From the Desk of David Dunford: Why Experienced Diplomats Take Notes

David J. Dunford served three years as the U.S. ambassador to Oman and served four years, including during the 1990–91 Gulf War, as the deputy ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He is a member of the governing board of the University of Arizona’s Center for Middle East Studies. He has taught courses on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Middle East business environment at the University of Arizona and has consulted for both the government and the private sector on Middle East issues. He is the coauthor of Talking to Strangers: The Struggle to Rebuild Iraq’s Foreign Ministry. He divides his time between Tucson and Durango. He recently published an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star.

Viewers of the impeachment hearings in November no doubt noted the ability of career Foreign Service Officers to recall, in considerable detail, the events they recounted. Political appointee Gordon Sondland, on the other hand, bragged that he never took notes and seemed to have difficulty recalling the details of what transpired in official meetings or phone calls that he participated in. “I’m not a note-taker, nor am I a memo writer. Never have been,” Sondland told the House Intelligence Committee.

Bill Taylor made it clear that he was testifying from detailed notes that he had made after his meetings and telephone conversations. Embassy Kyiv political counselor David Holmes, in his testimony, recalled almost verbatim the details of a telephone call he overheard between President Trump and Ambassador Sondland without the benefit of notes.

I argue in my book From Sadat to Saddam: The Decline of American Diplomacy in the Middle East that career diplomats, because of their training and experience, are more capable than political appointees in advancing U.S. interests. This training and experience stress the value of capturing the details of events and conversations. Since it is not always possible or appropriate to be visibly taking notes in official meetings, a diplomat must train himself or herself to recall significant details of conversations or meetings and write up a report later.    

In most of my official meetings I participated in during my career, I would pull out the small notebook I kept in my suit pocket and jot down what I heard. Several times during my tour as U.S. Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman, I had occasion to meet one-on-one with Omani ruler Sultan Qaboos. My instincts told me it would not be appropriate to pull out my notebook and start scribbling. It would have significantly changed the character of the meeting. Meetings with Qaboos were relaxed and could last up to two hours. He had a wide range of interests and it was hard to predict where the conversation would lead. I always had a modest list of issues that I needed to raise as well. I was always challenged to recall the details of a meeting that routinely covered a dozen or more topics. I had to train myself to create a mental checklist of topics covered and later use that remembered checklist to summon up details that went with each item. 

Many, likely including Ambassador Sondland, will question the need to record all that detail.  I would argue that a successful diplomat is one who has established a good relationship with key figures in the country to which she is assigned and one who is skilled in negotiating agreements that advance U.S. interests. Information is key to success in either endeavor. A good diplomat slowly acquires a thorough picture of the society he is living in, pixel by pixel, by meeting a wide variety of people and by traveling out of the capital throughout the country. A good diplomat also passes on all this information to his government and to his successor. No one is in a better position to advise his government on the challenges and opportunities of a proposed course of action than the diplomat on the scene. You never know when a snippet of information recorded months or even years earlier provides the key to a negotiating breakthrough.

That is why career diplomats take detailed notes. 

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