In pursuing its foreign-policy goals in the wake of the collapse of its rival behind the former Iron Curtain, the United States clearly focused more on military might and intelligence-gathering than on diplomacy. Under George W. Bush, the diplomatic corps shrunk to a greater extent than ever before. In fact, there were more musicians in US military bands than diplomats, while the Pentagon's budget was 24 times the combined expenditure on the State Department and development aid.
It was only with the arrival of Barack Obama that Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- who had also held the post under President Bush -- admitted that, "Iraq and Afghanistan remind us that military success alone is insufficient to achieve victory." President Obama oversaw a realignment of American foreign policy. The White House issued a directive that diplomacy should serve broad-based political ends rather than primarily combating terrorism, as it had for much of the previous decade.
Secretary of State Clinton agreed. In a speech she announced her intention of "shifting from mostly direct exercise and application of power to a more sophisticated and difficult mix or indirect power and influence," an indirect foreign policy that required more patience as well as more partners.
The newly-released documents span the entire timeframe between these poles of diplomatic activity.
On the one hand, they show that local leaders the world over are still falling over themselves to please the US. The question of who gets to be photographed when with President Obama has also prompted rivalry among major European nations. For instance, American diplomats in Madrid cabled the following message to Washington: "For domestic political reasons, they intensely want a US-EU summit, and the lack of a Presidential visit would be seen as a major failure of (Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez) Zapatero."
Nonetheless, local US ambassadors can no longer simply issue instructions in their role as representatives of the American president. Even under George W. Bush, US diplomats spent the first few months of 2003 fruitlessly attempting to cajole the 14 other members of the United Nations Security Council into backing a resolution approving military intervention in Iraq. Only three countries did so. After the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the victorious Americans still had a hard time getting their way. US Vice President Joe Biden has repeatedly visited Baghdad to convince his allies in the Iraqi government to set up respectable democratic mechanisms. But as the embassy memos show, neither Obama's deputy, direct pressure nor sweet words have helped thus far.
On the whole, the cables from the Middle East expose the superpower's weaknesses. Washington has always viewed it as vital to its survival to secure its share of energy reserves, but the world power is often quickly reduced to becoming a plaything of diverse interests. And it is drawn into the animosities between Arabs and Israelis, Shiites and Sunnis, between Islamists and secularists.
First and foremost, however, Washington's relations with up-and-coming economic powerhouse China proves that the "American century" is probably drawing to a close. The documents depict how self-confidently the Chinese dance around the Americans. US diplomats speak of "muscle-flexing, triumphalism and assertiveness" in describing China's image toward the outside world.
When US Ambassador Jon Huntsman wrote a letter to Foreign Minister Yang Jeichi expressing his concern about the incarceration of the dissident Liu Xiaobo, the winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, a high-ranking US diplomat was summoned to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. There he was told the US had no right to meddle in China's internal affairs. And even Hilary Clinton, to whom all embassy reports have been addressed since late January 2009, has admitted that eye-level talks have become more difficult. After all, Beijing has bought a mountain of US government bonds and has long been America's biggest creditor.
"How do you deal toughly with your banker?" a somewhat resigned Mrs. Clinton asked former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd -- at least, according to a report from the US embassy in Canberra.
It's a question that has ushered in a new century.
Reported by RÜDIGER FALKSOHN, HANS HOYNG, UWE KLUSSMANN, HORAND KNAUP, SUSANNE KOELBL, ANDREAS LORENZ, JULIANE VON MITTELSTAEDT, MATHIEU VON ROHR, GREGOR PETER SCHMITZ