States and its European allies suddenly have to deal with a spreading wave of popular demonstrations that has surprised and alarmed them as much as it has most ruling elites across the Arab world. Why?

One part of the answer is that our political leaders and diplomats have traditionally focused more attention on foreign power elites. Conventional wisdom held that they were the best informed about political, economic, and social trends in their countries and had the means to control any popular unrest. At the same time too little attention was paid to other groups in the population – with the exception, perhaps, of the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hizb’allah – because they did not figure large in power equations involving bilateral and multilateral relations.

Another part of the answer lies in the desire to maintain political stability in a turbulent region by cultivating “clients” willing to cooperate with their foreign benefactors in return for cash and promises of security. This has included strong military-to-military cooperation and training programs for police, especially between the U.S. and Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. So vested interests have served as counterweights to calls for political, economic, and social reforms. History has shown repeatedly that U.S. “clients” have often worked against U.S. interests in pursuit of their own national interests.

A third part of the answer lies in inadequate tracking and analysis of demographic and generational changes and their impact on repressive regimes. The surprises of the Arab Spring reflect this failure. Yet there are many experts in our government and in universities and think tanks who track such trends. Sometimes their analyses can exert constructive influence on policy debates at decision making levels in Washington.

In traditional U.S. diplomacy, direct talks — often backed by military muscle — have generally been preferred over more subtle, indirect forms of diplomacy that might take longer to produce results favorable to U.S. interests. For this reason doing nothing has almost never been a policy option. This view of foreign affairs has changed substantially in the past ten years, and the changes are a reflection of American pragmatism in confronting challenges to U.S. national security in the post-Cold War era.

In the August 16 discussion at the National Defense University Secretary Panetta pointed out that the United States has a special role in the world and that it carries special responsibilities for the American people and towards international security. Secretary Clinton stated that without adequate resources, the best efforts at constructive diplomacy in troubled areas of the world will come up short and threaten our national security and the hopes and aspirations of millions of people around the world. Both cabinet secretaries understand the stakes for the United States in international affairs and the necessity to maintain American power as a constructive force for U.S. interests and for the world at large. The question is, does a majority of members of the House and Senate grasp this reality?

Secretary Clinton pointed out that in the aftermath of World War II Secretary of State George C. Marshall had to argue with Congress for resources to help rebuild former U.S. enemies Germany and Japan. She said it was a “hard sell” and yet Marshall convinced Congress that the least expensive way to sustain peace and confront Soviet communism was to strengthen economic and development assistance to Europe and Japan. Congress approved funds for the Marshall Plan and for helping Europe and Japan to climb out of the terrible devastation that the war had caused. Still, today, the secretaries of Defense and State must make the case with Congress for resources to continue the ongoing efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the world like the Horn of Africa.

There is an old tradition in our society and in our government of using a confrontational approach to problem solving. Public debates are essential to policy development, even if the policies are sometimes bad. Confrontation between competing factions in our government has often carried over to U.S. diplomacy. One manifestation of this was the “finger in the dike” approach to foreign policy that Henry Kissinger, among others, practiced. Many elements of this approach derive from interpretations of Clausewitz’s analysis of war and diplomacy during the Napoleonic wars. The “realists” among our political leaders and senior diplomats have preferred to deal with the situation at hand first and rely upon ideals to inform their policy making second. And yet when the “neocons” held ideological sway in foreign policy decisions leading to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, they believed that removing Saddam Hussein from power would usher in a new era of democratic government, bringing out the best in the many different factions in Iraq. Theirs was a naïve oversimplification of the application of U.S. power and an underestimation of the forces and tensions in a complex society. The U.S. invasion of Iraq cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and the lives of thousands of U.S. and allied troops. It was no “cake walk.”

Still, the Secretary of State must deal with foreign ministers and other leaders on a daily basis and try to work in the best interests of the U.S. government. This means that she has to manage crises on a real-time basis while also struggling to compete with adversaries within the current administration, in Congress, and in think tanks.

In such an environment how can a new diplomacy emerge that views international affairs through a different prism than that which has existed since the Cold War? How can the State Department institute a better, restorative process that improves interaction with members of Congress and also with other governments, especially in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes?


The First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) that Secretary Clinton issued in December 2010 is a major attempt to address some of these questions. She has called for a new diplomacy and an increase in civilian power in U.S. national security and foreign affairs. The QDDR states that “she called for an integrated ‘smart power’ approach to solving global problems—a concept that is embodied in the President’s National Security Strategy.” How is this defined? What resources are being invested to use it? How can our Foreign Service officers be better trained and assigned to implement it? While the QDDR outlines new strategies and goals for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the next four years, it reflects long-standing cultural attitudes in both of these foreign policy agencies.

Princeton University professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former State Department Director of Policy Planning (2009-2011), led the effort to develop the QDDR at the request of Secretary Clinton. The QDDR lists goals and means for improving embassy operations and suggests the need for a change in State Department culture. It does not explicitly describe how foreign affairs practitioners should change their ways of thinking and adopt more holistic approaches to understanding what is happening in other countries. The QDDR suggests that U.S. diplomats should become better listeners and more engaged in what foreign leaders and people in many different parts of other societies are saying to each other and to other governments. This is a Washington-centric attitude towards what Foreign Service officers have done in service abroad for decades. It is an expression of hopes and dreams of where the State Department should be in four years. Results will prove whether its goals are realistic and can stand the often contentious debates in Washington.

As thorough an analysis of U.S. foreign policy resources and goals as the QDDR is, it does not state how the Department of State will increase its influence with the White House, the National Security Council, and Congress. Unlike the Department of Defense, the State Department continues to lack the domestic constituencies that would help it gain greater clout in policy debates and decisions. And now State and USAID face severe budget cutbacks.

In her 2004 book A New World Order, Professor Slaughter described networks of government officials across borders as an increasingly important part of global governance. Slaughter saw a world already governed by a complex web of “global networks.” She wrote that these have gradually supplanted the more traditional structures of communication in international relations and that officials today are working across borders with their counterparts to deal with various problems and to counter threats on a global scale. According to her analysis the concept of national interest is increasingly dependent upon the viability and expansion of global networks of officials at many levels. This would mean that U.S. diplomats must play a greater role in strengthening these networks in order to protect U.S. national interests, but where are the additional resources and personnel?

On the other hand, Richard Haas, the former Director of Policy Planning (2001-2003) at the State Department, wrote in the Sunday, June 19, 2011 Outlook section of the Washington Post that members of NATO, one of the oldest and most stable international diplomatic and security organizations, are slowly diverging in their global and regional interests. He stated that the fulcrum of geopolitics has shifted from Europe to Asia and that while no one is calling for the abolition of NATO, it no longer has the same strong unifying force that made it such a significant political and military institution during the Cold War. He cited as evidence of this the hesitancy of European NATO members to continue to support the fight against the Taliban and al Qaida in Afghanistan and the relatively meager resources that each European NATO member devotes to its own national defense and to the NATO mission. Haas sees that NATO will “count for much less. Instead, the United States will need to maintain or build bilateral relations with those few countries in Europe willing and able to act in the world, including with military force.”

In the context of the QDDR, improving the effectiveness of American diplomacy would require a paradigm shift in thinking and analysis as Professor Slaughter has written. In such a large, traditional bureaucracy as the State Department there has long been an Aristotelian analytical philosophy towards foreign policy problems. This encourages breaking down problems into elements and examining discrete pieces of evidence gathered at embassies and consulates. These are winnowed in a process that moves upward from ambassadors to office directors to deputy assistant secretaries to assistant secretaries to under- secretaries and, finally, to the Secretary of State. Policy judgments are made on the basis of many piece-by-piece examinations. If at the lower levels information has been winnowed out of the analytical process for any number of reasons including incompatibility with White House and NSC policy positions, the results might present distorted interpretations and conclusions at higher levels of what is happening on the ground overseas. This makes the accuracy and timeliness of diplomatic reporting all the more critical and it also places a premium on the control and manipulation of information in policy debates. All of this takes place in a competitive environment in which different offices and bureaus vie for resources and recognition of their particular piece of the policy pie.

How can a new diplomacy and “smart power” change this entrenched culture?

One way would be to accept that knowledge and ignorance are two rails of the same track as John A. Meacham has written (see reference below). If one accepts this, one can avoid undue idealism and adopt more flexible thinking about problems and policy ideas. One can apply a combination of deductions, insights, and inferences about different, possibly unrelated bodies of information to achieve viable policy conclusions. This approach requires a greater degree of empathy toward foreign cultures and values than may seem appropriate for diplomatic analysis.

Another way to change is to allow information to shape policy ideas rather than declare policies and then search for the evidence to substantiate them. This approach would seem to contradict Slaughter’s view that U.S. diplomacy should be directed at promoting global governance through different initiatives. While networks of officials across international boundaries may have certain affinities in their work and goals, it does not follow that they all share the same political and cultural conceptions of international relations. It is more likely that many governments are not interested in promoting global governance and a new world order.

Meacham’s ideas are substantiated by numerous people who study human motivation. In a recent interview Washington Post business correspondent Steve Pearlstein (Sunday, March 27, 2011) asked Dominick Barton, managing director of McKinsey & Company, to describe how leaders make decisions. Barton pointed out that no one leader has a grip on all the information needed to make decisions. He or she might have knowledge of perhaps twenty percent of what is happening and still have to make decisions. The ability to do so depends upon a lot of little experiences, including failures, over time that help build up a keen instinct for making good choices. Barton says that instinct is a leadership “muscle” that needs to be exercised even at the peril of making mistakes. This is different than diplomatic analyses about how government officials may collaborate across national boundaries. It may also explain, in part, why diplomatic reporting is sometimes ignored in the highest levels of decision making in our government.

The other characteristic of strong leadership is a willingness to make decisions without overanalyzing issues. Barton says that too much analysis actually degrades leadership effectiveness. Yet, aside from developing “smart power” there is no discussion in the QDDR of a need for a new leadership ethos in the State Department.

Many of the ideas in the QDDR have been around for decades and have been repackaged. Other ideas recognize the need to change and adapt to new realities in the global arena. Together they reflect a historic belief in American exceptionalism coupled with American idealism towards the rest of the world that has sometimes led to serious political blunders as well as profound and positive changes. And while there is much discussion of change in how business will be done in the near future, there is little discussion of how attitudes within and among the various layers of State and USAID bureaucracies are to be changed.

The idealism inherent in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s view of global governance may point in a new direction, but can it motivate entrenched bureaucrats to adopt new ways of looking at international affairs? She may be on the cusp of a new paradigm in U.S. diplomacy, but as with all paradigm shifts, it can only happen when an old paradigm has lost its credibility. The birth of a new paradigm is prepared by the activities of thousands of different people working within an institutional structure, but these activities generally do not exceed the area of validity of the old paradigm. The people laboring under the old paradigm cannot deduce nor yet project the new paradigm; they cannot create it. The new paradigm suddenly reveals itself. It is reached in a single leap after which the old views of things disappear. For a detailed explication of this process, see Thomas Kuhn’s description of paradigm shifts in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.


There has long been one well established element of U.S. diplomacy that is barely mentioned in the QDDR. It is cultural diplomacy and it is often overlooked in political reporting, policy formulation, and decision making. Cultural diplomacy is different from the current term “public diplomacy” and much older. It helps to establish and maintain a web of influence within a host country’s society and institutions over many years and requires time and sustained resources to develop and show results. Therefore, it is often considered a waste of time when circumstances are pressing U.S. diplomatic actions forward.

Embassy cultural affairs officers not only seek to explain U.S. foreign policy and a broad range of American ideas and values to their foreign audiences, they also listen and learn about their audience members’ views and beliefs towards the United States. Their work builds influence among people and institutions in foreign societies and governments and pollinates many different parts of foreign cultures. The products of this pollination may not be evident for months or years, but one example is telling: more than 326 current or former chiefs of state and heads of government have been participants in the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) according to the Department’s website.

If the State Department is serious about deploying a new diplomacy abroad, cultural diplomacy must be given a much higher priority and more resources. Today it competes with the other major areas of diplomatic endeavor for personnel and resources and often comes up short. The work of our cultural affairs officers and their staffs not only reveals points of common interest between the United States and host country institutions, it can also expose points of vulnerability and tension within a foreign society that may foreshadow changes in popular attitudes and values long before people take to the streets. The question is will Washington decision makers listen when diplomatic reporting details possible shifts in foreign cultural attitudes and people’s perceptions of the United States? Too often political and media leaders slough off such changes as “anti-Americanism” without exploring their roots and antecedents.

Cultural diplomacy is not a replacement for traditional intelligence work at our embassies and consulates. It is a way of reaching more deeply into a host country society with American ideas. First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent visit to South Africa and her speech to young women in Soweto is an example of the impact of cultural diplomacy. Many Foreign Service cultural affairs officers and Foreign Service National specialists over months and years laid the groundwork for her appearances there.

There are a few signs in the QDDR that more emphasis should be focused on cultural diplomacy. There is no mention of using cultural diplomacy to help read the contours of foreign political and social environments in which other people view the United States. The flagship International Visitor Leadership Program, in existence for more than 70 years, is not even mentioned. The QDDR does discuss making “public diplomacy” a “core diplomatic mission…” as though this were something new in U.S. foreign affairs, and it states that “we have fundamentally transformed our public diplomacy…” but it does not say how or when the transformation occurred. It advocates focusing public diplomacy “on the role of women.” And it stresses that “public diplomacy has become an essential element of effective diplomacy.” Yet in the QDDR the role of public diplomacy in advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives remains little changed over what it has traditionally been. Its strategic purpose is to “inform, inspire, and persuade foreign publics.” This purpose remains unchanged since the decades when cultural diplomacy and public affairs were managed by the U.S. Information Agency.

Instead the QDDR is concerned with implementing a new diplomacy based upon increased collaboration and coordination between the State Department and USAID to confront direct threats to U.S. national security interests. The document calls for establishing a Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications whose leader will report directly to the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. And it also states that “the public diplomacy component” should be built into “every stage of the policy process” but does not say specifically how this is to be accomplished. Nor does it explicitly state that the public diplomacy component should be an integral part of foreign policy deliberations from their inception to the implementation of new policies. It does state that public diplomacy should be linked with other State Department operations through the establishment of “Public Diplomacy Deputy Assistant Secretaries in all regional bureaus.” There is no mention of the existence since 2000 of public diplomacy staffs in each of the regional bureaus.

Despite its upbeat outline of a new diplomacy and stronger “civilian power,” the QDDR remains, in my opinion, a conventional assessment of the world and the challenges facing U.S. foreign policy. It focuses more on “new global threats” than on new international opportunities. It barely mentions the efficacy of expanding cultural contacts and interactions between Americans and citizens of other nations. It conflates cultural affairs and public diplomacy as though cultural diplomacy did not exist. The QDDR is more concerned with new strategies for answering threats to U.S. national security. Its view is from the ramparts of Fortress America towards the rest of the world although it does mention cooperation, collaboration, and interaction with different groups and organizations in other nations.


If there could be a paradigm shift in the way the State Department conducts international relations, it might focus more intensely on sensemaking within different structures and layers of a country’s political, social, cultural, and economic life. It would address the question, how might a different approach to diplomacy make better sense of foreign developments to a broader audience of Washington policymakers and interest groups in other U.S. agencies? How could a new diplomacy jolt Washington policy makers and leaders from their prejudgments about evolving situations overseas?

One possible way to plumb the depths of domestic politics and life in other countries, especially those under authoritarian regimes, is that of organizational theorist Karl E. Weick (See reference below). In his analyses he focuses on how people make sense of what they are doing. His analytical criteria include role structure, virtual role systems, the attitude of wisdom among members in organizations, and the presence or absence of respectful interaction. Weick’s primary objective is the study of how sensemaking operates and how to determine what kinds of events lead to its loss and to organizational disintegration. He also analyzes criteria that constitute a minimal organization of individuals and looks at what external and internal factors lead to the loss of organizational coherence. His research has significant implications for new approaches to diplomacy.

Substitute “regime” or “government” for “organization,” and Weick’s criteria may be more helpful in interpreting foreign media reports and commentaries as well as official government statements and actions. Applying them in diplomacy might strengthen “smart power” and improve interactions with host country officials and other individuals and groups outside the power elite. It might also lead to better diplomatic analysis and reporting.

There must be knowable criteria for determining when a head of government or chief of state could lose his grip on power or a government could fall. Defining and using such criteria could improve reporting and, in turn, play a crucial role in the Washington decision-making process. One novel approach might employ a form of analysis based on the concept of self-organizing criticality pioneered by Danish physicist and mathematician Per Bak, as previously described.

Foreign Service officers are always trying to make sense of events happening in their countries of assignment. This activity is the bedrock of their reporting and their interactions with individuals and groups in the host country.

One example of accurate State Department reporting that sought to track the decline and disintegration of a long-standing government can be seen in Embassy Tehran’s 1978 and 1979 cables about the Shah of Iran in the last months of his rule. The reporting analyzed his statements and actions and the reactions of people close to him as well as those of some of his ideological adversaries. It analyzed the leadership structure and factors that contributed to the collapse of his regime. There was no hedging in the cables from Embassy Tehran as events approached a super critical state in January 1979. From embassy reporting Washington policymakers had to know the situation in Iran was growing worse and that the government under Shahpour Bakhtiar, appointed by the Shah late in 1978, was shaky at best. They had to have had a sense of the impending collision between the civilian government, weak as it was, and the growing theocratic power of Ayatollah Khomeini and his closest supporters. Yet, Washington reactions to the embassy’s reporting showed that there are circumstances when the best diplomatic analysis can be ignored.

Embassy reporting from Tehran after the Shah’s departure in January 1979 and Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumphal return to Iran had clearly advised Washington of the probable consequences for U.S. diplomacy if the Shah were admitted to the U.S. regardless of the justification. The contentious fighting among President Carter’s senior policy advisors concerning the entry of the Shah into the United States for medical treatment revealed serious confusion that led to Carter’s fateful decision to allow him into our country. A short time after the Shah entered the U.S., militant Iranian protesters swarmed into the embassy on November 4, 1979 and took American diplomats hostage for 444 days. The result was President Carter’s worst foreign policy nightmare. (See reference below to William J. Daugherty’s essay “Jimmy Carter and the 1979 Decision to Admit the Shah into the United States,” 2003.)

The ensuing crisis revealed a lack of resiliency and imagination within the Carter White House and a lot of wishful thinking about Iranian motives and political objectives. Repeatedly, Carter and his foreign policy advisors thought that the hostage seizure was a mistake and that Khomeini would come to his senses and release our diplomats. And this came after decades of extensive bilateral relations in which U.S. diplomats had established very close ties with all kinds of people in Iran’s political and military elites. The one area in which such ties had not been established was with religious leaders and in the religious schools and seminars where anti-American clerics were educated and trained for their work. Despite extensive and detailed diplomatic reporting from Iran, the crisis revealed a widespread ignorance in Washington of Iranian values and social and cultural mores. Our diplomats had done their jobs well over many years, but in the end Washington decision makers chose to discount most of their warnings and assessments.


While no two revolutions are alike, there are indicators of human behavior in increasingly stressful situations that reveal the erosion and loss of organizational integrity and sensemaking. Many of these indicators can be determined and studied as Weick and others have done.

What are some of the criteria diplomats could use to analyze leadership structures within host-country governments when their access to the leadership is severely restricted or denied? One answer is to examine how authoritarian regimes, past and present, are organized and then integrate what is known into an analytical matrix. Organizational theory can be instructive in approaching this task.

Weick cites Henry Mintzberg’s five criteria for organizational structure: “coordination by direct supervision, strategy planned at the top, little formalized behavior, organic structure, and the person in charge tending to formulate plans intuitively.” (See reference below.) These criteria may serve to deconstruct and understand the supporting organizations of Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi, and Saddam Hussein.

A sixth criterion might be the rulers’ paranoia and fear of assassination either from within or outside the top leadership circle. Such fear can lead a dictator to eliminate whole groups of people to preclude possible palace coups as Saddam Hussein did. He maintained a high level of fear among his subordinates. Thus, in addition to the existence of the five criteria that Mintzberg describes, the sixth one may also serve in an appositional way to define an organizational structure. In dictatorships it is there regardless of the presence of any of the other five criteria. It impacts the norms of respectful interaction among members of the leadership structure and between the leader and his closest relatives and associates.

Weick discusses the “roles and rules [that] exist that enable individuals to be interchanged with little disruption to the ongoing pattern of interaction.” Below the dictator his subordinates can play various roles according to his dictates. He may be able to change rules as he sees fit.

He points out that such leaders act “as if events cohere in time and space and that change unfolds in an orderly manner” that they can control. However, they fail to realize that everyday events are subject to disruptions occurring all the time. Weick describes the consequence. A severe disruption “occurs when people suddenly and deeply feel that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system. What makes such an episode so shattering is that both the sense of what is occurring and the means to rebuild that sense collapse together.”

This may be what Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and their immediate subordinates finally realized after sustained popular protests increased in frequency and size in the face of police violence and murder. They may have suddenly grasped that they were in an unprecedented situation where they no longer held supreme authority within the political and social structures of their respective societies. As their traditional authoritarian regimes crumbled under growing popular protests, they became increasingly anxious and were ultimately unable to make sense of what was unfolding in the streets outside. Their first response was to order violent strikes against peaceful protesters and to shut down Internet access in the hope of blinding the opposition. When these failed to intimidate protesters and elements of their military remained passive or withdrew support, they began to make concessions to their demands. Their moves alienated more people including officers and men of their armed forces who abandoned them.

Understanding the course of such political disasters may help diplomats and policymakers recognize other similar political environments and make better decisions earlier in the time line of events. Diplomats might be able to use models like the Bak-Held sandpile model to compare current events to previous crises and regime collapses in order to analyze structural changes in a regime ahead of a crisis rather than having to react to events already occurring in the streets. This would be an application of “smart power” and represent a shift in the way diplomats on the ground and policymakers in Washington deal with sudden events, regime collapse, and the introduction of new players and different political agendas. The technological tools are available to conduct near-real-time comparative studies and modeling that could improve the quality of analysis of unfolding events.

In adopting new analytical and reporting strategies, diplomats would naturally expand their field of contacts to include more individuals and groups outside a country’s political elites. They would acquire and integrate into their reporting different and, possibly, better information about popular attitudes among young working professionals, women, students, the unemployed, and underground organizations such as outlawed unions, intellectual circles, and other groups that seek to change the status quo. Through broader analysis of the sentiments and actions of political outsiders and underrepresented segments of the population it might be easier to recognize at what point things no longer make sense to most people and at what point long-standing political structures begin to collapse. If diplomats and policymakers could get a grip on the elements of a collapse before it happens, they would be in a better position to deal with the consequences. This effort could lead to a perceptual shift in U.S. diplomacy – the more vigorous ability to think unconventionally and anticipate events in a crisis.

Yet, one difficulty in doing this may come from one’s own cultural prejudices when attempting to understand the personal behavior of key players in other cultures with much different values and leadership structures. This is where cultural modeling and role playing could be most useful. It also speaks to the necessity to integrate cultural diplomacy and reporting on cultural and social trends and events into overall embassy reporting. Cultural diplomacy should be a major element in all Foreign Service officer training.

There is another important cultural dimension to analyzing events in other countries. Our diplomats should ask in what ways leaders manifest their wisdom in affairs of state and political decision making. What are the expectations among educated members of the general population that their leaders exhibit wisdom and prudence in their actions? What concerns do they have that their leaders are calculating and ruthless? How can embassy officers distinguish the more profound qualities in a country’s leaders?

One place to start is by looking at leaders’ beliefs about their roles and their views of the society they govern. If they have been in dominant positions for many years and protected from social and political unrest by intelligence services, police, and military, then they may assume that any popular protests are aberrations from traditional cultural norms and respond accordingly by rounding up, jailing, and torturing or otherwise threatening ring leaders, dissidents, intellectuals, and others they think might be feeding the unrest and thus constitute a threat to them. Typically, dictators blame foreign agitators when popular protests spread. If this tactic has worked in the past to quell popular unrest, they might assume that they have made wise decisions and continue this behavior. They grow accustomed to dealing with limited protests and are, therefore, less prepared to deal with a major social or political revolution. The current situation in Syria is an example. Since they are generally not answerable to the public masses or their representatives, dictators may not realize soon enough that small disruptions can grow into big problems that threaten their leadership. While they are trying to understand the changing reality of events on the ground, their conventional methods of dealing with them can be overshadowed by their ignorance and the onrush of events.

John A. Meacham has written about a paradox facing all leaders regardless of their organization or political and cultural orientation: that their knowledge is fallible and incomplete and that the more they think they know, the greater the risk that they are operating in ignorance. Meacham’s analysis has implications for diplomats trying to make sense of fast moving events. While they may gain access to new information concerning decision making among a country’s leadership, they continue to face the paradox that this new information introduces new uncertainties, doubts, and complexities into their analysis. They should consider antithetical information that may or may not confirm their deductions and conclusions about political events and leadership behavior.

Meacham wrote that “wisdom is an attitude taken by persons toward the beliefs, values, knowledge, information, abilities, and skills that are held, a tendency to doubt that these are necessarily true or valid and to doubt that they are an exhaustive set of those things that could be known. In a fluid world, wise people know that they don’t fully understand what is happening right now, because they have never seen precisely this event before.” This was Dominick Barton’s point (see above).

As foreign affairs experts, diplomats are exposed to many different cultural and social environments and influences while serving abroad. Given the requests from Washington, however, they often have to focus on developing knowledge about specific subjects and events within a limited time frame. Sometimes their focus can be too narrow. They can become victims of conventional wisdom and expediency that can influence how they write their reports.

If diplomats are to apply “smart power” and change their thinking about their work, then traditional forms of analysis must change. They must think the unthinkable as Joshua Cooper Ramo argues. Yet in the conservative, traditional bureaucracy of the U.S. Department of State, how can unconventional thinking gain greater acceptance? How can the contrarian avoid being marginalized by her or his colleagues when she/he does not conform to traditional modes of analysis and thought? How can they avoid inevitable patterning in analytical processes and strike out in new directions?

One way is to recognize that any search for new information is both a new experience and one based upon previous experiences. It is new insofar as the subjects under investigation have changed, circumstances are different, and key players may also have changed. At the same time they cannot allow themselves to be so cautious in their analysis that they avoid challenging traditional thinking including their own intellectual habits.

Wisdom emerges when a reporting officer realizes and accepts ambivalences in what she/he is trying to do. It proves more useful when diplomats are more empathetic with foreign cultures and values and recognize the role of cultural influences and rituals on international relations. Past experience must not necessarily be rejected but it should be given lesser weight when approaching new subjects and changing circumstances. This will help an officer avoid overconfidence and fall into the trap of accepting assumptions for conclusions. Instead, he or she must exercise a healthy curiosity tempered with skepticism in dealing with facts when trying to piece together information that may lead to more profound insight into the current state of affairs.

Wisdom also demands that information be shared among colleagues. This goes against much tradition in the State Department where acquisition of information can increase one’s power and standing depending upon how it is used. Still, at an embassy it is vital that information be shared in the analysis of ongoing events, especially in social and political crises. This may require challenging an existing role system based upon long-standing hierarchies. Sharing information and arguing about it with colleagues can strengthen its meaning and lead to more incisive understanding of the elements it contains. Sharing may help to overcome hierarchical conformity and expand trust among colleagues about the validity or speciousness of information. More open sharing among colleagues can help others validate one’s own observations. At the same time the individual reporting officer should respect her or his own observations and perceptions while seeking to integrate them with those of colleagues without resorting to self-deprecation or depreciating the observations and beliefs of others.

In the absence of trust, honesty, and self-respect among members of a group, faulty interaction can lead to increased fear, bad communication, and, worse, catastrophe. This seems to have been the case among White House, NSC, State, and CIA decision makers in the weeks leading up to the seizure of American diplomats as hostages in Tehran. The more critical the crisis became over whether the Shah of Iran should be let into the United States, the greater the mistrust, miscommunication, and lapses in judgment grew. Second guessing became a major factor in the decision-making process despite the constant flow of reporting from Embassy Tehran. In the end President Carter decided that the Shah took precedence over the safety and welfare of our diplomats in Tehran.

While cabinet officers and presidential advisors may have thought that the president’s decision was the only course of action at the time, growing tensions between members of different cabinet departments and agencies diminished confidence in the efficacy of individual actions and contributed to a feeling of individual isolation. This feeling, more than self- respect and faith in one’s own beliefs, was crushing for many involved in the deliberative processes. The result was a disastrous policy failure that the United States is still dealing with 32 years later.

It also appears to have been the case in the months and weeks leading to President Bush’s decision to launch a preemptive war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 before UN economic sanctions had time to take full effect and IAEA inspectors had been allowed to return to Iraq. The 1991 success of Desert Storm in ousting Iraqi military forces from Kuwait and personal loyalty to the President trumped telling truth to power. The U.S. government had a post-9/11 momentum going for it. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson’s outspoken conclusions regarding his findings in Niger heightened tensions and, ironically may have propelled Vice President Cheney and his supporters to insist upon a more aggressive course of action against Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5, 2003 speech to the UN Security Council about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction revealed that ideology rather than verifiable evidence was driving White House decision making. In the end the political beliefs of a small group of people dominated and foremost among them was the belief that something had to be done and done soon.

Political exigencies trumped prudent analysis and overrode the lack of conclusive knowledge about the state of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program and the existence of deployable weapons of mass destruction. Information that militated against a rush to war was also discounted. The “cake walk” that some Bush administration officials claimed an invasion of Iraq would be, revealed their lack of understanding despite years of reporting from our embassy in Baghdad and from our embassies in nearby countries. It also showed the limits of diplomacy and analysis and the dangers of decision-making on the basis of ideological assumptions. It demonstrated once again the hubris of American power.

It remains to be seen whether the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan will result in greater regional stability and the emergence of more representative government and greater freedom and choice for the citizens of these countries and of the whole region. Iraqis and Afghans have paid a very high price for U.S. intervention and so, too, have American military and development personnel and their families. It is already evident that the American people will carry financial and political burdens for many years to come for the decisions their elected leaders made in the years since the events of September 11, 2001. It remains to be seen whether a new diplomacy can improve U.S. national security and win greater support among foreign leaders and peoples.End.


1. Richard Haass, “Bringing Our Foreign Policy Home,” Viewpoint, TIME Magazine, August 8, 2011, pp. 42-43.

2.. A Conversation with Secretaries Clinton and Panetta, National Defense University, Washington, DC, August 16, 2011.

3. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), U.S. Department of State, December 15, 2010.

4. Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We can Do About It, Little Brown and Company, first edition, 2009.

5. Per Bak, How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality. New York: Copernicus.

6. Glen A. Held et al. “Experimental study of critical-mass fluctuations in an evolving sandpile,” in Physical Review Letters, 65, 1120-1123, August 27, 1990.

7. Anne-Marie Slaughter, A New World Order, Princeton University Press, 2005.

8. Steve Pearlstein interview with Dominick Barton, managing director of McKinsey & Company, The Washington Post, March 27, 2011.

9. Richard N. Haass, “Continental Drift,” Washington Post Outlook, June 19, 2011, p. B-1.

10. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1962.

11. Karl E. Weick, “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster,” Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 4, Dec. 1993, p. 628.

12. William J. Daugherty’s essay “Jimmy Carter and the 1979 Decision to Admit the Shah into the United States,” (2003) at

13. Derek Leebaert, Magic and Mayhem: the Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan, Simon and Schuster, 2010.

14. Henry Mintzberg, Structure in Fives: Designing Effective Organizations, Prentice-Hall, 1983.

15. John A. Meacham, “The loss of wisdom,” in R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development (pp. 181-211). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.


Bruce Byers
Bruce Byers

Bruce Byers is a retired Foreign Service officer who held assignments in Tehran, Mumbai, Kabul and several European posts. He also served in Manila before returning to Washington for assignments at the Department of State. He was involved in cultural and informational affairs in the U.S. Information Agency prior to transferring to the State Department when USIA was consolidated into State in 1999.

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