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Reviewed by John H. Brown

The Craft of Political Analysis for Diplomats by Raymond F. Smith, Washington: Potomac Books Inc., 2011, ISBN-13: 978-1597977296, Paperback, 161 pp., $24.00

In 1946, George Kennan penned his classified “Long Telegram” which, perhaps more than any other official document during the Cold War, shaped American policy toward the USSR. In July 1990, American Embassy Moscow produced a secret cable speculating on the break-up of the Soviet Union and its policy implications, half a year before it took place.

This end-of-century missive, sent under the signature of Ambassador Jack F. Matlock, Jr., turned out to be far less influential in Washington policy circles than Kennan’s post-World War II dispatch.1 Titled “Looking into the Abyss: The Possible Collapse of the Soviet Union, and What We Should Be Doing about It,” it was drafted by the author of the volume under review, Raymond F. Smith, US minister counselor for political affairs in the Russian capital at the time of the demise of the Communist empire and a career diplomat with vast experience drafting telegrams from the field.

An addition to his Negotiating with the Soviets (1989), Smith’s new book, based in large part on his own diplomatic career, is intended for “practitioners and prospective practitioners of political analysis and for those with a specific interest in how the craft is practiced.” He is careful to note that it is not meant to be a “philosophical, historical, or etymological treatise.”

On one level, Smith’s volume is a rather bland how-to guide for what he characterizes as the “craft” of drafting telegrams. Its first, rather disjointed, seven chapters are devoted to technical and practical aspects of the trade: 1. “What is Political Analysis and Why is it a Craft?” 2. The Objectives of Diplomatic Political Analysis 3. The Audience. 4. The Competition. 5. The Analyst’s Personal Toolkit 6. The Analytical Tools. 7. Criteria for Superior Reporting: The State Department View.

According to Smith, today cables must compete, more than ever, for attention in an ever expanding communication arena, not only from the Seventh Floor at Foggy Bottom, but even from low-ranking State Department desk officers. While all too often ignored by the Washington bureaucracy, telegrams can result in rewards for their drafters if they suit the Department’s information standards and expectations. Smith candidly admits that promotions come not from challenging policy, but as a rule from providing evidence confirming that headquarters is right. The craftsman, who should follow the lapidary style of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, must remain realistic about his audience’s limited interest in his work, especially if it questions their assumptions: “Let us look at our audience now as competitors, rather than simply as grateful recipients of the blessings of your brilliance.”

These how-to chapters contain some reasonable suggestions — e.g., “In most contemporary societies, diplomats are awash in what passes for information but which, for their purposes, is usually noise. The diplomat’s job is to hear what is significant in that cacophony of voices.” But this section of the book tends to stress the obvious, such as “Political analysis may be good without being useful, but it cannot be useful if it is not good.” And what is one to make of this bureaucratic advice except to dismiss it with a yawn:

For example, the head of the political section may be prepared to submit the initial, factual reporting cable on his own but may be reluctant to transmit the analytical and/or predictive sections with the input or the concurrence of the deputy chief of mission or the ambassador. However, they may be tied up at a social function where they cannot be interrupted. Even if they could be reached, the analytical and predictive elements of the cable are not the kinds of things one would normally discuss by telephone, even in a friendly country.

Chapters 8 and 9, clearly (and somewhat immodestly) meant to be the centerpiece of the book as a model of cable composition, are what Smith calls “case studies” that reproduce in full four telegrams he drafted in the early 90s in Moscow, including the abovementioned “Abyss” piece. These documents, and Smith’s candid commentary on how and why they were written, make not uninteresting reading, and may be of use to historians specializing in the collapse of the USSR.

Although they provide evidence that American diplomats were thinking seriously about the fate of the Soviet Union, these carefully constructed missives largely failed to attract Washington’s limited attention span. Could it have been because they dealt not with the immediate threat of an aggressive and little-known Eurasian power, as was the case in Kennan’s time, but with the decline of a militarily enfeebled empire that appeared far less dangerous to American security than Stalin’s secretive, brutal state? Smith does not consider this explanation, but instead notes that:

What would have happened to Kennan’s cable if it had been sent in the technological environment of, for example, July 1990, when I was political counselor in Moscow? First of all, it would not have been the Long Telegram. It could have been Embassy Moscow cable number 23,603, there having been an average of some 3,600 cables transmitted monthly by mid-July.

He goes on to note that:

If we assume that the cable was classified secret and had been given an EXDIS2 distribution restriction, it would not have sunk without a trace. The secret designation would not have elicited much attention but the EXDIS restriction would, paradoxically, have gotten the cable more readership, or at least more influential readership, than if there had been no restrictions on it.

He concludes these speculations with the following observation:

[If] Kennan had been reporting from, say, Embassy Reykjavik, his brilliant analysis would probably have been read only by his desk officer, a junior official responsible for two or three countries as well.

These quotations lead us to the second level of Smith’s book, which is a lament that cables, ironically because there are so many of them taking up space in an already overcrowded information sphere, are becoming irrelevant, except to those who write them. In such a situation, Smith contends, the political analyst is an essentially uninfluential “weather vane” providing “intellectual content for the policies for those in power” rather than a compass charting what directions policy should take. “[T]echnological developments conceivably call into question the very need for traditional written analysis,” he notes in his final chapter, which mentions the WikiLeaks episode in passing but regrettably does not explore its implications in depth.

All in all, the obvious but important lesson of this book, too State-Department centered to appeal to a broad readership, is that the world has, for better or for worse, considerably changed since the past century, especially in the area of communications. In our tweeting universe of 140 characters3 Kennan’s and Smith’s telegrams, no matter how brilliant, just demand too much time to be as carefully read as they should.End.


(1) The cable is quoted in the December, 2011 issue of the Foreign Service Journal devoted to “When the Soviet Union Fell”

(2) The brief “Glossary of Common State Department Terms” Smith thus defines EXDIS: “exclusive or executive distribution. This is a distribution designator placed on a document to restrict who may see it.”

(3) See my article, “Twittering; or, Where are the Emily Dickinsons at the State Department?”, Huffington Post (June 19, 2009)

Dr. John Brown
Dr. John Brown

John H. Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, teaches a course at Georgetown University entitled “Propaganda and US Foreign Policy: A Historical Overview,” which, he notes, may eventually result in the publication of a monograph on the topic. He is the writer/compiler of the daily Public Diplomacy Press Review (PDPR).

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