About the Author: William B. McAllister serves as Director of the Special Projects Division in the Office of the Historian.
The WikiLeaks controversy highlights a whole set of important questions about how the United States, or any government, conducts its affairs in the international arena. Similarly, the ongoing challenges of the day attest to the sweep of issues that must be negotiated among states. What, exactly, do diplomats do? How, precisely, is diplomacy conducted? How are particularly thorny diplomatic issues negotiated? How much information should be kept secret, and how much should be shared? What is the goal of foreign policy? What does “national security” mean, and who defines it?
All these questions have been present since modern diplomatic practices evolved several hundred years ago. Since the founding of the United States in the late 18th century, Americans have debated -- sometimes hotly -- their role in the world.
As part of these discussions, the U.S. government has a longstanding practice of making important foreign policy documents available to the public. This tradition dates back to the 1790s, when, at Congressional request, the executive branch released documents pertinent to important foreign policy issues. For decades this practice of disclosing records about specific events requested by Congress continued sporadically.
The Civil War marked a key turning point in this tradition of public disclosure, because the Department of State began disseminating foreign policy records on a regular basis. Documents have been published continuously since 1861, selected for their importance, annotated for accuracy, and bound into book-length volumes. Now called the Foreign Relations of the United States (or FRUS), this series celebrates its 150th year of publication in 2011. They are not stories written by historians who have digested the material and presented it in narrative form. Rather, after a thoroughgoing process that combines scholarly principles of documentary editing and responsible procedures for declassification review, the documents are allowed to speak for themselves, giving the reader the opportunity to experience the “you were there” feeling that comes from encountering the original material yourself.
The nineteenth-century volumes were published within a year or two. People living at that time could read, soon after the events took place, how diplomats went about their business, the problems they experienced, and the important issues of the day.
As the United States rose to global prominence in the 20th century, the problems became more complex, the stakes higher, and the task of diplomats more demanding. The most recent volumes published, covering the 1970s, illustrate the dilemmas of a superpower sensing the apex of its influence, as the pace and scope of global interaction increased.
The need for confidentiality in diplomacy grew as the stakes became higher. More FRUS volumes were published over time to tell the full story, but it took longer to release documents because the volumes have undergone increasingly rigorous compilation and declassification procedures. A lot of thought and expertise goes into creating the modern FRUS series, and sometimes not a little controversy; the importance of transparency, openness, and timeliness must be balanced with the need to assure that national security interests are considered before releasing documents.
By reading FRUS, anyone can gain insight into how diplomacy actually happens. Sometimes the negotiations become intense, with messages flying about the world on an hourly basis, multiple meetings, hushed corridor conversations, and deals struck after much bargaining. Some problems are resolved, while others are not. In some cases, long-held secrets are revealed. At other times the documents confirm what has long been believed but not previously proven. Sometimes the record reveals great failures, embarrassing miscalculations, wrongheaded assessments, misplaced priorities, and poor leadership. At other times policymakers met challenges wisely, with prudent solutions to pressing problems. Mostly, however, one encounters the dilemmas facing ordinary people who must make immediate decisions with incomplete information, fearful of worst-case scenarios, and hopeful that they can craft a better world than they inherited. It is the stuff of mundane routine and high drama; taken altogether, it is a story of great consequence for the peoples of the world.
For the past 150 years, the United States government has made a commendable effort to inform its own citizens, and the rest of the world by extension, about the story of foreign policy. Throughout this sesquicentennial year for the Foreign Relations of the United States series, the Office of the Historian will highlight various parts of the story of FRUS. We invite you to look here for more postings as the year progresses. More importantly, we hope you take a look for yourself. Your journey into the sometimes mysterious, sometimes frustrating, but indisputably vital universe of the diplomats is just a click away at history.state.gov.