Diplomats’ Reports in the Cold War Years: Indispensable or Exercise in Futility?

Hans Morgenthau, a founding father of the "realist" school of international relations.

Hans Morgenthau, a founding father of the “realist” school of international relations.

“‘The success or failure of a country’s foreign policy and its ability to preserve peace will depend upon the reliability of the diplomat’s reports.’ So declared Hans Morgenthau in Politics Among Nations, the classic theory of international relations written in the aftermath of the Second World War.”

… writes Foreign Policy in Focus columnist Hannah Gurman in her new book The Dissent Papers: The Voices of Diplomats in the Cold War and Beyond (Columbia University Press). She surveys the largely unexplored terrain of the effect — or lack thereof — on U.S. foreign policy by its diplomats’ reports, memos, and telegrams, especially, according to the Columbia University Press website, “when they challenged key policies relating to the Cold War, China, and the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. The Dissent Papers recovers these diplomats’ invaluable perspective and their commitment to the transformative power of diplomatic writing.”

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction that should you give you some idea of Ms. Gurman’s fresh approach:

More important than the abstract idea of diplomacy were actual diplomats, who, [Morgenthau] believed, understood international conflicts from the ground up as well as from a conceptual grounding in a realistic view of international affairs. The reports and analyses of the diplomatic corps were thus critical to the future of America’s international relations. Diplomats, wrote Morgenthau, ought to be the “fingertips of foreign policy.” … In the coming years, however, Morgenthau would become frustrated by the contradictions between his theories of international relations and the practice of U.S. foreign policy. In American foreign relations, he lamented, there was “no room for traditional methods of diplomacy,” nor for the “peculiar finesse and subtlety of mind” of the diplomat.

What’s worse …

The odds were against anyone who believed that diplomatic writing might actually influence the course of U.S. foreign policy. Though the last sixty years have been especially trying for the diplomatic establishment, the longer history of the State Department is threaded with the frustrations of diplomats who felt ignored or undervalued. … Yet, as far as I know, to his dying day, [Morgenthau] never engaged in a sustained reflection on his vision of diplomats as the “fingertips of foreign policy.” Had he done so, he would have had to admit that his vision had not been realized. Through most of the “American century,” the promise that diplomatic writing could influence the course of foreign policy has not been fulfilled. The limits of “writerly” dissent in the diplomatic establishment serve, in many ways, to underscore the increasing power of the national security state that the dissent papers sought to curb. [Emphasis added.]

Still …

At the same time, if he were to focus on the very struggle of diplomats to make their voices heard, and the internal as well as public contests over the products of this struggle, he might conclude that diplomatic writing played a telling, if not always glamorous, role in the history of U.S. foreign policy in the age of American superpower.