In Search of Foreign Policy Documents: The Best Tools for the Job

Several individuals have asked me where the best primary and secondary sources are to do research on foreign policy issues. The truth is that the sources, from declassified top secret materials to the mundane diplomatic cables, can be found on the internet. You just need to discover how to access them and how to use them to have a compelling argument and to engage with your audience. For official government documents, I often turn to Freedom of Information Act requests. These are located at the Virtual Reading Room at the Department of State as well as the Department of Defense FOIA Requester Service Center. Sometimes, to make sense of some of these Sharpied-out documents, I check with The George Washington University National Security Archive blog, Unredacted, which contains further analysis on government documents. Wikileaks is another viable source, but carries a revolutionary stigma that could be negatively interpreted by your audience. Remember, audience dictates tone.

Department of State Redacted Document, courtesy of the University of Richmond
Department of State Redacted Document, courtesy of the University of Richmond

But what about news sources? In my paradigm, there are relatively unbiased sources which can provide both sides of a story, and those media sources which are overtly biased. If used correctly, both can support your argument. Some relatively unbiased news sources are Reuters, the BBC, and the AP. These can provide critical insight into your topic. Other sources, such as Fox, CNN, and Russia Today, have the attachment of biases. This can help your argument by using their reporting as a naysayer, which you may counter argue against, thereby strengthening your own argument. The same holds true for other news mediums. Think tanks, such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution, provide well rounded information. The Cato Institute and the Center for American Progress have ideologies that deviate from the center. The same rule of thumb applies to periodicals. The Wall Street Journal tends to lean to the right, while The Economist tends to lean towards liberal economic policies. Source history is key to anticipating bias, which can be used to strengthen your argument.

Russia Today Symbol, courtesy of Russia Today
Russia Today Symbol, courtesy of Russia Today

Now, for the cool part – how to make your story interesting. Some members of the Griffin’s audience don’t really care about foreign affairs. It is my job as a writer to challenge this misconception. Employ methodical language using strong verbs and adjectives to show and not to tell. Authors can pepper their writing with metaphors, similes, and illustrations. Cultural artifacts grab attention. For photographs, I often turn to LIFE photos or UPI. For maps, I utilize the ArcGIS software to make interactive maps or use maps. I prefer the maps made by the BBC or The Washington Post. For flash media in Power Points, Youtube and APTV videos can help captivate your audience. Writers can find ways to entertain their audience using interactive illustrations.

Map using Arc GIS, courtesy of ERSI
Map using Arc GIS, courtesy of ERSI

Writing is both an art and a process. As an author, you need to (1) Identify your audience, (2) Target tone, (3) Find documents that support your claim, (4) Analyze secondary source commentary (5) Outline a plan, impute quotes, and validate / modify your thesis, and (6) Engage with illustrations.


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