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'To The Secretary' Tries To Unwind The Tangles Of Diplomacy

Halfway through John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it's clear who Soviet mole Gerald really is. And for George Smiley, the career spy investigating the conspiracy, it's never really been a secret at all. He unspools the conspiracy web from a sense of duty and a resigned curiosity. And after all the secrets and the human toll, the fallout boils down to a minor exchange of concessions designed to keep two empires moving.

It's impossible to read about the 250,000 recent diplomatic cables WikiLeaks released in 2010 and not understand George Smiley, staring down a flood of State department secrets and already resigned to the worst. As it turns out, the most remarkable thing is how little the leak mattered given how much it revealed. There's a deliberate obsolescence to Chelsea Manning's watershed whistleblow, which opened up state secrets that were by turns illuminating (diplomats secretly love a good round of snark) and rattling (America was secretly bombing Yemen).

In To The Secretary: Leaked Embassy Cables and America's Foreign Policy Disconnect, Mary Thompson-Jones, an ex-State Department employee, attempts to sift through a few key cables for a lay audience. The chapters seem designed to be approachable for non-wonks, everything tidily arranged: Frenemies, Crises, Corruption, Wild Animals, Iraq. Turning the selected cables into a cohesive look at foreign policy is a complex task, as notable for what it leaves out as for what it discusses. But the essential question she asks carries George Smiley weariness with it: "How many times must we repeat the past?"

It's a question about which any one book can only scratch the surface. To the Secretary seems inclined to answer, "Indefinitely," and lays out a sampler of international examples with varying levels of candor. There are major incidents (power games in post-cyclone Burma spelled the end of a regime). There are sly asides (a diplomat witnesses an "event," never a "coup," and they're encouraged to deliver a sense of can-do forward motion even amid disaster). There are moments in which the global lens pivots. (One Saudi bemoans their government with a universal cry: "If I don't feel my rights will be addressed in a system that is free of corruption there is something wrong.")

'To the Secretary' is its own primer on how to read it; with every international sticking point, it gets easier to spot things that aren't quite said.

And there are situations so complex they're essentially riddles: In the forests near Vladivostok, the government's trying to restore the critically endangered Amur leopard, but the leopards encroach on the endangered Amur tiger's hunting grounds, since illegal logging swallowed the pine forests that feed their boar prey; the lumber goes to China, and ends up in American furniture stores. What's a diplomat to do?

Thompson-Jones is seasoned; she knows the terrain. Of course — no surprise for a diplomat — she also values discretion. And To the Secretary is its own primer on how to read it; with every international sticking point, it gets easier to spot things that aren't quite said. Diplomacy is a subtle business. (Some of the anonymous Czech-office cables that Thompson-Jones anonymously references in the book actually bear her signature — but a signature doesn't mean authorship.

The book notes this tradition, and Thompson-Jones explained further when I asked: "The signature does not mean the ambassador wrote the cable. Usually these are written by officers in the political or economic sections, under the direction of the head of the section, and cleared up the chain of command, up to and including the deputy chief of mission." It's a fascinating reminder that To the Secretary is just the beginning of one's diplomatic education.)

At its most unfocused, the book feels like a State Department minutiae briefing in the middle of a forest fire. But it's also a glimpse at the everyday pressures under which a diplomatic corps of idealists, realists, and occasional opportunists attempt to change world. Thompson-Jones puts a little of that American can-do spin on it all, but this diplomatic primer suggests that sometimes things are so tangled there's no way to win. If it seems overwhelming ... well, shouldn't it?

Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.

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