Professor explores diplomacy nuance in new book

Amid the frenzied reactions to the release of hundreds of thousands of U.S. Department of State diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks in November 2010, Mary Thompson-Jones saw a unique opportunity.

Thompson-Jones, director of the Master of Science in Global Studies and International Relations program and professor of the practice in the College of Professional Studies, is a former diplomat with more than 20 years of experience working around the world. In many cases, that work is only known to those within the foreign service.

So when those State Department documents appeared, Thompson-Jones saw it as an opportunity for the public to get a first-time look at the daily operations of U.S. diplomacy and all the nuances it entails. She collected some of those cables and then featured them in her new book, To the Secretary: Leaked Embassy Cables and America’s Foreign Policy Disconnect, which will be released July 12.


Thompson-Jones’ book, To the Secretary: Leaked Embassy Cables and America’s Foreign Policy Disconnect. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“For the first time people were able to see diplomacy correspondence in real time,” explained Thompson-Jones, who served in Prague, Guatemala, Madrid, Quebec, Sarajevo, and Washington, D.C. “They also saw messages from the field to Washington. That is a unique optic into the foreign service.”

She divided the various cables into different chapters, which include Anti-Americanism, Iraq, corruption, diplomatic travel, and even wild animals. “There are thousands of cables on large mammals, fishes, and birds,” Thompson-Jones said. “There is a real passion for all aspects of our environment and these are examples of different types of diplomacy.”

Thompson-Jones sees that passion in her students, especially as they prepare for diplomacy in the 21st century, in which the need for instantaneous information is the norm, not the exception, particularly with the rise of social media.

“We do a lot of simulation exercises, from ambassador confirmation hearings to the Iran nuclear talks,” Thompson-Jones noted. “But there is no substitute for real-life exercises.”

She said the best foreign service officers are the ones who get out of the embassies and major cities to spend time with everyday citizens on the outside who have different perspectives on the world. She added that despite the growing use of technology, there is still a need to understand the nuances of diplomatic relationships.

“If you are in a meeting presenting a proposal and the foreign minister says ‘no,’ that could ultimately have 10 very different meanings,” Thompson-Jones said. “A good officer can anticipate and think things through so we can plan out what needs to be taken care of.”