Wednesday, December 29, 2010

WikiLeaks? More Like Late'nWeak

WikiLeaks is a latecomer to the business of publishing U.S. diplomatic documents, and an amateurish one.

As the Office of the Historian reminds us in a DipNote post today, the State Department has been publishing its own official diplomatic documents for all the world to see for 150 years now. And, unlike WikiLeaks, it adds scholarly value to the raw documents via a documentary editorial process, and also gets them declassified. There's really no comparison.

The WikiLeaks controversy highlights a whole set of important questions about how the United States, or any government, conducts its affairs in the international arena. Similarly, the ongoing challenges of the day attest to the sweep of issues that must be negotiated among states. What, exactly, do diplomats do? How, precisely, is diplomacy conducted? How are particularly thorny diplomatic issues negotiated? How much information should be kept secret, and how much should be shared? What is the goal of foreign policy? What does “national security” mean, and who defines it?

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The Civil War marked a key turning point in this tradition of public disclosure [which began in the 1790s], because the Department of State began disseminating foreign policy records on a regular basis. Documents have been published continuously since 1861, selected for their importance, annotated for accuracy, and bound into book-length volumes. Now called the Foreign Relations of the United States (or FRUS), this series celebrates its 150th year of publication in 2011. They are not stories written by historians who have digested the material and presented it in narrative form. Rather, after a thoroughgoing process that combines scholarly principles of documentary editing and responsible procedures for declassification review, the documents are allowed to speak for themselves, giving the reader the opportunity to experience the “you were there” feeling that comes from encountering the original material yourself.

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By reading FRUS, anyone can gain insight into how diplomacy actually happens. Sometimes the negotiations become intense, with messages flying about the world on an hourly basis, multiple meetings, hushed corridor conversations, and deals struck after much bargaining. Some problems are resolved, while others are not. In some cases, long-held secrets are revealed. At other times the documents confirm what has long been believed but not previously proven ...... Mostly, however, one encounters the dilemmas facing ordinary people who must make immediate decisions with incomplete information, fearful of worst-case scenarios, and hopeful that they can craft a better world than they inherited. It is the stuff of mundane routine and high drama; taken altogether, it is a story of great consequence for the peoples of the world.

Read the whole thing here: “Foreign Relations of the United States” Series Tells the Story of U.S. Diplomacy.

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