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The art of the diplomatic cable

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1 December 2010 09:08

Historian Timothy Garton Ash examines the Wikileaks cables, and is impressed:

...my personal opinion of the state department has gone up several notches. In recent years, I have found the American foreign service to be somewhat underwhelming, reach-me-down, dandruffy, especially when compared with other, more confident arms of US government, such as the Pentagon and the treasury. But what we find here is often first rate.

Andrew Sullivan said similar things.

My guess is that if a swag of DFAT cables were ever leaked, Australian observers would be similarly impressed with our foreign service. In my short time at DFAT, older hands complained that the art of cable writing had been lost, but in my experience, any given day's cable traffic brought with it a good selection of smart, trenchant and sometimes funny commentary.

Garton Ash says in his column that some of the American cables in the Wikileals haul are 'almost worthy of Waugh', and while I cannot remember ever reading anything quite so refined from an Australian diplomat, I do recall a somewhat earthier cable from an Australian military officer who was posted overseas.

Legend had it that this cable was never meant to be sent, and had been written by the mid-ranking officer merely to test whether his boss was reading his drafts. The cable concerned some aspect of South Pacific politics, pithily describing the situation as: 'The whole f***ing thing is f***ing f***ed.'

Needless to say, the officer's boss failed the test, and as far as I know, the cable survives in DFAT's electronic archives to this day. It is a measure of the magnanimity and good humour of the Australian bureaucracy that the author of this cable now enjoys a successful career as a senior public servant.

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