From backstage to frontstage, US diplomacy edition

One of Erving Goffman’s insights into human interaction was his analysis of the frontstage and backstage. These insights about what happens when in trusted company (backstage) versus the public presentation of self (frontstage) is very applicable to the latest Wikileaks news story where about 250,000 United States diplomatic cables have been made public. The leaking of this amount of information about the United States’ true views is remarkable:

Never before in history has a superpower lost control of such vast amounts of such sensitive information — data that can help paint a picture of the foundation upon which US foreign policy is built. Never before has the trust America’s partners have in the country been as badly shaken. Now, their own personal views and policy recommendations have been made public — as have America’s true views of them.

All governments put on a very public face and try to control the amount of information released to the public. Particularly when dealing with allies or foes, the public rhetoric is crafted very carefully in order to send the right public messages. But this latest leak reveals what happens behind the scenes and offers insights into the backstage world of the United States government. On one hand, this should be no surprise: we should assume that those in government discuss and debate ideas and stances before putting together a public message. On the other hand, it is rare for the average citizen or even journalists to have an opportunity to hear about what happens behind the scenes.

If we keep using Goffman’s analytical devices, what we can see now is the US government attempting to “save face,” to both condemn the leaking of this backstage information but also to try to patch up relationships that might be troubled by hearing what the US government “really thinks.”

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