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by Ambassador, (ret.) William A. Rugh, Ph.D.

Professional American diplomats resent the popular view that all diplomats lie. A frequently quoted remark by Henry Wooton, the 17th century British diplomat, is “An ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.” His idea was that as an official representative of a government, a diplomat must say only what the government wants him or her to say, even if it is not the truth.

But in fact, the culture of American diplomacy dictates that American diplomats try hard to be truthful, and not lie. They prefer another admonition by Edward R. Murrow when he was Director of the U.S. Information Agency, “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.”

This essay describes the difference between what diplomats say and what they might think. Most of the examples have been taken from very recent events – and because of the “Arab Spring”, many deal with that. But a more detailed study of diplospeak would find examples every year going back centuries.

The quotes used here are mostly from US officials in Washington, whose public statements are part of America’s official diplomatic discourse.1 But US professional diplomats serving at embassies and consulates all over the world also make statements that in style and substance parallel those made in Washington, and in fact diplomats abroad frequently quote directly from Washington statements. They not only follow Murrow’s rules of credibility but they use language for specific purposes. They learn diplospeak mainly on the job, from more experienced American diplomats. Following are some examples.

Peaceful settlement of disputes

American officials are often reluctant to take sides when disputes arise in a foreign country, to avoid being accused of unwarranted intervention in that country’s domestic affairs. President Obama is particularly sensitive to the charge made against his predecessor that the US intervened too much abroad. Thus one common theme US diplomats express when a foreign conflict arises is that it should be settled peacefully and violence should stop. The United States is trying to be helpful, although each side usually wants American support. During the “Arab Spring”, Arab governments wanted Washington backing and opposition elements wanted US sympathy, US officials generally sought to avoid taking sides, in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, although they issued more judgments when uprisings continued without resolution, as in Libya, Yemen and Syria.

Friendly or confrontational?

When domestic conflicts in foreign countries continue as they did during 2011 and 2012 in the Middle East, US officials may decide they must do more than call for an end to violence. The question is what should they say publicly? An American policy toward any country is always a complex combination of factors, including the state of bilateral relations (cooperative or confrontational) and the domestic situation in that country (democratic or authoritarian).

Often in dealing with a troublesome situation abroad that continues over time, the US diplomatic language shifts, gradually, to indicate increasing frustration and urgency. While the US has had strained relations with Syria for years, when the Arab uprisings began in early 2011, US official public statements at first reflected Washington’s hope that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would offer concessions and reforms to the protesters that would calm the situation. Thus at the end of March 2011, when the protests were still on a small scale and geographically isolated, Secretary Clinton simply said, “We want to see no violence, we want to see peaceful protest that enables people to express their universal human rights, and we want to see economic and political reform.”2 The intention was to mildly reproach both sides and at the same time to suggest what the US thought each side should do to calm the situation.

As Assad continued his brutal crackdown, eventually US officials condemned him in no uncertain terms. At the end of July, President Obama said “I am appalled by the Syrian government’s use of violence and brutality against its own people. The reports out of Hama are horrifying and demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime.”3 Those were unusually strong statements coming personally from an American president. Secretary Clinton went even farther at that time, saying about Bashar al-Assad, “From our perspective he has lost his legitimacy”.4 This was an unusually strong and direct negative assessment of a foreign head of state, and was clearly meant as an escalation of the rebuke. But it was prefaced with the words “From our perspective…” to acknowledge that Assad’s legitimacy was a matter for the Syrians to decide. By that time, US officials were also very specific about what it wanted the Syrian government to do: “to immediately halt its campaign of violence and arrests, pull its security forces back, release many thousands of detainees, and to respect and act upon the clear demands of the Syrian people for a peaceful and democratic transition.”5

That was unusual. US officials often discuss in private what steps they want other governments to take, but normally refrain from doing so in public because that risks portraying the US as interventionist. The American choice of words showed that Washington officials had decided to take sides to appeal to those countries in Europe and elsewhere that sided with the opposition, and to satisfy strong American domestic opinion against the Syrian regime.

In Saudi Arabia, when opposition protests occurred, the US government remained silent. Many private Americans have been critical of Saudi domestic policies and lack of democracy, as have American officials in private. But the US-Saudi official relationship has been strong for decades, and Washington officials were for reasons of national interest reluctant to criticize the government. This reticence was easier because the Saudi protests were relatively minor. But eventually journalists asked about the US official view of Saudi protests, and US officials had to respond.

The response came not from the president or secretary of state but from a lower ranking official, State Department spokesman PJ Crowley. He said, “Secretary Clinton has urged the region to undertake political, economic and social reform. She has encouraged governments to engage their people in peaceful dialogue, and that includes Saudi Arabia.” Putting the admonition in the context of the entire region was intended to soften it for the Saudis and other friends by not singling them out. Crowley added this: “King Abdullah has been a reformer, and we have recognized steps that he has taken over the years during his reign. We encourage him to advance the pace of those reforms.”6 This formulation, starting with praise for the king and simply “encouraging” (not demanding) a faster pace, was intended to signal that the US thought the king was moving in the right direction, without saying how far he had to go.

Vague threats

Since the United States is a superpower capable of intervening with force, statements by its officials are scrutinized for indications that could lead to direct military action or economic sanctions. It is uncommon for diplomatic speech to include threats of that sort, but on occasion it might include vague references to the fact that American policy makers might act.

For example, in February 2011, early in the Libyan crisis, US officials announced that President Obama discussed with European leaders a “range of options…to hold the Libyan government responsible for its actions.”7 Then in early March, he said that he was discussing with NATO allies “a wide range of possible options, including potential military options, in response to the violence that continues to take place inside Libya.”8 Those vague threats made no specific promises to do anything, but the intention was to cause Qaddafi to change his behavior to avoid direct intervention against him. After the US intervened starting on March 19, President Obama said that the US could not “simply stand by with empty words”.9

The US also used vague threats against Syria. By August 2011, when Washington had clearly come out in support of the opposition and the departure of President Assad, US officials said “We will certainly continue to look at ways to take further steps to put pressure on the regime to end its violence.”10 This threat was not specific, partly because American officials knew they had little leverage over Syrian behavior, and partly because they did not want to reveal what further measures they were contemplating. They hoped a vague threat would help persuade Assad. The United States joined with other governments to impose economic sanctions on Syria and to take diplomatic steps to end the violence there, but as of this writing (May 2012) neither these actions nor repeated threats to do more have had the desired effect.


President Obama strongly believes in a multilateralist approach, cooperating with other countries in order to spread responsibility. US officials regularly stress that theme. For example, when the US agreed to military action in Libya in 2011, statements by American diplomats sought to show that the US was not alone so in their statements they repeatedly emphasized that European and Arab nations, as well as the United Nations, supported the same policy. They specifically mentioned the UK, France, Italy and NATO as well as others, and the support of Qatar, and the Arab League.11 US diplomats often stress the multinational aspect and avoid describing a policy as only benefitting America (although that is the argument used for domestic audiences).

Stressing Arab support was especially important because of Arab public criticism of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Stressing multilateralism as a motivating factor is also designed to contrast with the unilateralist policies of the George W. Bush administration, that had been was criticized in America and abroad. These motives are in the minds of US officials but are rarely mentioned by American diplomats in the Obama administration, who simply argue that US policies are supported by other countries and the UN.

US officials also referred to multilateralism in talking about policy toward Syria. In July 2011, President Obama said, “That’s why we’ve been working at an international level to make sure that we keep the pressure up to see if we can bring some real change to Syria.”12 At the end of the month he said, “In the days ahead, the United States will increase the pressure on the Syrian regime, and work with others around the world to isolate the Assad government and stand with the Syrian people.”13 That policy continued well into 2012.

US officials stressed that they had UN support on Syria. Secretary Clinton said in August 2011, “We are building what I think is a much more persuasive case that the international community – not just the United States – wants to see peaceful change in Syria.”14 The US made this point repeatedly,15 and the United States strongly supported the UN-endorsed effort led by Kofi Anan.

Benefits to others

An American diplomat speaking to foreigners about US policy rarely says it is of benefit to the United States, although that may be an important rationale for the policy. Instead, he or she will argue that the purpose of the policy is to benefit others. Officials in the Obama administration are particularly anxious to overcome the common view abroad that US policies are only self-serving.

For example, this theme was used often during the Egyptian uprising because of close US-Egyptian ties and the widespread assumption that the US might somehow intervene in Egyptian internal affairs. Immediately after the Egyptian uprising deposed President Mubarak, President Obama said, “The United State will continue to be a friend and partner to Egypt. We stand ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary – and asked for – to pursue a credible transition to a democracy.”16

Then in August, just as the trial of Mubarak was starting, the State Department spokesman was asked for the US opinion on its outcome. He said, “This is really a matter for the Egyptian people to address.”17 The spokesman had been careful to avoid taking sides or appearing to interfere so he refused to give any US opinion. Presumably opinion within the administration saw a trial as potentially destabilizing and not good for the US, but no one said that publicly.

Another example is the repeated refrain by US officials talking about our Libyan policy, which they described as a “humanitarian effort” aimed at the “safety” of the Libyan people against Qaddafi’s “humanitarian threat.”18 Some diplomats said that any US action the US took in Libya “should represent the will of the people in the region”19 These statements make no mention at all of the benefit to the United States, which of course is always a factor supporting every foreign policy decision. When American officials mention benefits to the US it is primarily for American domestic audiences, not foreign audiences. Foreign audiences want to know how a policy benefits them, not us.

Gentle persuasion

Often US diplomats make requests to foreign governments indirectly, avoiding blunt demands in favor of polite encouragement. For example, in the summer of 2011 when the famine in the Horn of Africa worsened, the US sought to persuade other countries to do more to provide humanitarian assistance there. Secretary Clinton stated in July 2011,”The United States is the largest bilateral donor of emergency assistance to the eastern Horn of Africa. We have already responded with over $431 million in food and non-food emergency assistance this year alone.”20 US officials made the point somewhat more strongly by saying: “Helping solve the [Somali humanitarian] crisis will require sustained effort on the part of the international community, as emergency assistance alone cannot solve the underlying long-term problems.”21

But these public statements refrained from identifying specific governments that Washington wanted to contribute more assistance, although those governments certainly got the message that the US expected more from them, because they knew that the US was sending a stronger message than it sounded. Undoubtedly that message was reinforced in traditional diplomatic channels as well. Diplomatic channels allow blunter language without embarrassing the other government.

US officials also tried gentle persuasion with the Somali rebels. Secretary Clinton made a statement in which she referred to “relentless terrorism by Al-Shabab against its own people”, she nevertheless added this: “Even so, we remain cautiously optimistic that Al-Shabab will permit unimpeded international assistance in famine struck areas.”22

Those words were intended to make three points, indirectly. First, to criticize Al-Shabab by saying they had carried out terrorism against their own people. Second, to hint at good intelligence information that the Al-Shabab would allow “some humanitarian assistance to give hope to the Somali people and associate the US with that hope. Third, the optimism was probably also intended to encourage Al-Shabab to cooperate, by indicating that the US believed they would do so.

Appeal to Local Culture

Occasionally US officials include references to local cultural values to make their public statements more persuasive. For example, in August 2011, Secretary Clinton appealed to a group of Islamic militants fighting against the Government of Somalia.23 She said, “It is particularly tragic that during the holy month of Ramadan, Al-Shabab is preventing assistance to the most vulnerable populations in Somalia.”24

In order to try to persuade Al-Shabab to cease its terrorist attacks in Somalia, the US was couching the approach in cultural and religious terms, because the Al-Shabab members are Muslim. The timing was important too: it was the middle of Ramadan when Muslims are enjoined to be charitable and peaceful. This message was intended specifically for the Al-Shabab leadership and also for other Muslims who it was hoped might be able to influence their co-religionists.

Direct requests

Occasionally US diplomats focus their public remarks directly on foreign governments with specific requests that they take some action they have been unwilling to take. For example, in mid-August 2011 Secretary Clinton said about the Syrian situation, “What we really need to do to put the pressure on Assad is to sanction the oil and gas industry, and we want to see Europe take more steps in that direction. And we want to see China and India take steps with us. We want to see Russia cease selling arms to the Asad regime.”25

It is likely that US diplomats in European countries, China, India and Russia had already been making a strong case in private to host country governments to take those measures to join in the US pressure on Syria, and now the US was raising the stakes by having a very senior official publicly name them and specifying what we wanted them to do.

A few days later she reiterated the general point, saying, “In particular, we urge those countries still buying Syrian oil and gas, those countries sending Asad weapons, those countries giving him political and economic support give him comfort in his brutality, to get on the right side of history.”26 She did not name specific countries she was asking for action, they had already gotten the message through private diplomatic channels. Moreover, by making the request more general, she was speaking to more governments, i.e. those that were buying Syrian oil and gas, and those that were providing political support.

In another example, when President Obama spoke about the Egyptian uprising in February 2011 just after Mubarak had resigned, he said, “The [Egyptian] military has served patriotically and responsibly as a caretaker to the state, and will now have to ensure a transition that is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people. That means protecting the rights of Egypt’s citizens, lifting the emergency law, revising the constitution and other laws to make this change irreversible, and laying out a clear path to elections that are fair and free.”27

Behind these words was the clear hint of a concern in the US government – that was not directly expressed – that the Egyptian military would not do the things Obama said they should do now that they had assumed power. He carefully began his statement with praise of the military. This public statement was a diplomatic message not only to the Egyptian military, but also to the Egyptian people, that the United States wanted the military command to do all of those things. It made no threats in case of non-compliance. Unspoken also was the fact, that the Egyptian military was well aware of, that the US had been providing $1.3 billion annually to Egypt in military assistance, a large carrot that could of course be withdrawn.


In summary, American officials generally follow the rule that they should tell the truth and nothing but the truth, and not mislead. Traditional diplomatic exchanges between governments are in secret and can be more candid, while public statements must be more carefully crafted. Both forms of communication serve deliberate and parallel purposes. The public words are intended to support the private diplomatic conversations that are taking place.

When the US government wants to threaten some action, that action is not necessarily specified but instead a formulation is used that indicates Washington’s patience is coming to an end and it may soon end its restraint. That signals to others that deliberations are taking place within the US government that could lead to some new action, but it often does not reveal the options being considered. The unwritten rules of “diplospeak” are rarely broken by professional American diplomats, whether they are making public statements or having private conversations, because they believe Murrow’s dictum that truthfulness is important for credibility and persuasiveness.

The Wikileaks revelations have thrown some diplospeak statements into sharp relief when they have allowed comparison between diplomats’ classified communications to Washington with what they have said in public. But those who listen carefully to the public utterances of diplomats can usually interpret what is intended behind the words. Moreover, many of the Wikileaks revelations have not only undermined the purposes of diplospeak but have also resulted in undermining American diplomatic relations when they have embarrassed the government that the US official has talked candidly about.

Traditional diplomatic exchanges in secret, and public statements, each have their own rules. Diplospeak often has the purpose of maintaining cordial bilateral relations between the US and a foreign government when harsher and more candid language could force a harsh response and even damage to the relationship. Candor and tough talk is often reserved for official diplomatic discussions that are carried on behind closed doors.End.


1. Many of the quotes are from an official State Department website,, put out daily by State’s Rapid Response Unit, and indicated hereinafter by the designation “RRU”.

2. RRU 3-28-2011 quoting Secretary Clinton

3. RRU 8-1-2011 quoting President Obama

4. RRU 7-12-2011 quoting Secretary Clinton

5. RRU 8-11-2011 quoting White House Press Secretary Carney

6. RRU 3-15-2011 quoting Asssitant Secretary PJ Crowley

7. RRU 2-25-2011 quoting a readout of the president’s calls

8. RRU 3-8-2011 quoting president Obama

9. RRU 3-22-2011 quoting President Obama

10. RRU 8-4-2011 quoting White House Press Secretary Carney

11. RRU 2-25-2011 citing a readout of the president’s calls; 3-15-2011 citing White House spokesman Carney; 3-22-2011 quoting President Obama; and 3-28-2011 quoting President Obama.

12. RRU 7-13-2011 quoting President Obama

13. RRU 8-1-2011 quoting President Obama

14. RRU 8-12-2011 quoting Secretary Clinton

15. For example RRU 8-5 2011 quoting Secretary Clinton and 8-16-2011 quoting State Department Deputy Spokesman Nuland

16. RRU 2-14-2011 quoting President Obama

17. RRU 8-3-2011 quoting State Department Deputy Spokesman Toner

18. RRU 3-14-2011, quoting a White House statement; 3-21-2011 and 3-22-2011 quoting President Obama, and 7-28-2011 quoting State Department guidance.

19. RRU 3-15-2011 quoting White House spokesman Carney

20. RRU 7-27-2011 quoting Secretary Clinton

21. RRU 7-19-2011, quoting State Department Guidance

22. RRU 7-27-2011 quoting Secretary Clinton

23. The group, which calls itself Harakat al Shabaab al Mujahideen, is usually referred to as “Al-Shabab”

24. RRU 8-8-2011 quoting Secretary Clinton

25. RRU 8-12-2011 quoting Secretary Clinton

26. RRU 8-15-2011 quoting Secretary Clinton

27. RRU 2-14-2011 quoting President Obama


William A. Rugh
William A. Rugh

Ambassador (ret.) William A. Rugh, Ph.D. is the author of Arab Mass Media and many articles on Middle Eastern subjects, as well as two books on public diplomacy. He was a U.S. Foreign Service officer for 30 years, and served at embassies in six Arab countries, including as American Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (1992-95) and Ambassador to Yemen (1984-87). He held several public diplomacy positions, including Area Director for Near East and South Asia (1989-92), and PAO in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He was President of AMIDEAST, an American non-profit organization (1995-2003) and is currently the Edward R. Murrow Visiting Professor of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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