How do diplomats write? The contribution of the diplomatic cable to U.S. and EU foreign policy-making

                     Jessica Stark, Aix-Marseille Université, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France

The cable is one of the most common, routine forms of internal communication for diplomats, and yet its classified status has made academic study of the genre difficult. In this blog post, I provide a brief overview of the cable’s linguistic characteristics and comment on how it contributes to foreign policy-making by comparing two sets of leaked diplomatic cables. The first set was selected from the whistleblowing platform Wikileaks, which has published to date over 250,000 U.S. State Department cables written between 2003 and 2010[i].  I also rely on a more recent set of 23 diplomatic cables produced by the European Union’s diplomatic service – the European External Action Service (EEAS) – between October 2015 and July 2018[ii].  In a December 2018 press article, journalists David E. Sanger and Steven Erlanger claimed that thousands of EU cables are believed to have been hacked over the years by Chinese intelligence agencies. Area 1, a firm founded by three former officials of the U.S. National Security Agency who discovered the breach, made more than 1,100 of the hacked cables available to the New York Times[iii].

The cable is an integral part of the institutional, organisational routines of diplomacy and timely, impactful reporting is particularly prized within the diplomatic community. Diplomats aim to be as exhaustive as possible in relaying information from the field back to their home foreign ministries, and regularly draft cables after meetings and events, or to comment on important foreign policy developments or trends in their host country. Additionally, cables are an embassy’s shopfront in terms of analytical policy input: they provide recommendations and advice for policy-makers back home. The cable therefore appears to combine both an informative and an analytical function, as a “mix of intelligence collection, analysis, and policy advocacy” (Palmer 2016: 217-18).

To explore this duality further, I focus here on linguistic markers of evaluation, which I define broadly as any rhetorical device used to express the writer’s attitude to or his or her viewpoint on propositional content. These markers are indicative of the author’s discursive goals and guide the reader towards an appropriate understanding and uptake of the cable. I also draw on data gathered through several interviews with British diplomats conducted between 2015 and 2018. My corpus includes American and EU cables, not British, but the cable is an international diplomatic genre and follows similar structural and stylistic constraints across countries. The analysis is based on a typology of evaluative markers (Conrad & Biber 2003) organised into three categories: epistemic markers expressing certainty or doubt, stylistic (or metadiscursive) devices and attitudinal markers.

Epistemic markers comment on the certainty, reliability or limitations of a given proposition (Conrad & Biber 2003: 57). At two opposite ends of a certainty-doubt continuum lie “boosters”, which serve to strengthen a cable writer’s line of argument and are signs of conviction (certainly, evidently, obviously, etc.), and “hedges” – downtoning the force of a proposition by indicating a lack of commitment to its truth value (perhaps, allegedly, might, etc.). Cable writers seem to prefer evaluative markers of doubt over expressions of certainty. This is probably due to the fact that cables are written in order to enable decision-makers to craft policy, which can result in significant consequences or costs. It is therefore essential that the content or advice given in the cables be framed with the appropriate degree of caution. The main aim of the reporting cable is to shape future foreign policy outcomes. What we find in the cables is the expression of a difficult balancing act: the diplomat needs to acknowledge a degree of uncertainty inherent in unforeseeable situations whilst providing timely, policy-relevant analysis.

Unlike academic discourse, which is often characterised by rhetorical devices that conceal the writer’s viewpoint behind references to data or evidence, the diplomat’s authorial reliability stems from their position as witnesses to important discussions, meetings and events. This explains the presence of reporting hedges in the cable corpus such as allegedly, reportedly or supposedly. The cable corpus appears to rely heavily on hedges associated with witnessing and interpreting human behaviour. Similarly, we find a significant number of hedges in the cables that suggest that diplomatic analysis is reliant on the senses (envision, hear, indicate, perceive).

The second type of evaluative markers I looked at for this study was stylistic markers, which draw attention not to the accuracy of the information itself, but to the way in which it is presented by the writer. They can include adverbs (interestingly, surprisingly), text connectives or references to text construction (aforementioned, as follows), or attributors (according to). Stylistic markers can be considered metadiscursive in that they help readers to organise, interpret and react to texts. This is particularly important in the field of diplomacy, where information overload is a constant risk and some policy decisions may need to be made extremely quickly. Several British diplomats I interviewed insisted on this point: “The main thing is directness and immediate understanding […] because when you’re having to read a hell of a lot of stuff, you want it to be instantly understandable, and to have no doubt about what people are trying to say” (interview, July 2018).

The diplomatic cable is characterised by visual signals that assist the reader, including explicitly labelled summary and comment sections, headings, numbered paragraphs, and bullet points. This reliance on visual markers points to the functionality of the genre, which is meant for quick reading as part of a daily exchange of material between the U.S. Government and its overseas posts or the EU institutions and delegations.

Moreover, the cables frequently include bracketed asides that build rapport and guide the reader towards the appropriate analysis of a situation. They tend to be explicitly signalled by brackets or prefaced by note or comment. In some cases, these additional comments serve to break the flow of reporting to insert further information or explanations. Elsewhere, asides clearly highlight an argument made by the author. For example: “After a successful (at least for Putin) Helsinki summit, Moscow now waits for the calming of emotions in Washington” (EU cable corpus). Bracketed inserts highlight the distance between the cable writer and the reported content, or a distinction between impressions and analysis. A senior British diplomat I interviewed confirmed that the British Diplomatic Service also makes use of a similar technique: “If it’s necessary for something to be included in the detail that’s not purely factual, it will normally be parenthesised: ‘This minister said this at this’, open brackets, ‘Comment: it’s nonsense’, close brackets. So the difference between factual reporting and commentary is always very clearly flagged up” (interview, May 2018).

These bracketed asides serve a functional purpose because they pinpoint analytical conclusions which are inserted into what is, for the most part, informative material reported from meetings, discussions, or events. Not all cables provide explicit policy recommendations. In fact, those that do are in the minority, in this corpus at any rate. The cable feeds into a longer-term process of information gathering and analysis which serves to build up a picture of how countries think, feel and react as a basis for foreign policy decisions.

Although we find bracketed asides and analytical comment in both the US and the EU cables, there is a much clearer flagging up of analysis in the American set. Cables written by the EEAS tend to be more informative and contain less explicitly flagged analysis. I would argue that this is because there is a more direct link between American diplomatic reporting and actual foreign policy decisions than is the case for EU diplomacy. The EEAS was created not to replace but to complement national diplomatic services and to allow the EU to speak with one voice, but a unified EU diplomacy has yet to fully emerge (Spence & Bátora 2015). The EEAS is responsible for negotiating international agreements and engaging with host governments through its delegations. It is also heavily involved in crisis management operations, overseeing military and civilian missions, and works closely with the Commission on all areas of external EU competence. Yet, EU member states and the Commission have taken steps to guard against EEAS autonomy, retaining important roles which overlap with EEAS mandates (Furness 2013: 104).

Finally, in addition to markers of doubt or certainty and metadiscursive devices that guide reader understanding, cable writers demonstrate subtle ways of communicating attitudes, feelings and value judgements, particularly through the use of positively or negatively connoted adjectives or adverbs. Attitudinal markers are often used to comment on a protagonist’s attitude during a meeting, usually in a final comment paragraph. This reflects one of diplomacy’s most important tasks – describing key policy-makers.

A final recurring stylistic device revealing author stance is the use of short direct quotes. The latter can be used to imply distance from propositional content, raising doubts over the credibility of the reported material or differences in opinion: “It was noted that Xi is respected around the world for his ‘super strong leadership’ and the ‘chaos of the West’ was contrasted to the ‘clear alternative’ offered by Xi” (EU cable corpus). They reinforce an “us-and-them” narrative and further reveal the cable’s specialised goal of contributing to the formulation of a specific political entity’s foreign policy. The use of evaluative marking in this way may also correspond to an additional objective of maintaining the reader’s interest, in a competitive environment where various sources of information from the Department of State and other federal agencies feed into foreign policy discussions.

Through a close reading of these two sets of leaked cables, we can observe that diplomatic reporting is not clinical and coldly factual but contains numerous indications of author stance. These markers indicate how the reported information should best be interpreted, flag up the difference between facts and analysis and help shape future foreign policy decisions. Interestingly, however, there are relatively few explicit recommendations or arguments in the cables, since the formulation of foreign policy is based on a substantial amount of information collected by embassies abroad, which does not always result in concrete actions or programmes, but helps build up a nuanced foreign policy position. The specificity of diplomatic reporting lies in the fact that the information is filtered through the prism of what could be considered to be politically relevant with regard to a state or organisation’s interests, as one British diplomat explained to me: “We don’t require day-to-day reporting. […] What we’re looking for though from the embassy is still the ability to judge when some aspect of internal politics has bearings on British concerns or interests and then to report it” (interview, February 2017).

[i] See <>, accessed 1 July 2020.

[ii] The full set of EEAS cables can be found online at < >, accessed 1 July 2020.

[iii] Unlike the Wikileaks diplomatic cables, only a small number were released to the media, and they included only low-level classified documents. No effort by the hackers themselves was made to publish the documents.


Conrad, S. and Biber, D. (2003 [1999]). “Adverbial marking of stance in speech and writing”. In Hunston, S. and Thompson, G., eds. Evaluation in Text. Authorial stance and the construction of discourse. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, pp. 56-73.

Furness, M. (2013). “Who Controls the European External Action Service? Agent Autonomy in EU External Policy”. European Foreign Affairs Review, 18 (1), pp. 103–126.

Palmer, M. (2016). The Wolf of Sarajevo. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Spence, D. and Bátora, J., eds. (2015). The European External Action Service: European Diplomacy Post-Westphalia. Basingstoke, UK & New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

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