Our Envoys, Ourselves

A global power’s diplomatic archives are inevitably full of caustic dispatches. In Britain, a new batch of Foreign Office records is declassified each January under the “30-year rule” (a “50-year rule” before 1968). Historians can peruse elegantly handwritten mockeries of President Eisenhower’s name as exotically Eastern European, or files deriding Americans as the planet’s “most excitable” people — other than Bangladeshis.

For the most part, such documents provide little more than a snapshot of a moment in history or a window into the mind of a particular diplomat. Over the last two weeks, however, WikiLeaks has opened another perspective. Its quarter-million cables provide a sample broad enough to reflect the culture in which American foreign policy takes shape.

We encounter the mind-set of a freewheeling, democratic superpower, a pattern of thought that shows great excitement over celebrities and moments hailed as irreversibly world-changing. In this, the State Department truly represents our national disposition.

A century ago, a foreign journalist asked the theatrical impresario Charles Frohman why one saw only actors’ names on Broadway marquees, whereas in Paris the names in lights were those of playwrights. Frohman explained that in America, the emphasis is always on the doer, not the thing done: “There are stars in every walk of American life. It has always been so in democracies.” It remains true today: as the most individualistic of all democracies, America creates, rewards, obsesses over stars of every kind and intensely extols personal success.

WikiLeaks has shown how these enthusiasms play out overseas. The pages of the leaked cables hum with high-level gossip and trenchant cameos. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany “avoids risk and is seldom creative”; a “penchant for partying hard” has left Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy “a complete mess”; President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is thin-skinned and has “monarchial tendencies”; Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia is like a Mafia godfather but also “resents or resists the workload he carries.”

The danger is that personalization, however accurate, can get in the way of sharper assessments of resources, national aims and public attitudes. Knowing delicious details of le tout Paris, for instance, still left Washington unprepared for France’s refusal to join in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Similarly, as America sets out to build nations in the undeveloped world, it keeps discovering new heroes who, eventually, turn out to be less than the supermen they were once considered. There is Hamid Karzai, previously the savior of Afghanistan, now revealed by WikiLeaks as (at best) unaware that his brother may be a major figure in the opium trade.

This is an old story. In the 1950s there was Syngman Rhee in South Korea; in Vietnam, there was Ngo Dinh Diem, the “Churchill of Asia”; then the shadowy Ahmed Chalabi was supposed by the Bush administration to be “the George Washington of Iraq.” The problem is that Washington too often finds itself with few choices but to keep working with such figures even after they no longer appear indispensable (or, like Diem, have to be dispensed with).

America’s thirst to single out great figures is matched by the desire to be on hand at history’s great events. Repeatedly, however, we fail to put such moments in context, and thus inflate their significance in the grand sweep of history.

Emerson was right to call us “the country of tomorrow.” We live in the future, are first to adopt the Next New Thing. From this outlook springs a casual approach to how the world moves and changes: the sense that destiny shifts easily, suddenly, for obvious reasons. Remember how “everything” was deemed to have been transformed by the 9/11 attacks, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the 1972 summit meeting in Beijing that President Richard Nixon described as “the week that changed the world.”

So in WikiLeaks we see expectations that one death in North Korea — that of the dictator Kim Jong-il — will transform a system in which thousands of people are brutally invested. (Never mind that it rode right on when Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, died in 1994.) As for Iran, WikiLeaks shows Washington anticipating yet another “different world,” which is what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Italy’s foreign minister would occur should Tehran get nuclear weapons.

The leaking of secret documents is hardly to be encouraged. WikiLeaks may imperil the lives of agents or compromise negotiations, and is certainly arming our enemies with awkward knowledge. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the cables. Let’s hope that the exposure of our diplomatic fixations on personalities and allegedly world-changing events will lead us, in fact, to a less excitable, more informed foreign policy.

Derek Leebaert, a management consultant and the author of Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy From Korea to Afghanistan.