A career diplomat uses embassy cables to describe the complex lives of foreign service officers.
When WikiLeaks published 251,287 cables in 2010, the massive leak of confidential information polarized the American public. But Thompson-Jones (Director, Global Studies and International Relations/Northeastern Univ.) is an academic and veteran diplomat, and her viewpoint is positive: the exposed cables describe daily life in U.S. embassies around the world. The author argues that the American people know very little about their ambassadors and fail to appreciate their delicate work. “When onetime presidential candidate Ross Perot famously said that diplomats could be replaced by fax machines,” she writes, “he ignored the real art in delivering a message that offers an opportunity for a conversation. Diplomats listen for a reaction. In many cultures a diplomat has to know when yes means no, or maybe, or we’ll see.” Thompson-Jones dedicates much of her book to major themes, such as “travel” and “frenemies,” and she boils down entire countries to one quality or another: Bulgaria, to Thompson-Jones, represents “corruption,” and she describes the nation through its web of organized crime. Most of her quotes derive from cables, which are heavy with perspective and nuance. The most dramatic chapter focuses on Iraq, an assignment that most diplomats resented, but the book is dense with provocative anecdotes from around the globe—e.g., one diplomat in China was shocked to find a bevy of abused tigers, alarming Washington, D.C., with his lurid descriptions. Not surprisingly, Thompson-Jones writes about sticky situations in a diplomatic way. “The transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama brought with it a long-needed lift in America’s world standing,” she writes carefully. The author dedicates a final chapter to Hillary Clinton, thoughtfully assessing her tenure as secretary of state. Amid the current heated election cycle, Thompson-Jones provides some sharp insights into Clinton’s performance.
A breezy, informative profile on foreign service that serves as an inviting primer for prospective diplomats and their admirers.