Case Studies | Writing a case from experience

Ambassador (ret.) Kathleen Doherty

Ambassador (ret.) Kathleen Doherty just published an ISD case study on the 2015–17 negotiations to reunify Cyprus, based in part on her experience as U.S. ambassador to Cyprus at the time. We asked her to share more about the research, writing, and review process as a former U.S. diplomat with intimate firsthand knowledge of the case.

Writing a good case study can take months (Image: Andrew Neel on Unsplash)

Who told me that? When? Was this in confidence or could I find a published account to corroborate my information? How many pages should this be? Do I have too much to say — or too little I can say? Why did I even want to do this? These are just a few of the questions that were running through my head over the past 18 months as I attempted to draft my first ever case study.

After a former State Department colleague mentioned Georgetown University’s case studies project at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy I proposed that I prepare one on the 2015–2017 negotiations to reunify Cyprus. My memories were relatively fresh: I had just finished my oral history with the Association of Diplomatic Studies and Training, where I had described some of my experiences I had as ambassador to Cyprus. I thought that my unique perspective from being on the ground during the negotiations and “in the room” might be of use to historians, policymakers, and students interested in the eastern Mediterranean, unresolved conflicts, NATO-E.U. relations, and peace negotiations.

For the case study, my first task was to collect as much open source, publicly and widely-available, credible reporting on the negotiations. I needed this information both to reinforce my recollections and to help me separate information that was widely known from conversations I conducted in confidence with Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots, U.N. officials and other diplomatic sources. At one stage, I wrote a draft paragraph about one aspect of the negotiations that I thought was publicly known but I could not find any open source corroboration. I eventually deleted that paragraph. As I collected information, I made notations of where I thought personal reflections would be of value, ones that I had not previously reported in my classified reporting and writing I did as ambassador. The State Department would have had to approve and declassify any confidential writing, which would have been a burdensome and time-consuming process.

I then catalogued the information into categories that I had in my initial outline, which included among them: key players, the baskets of issues, and international consequences of a divided Cyprus. The outline was the easy part. It was a greater challenge than I had anticipated to write an academic paper, given I had not done so in more than 30 years. During my three decades at the State Department, my writing usually consisted of short reports, usually around five paragraphs in length, or slightly longer analytical pieces. Writing anything longer was a daunting task.

The UN checkpoint at the North Entrance to UN Camp at Kophinou village, Cyprus, manned by soldiers of 3rd Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment. Kophinou is at the junction of the B1 and the B5 roads roughly half way between Limassol and Larnaca. (Image: Brian Harrington Spier/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons)

Another challenge was to summarize and describe concisely the key elements of the negotiations, the positions and roles of the various parties, including those of Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots, the United Kingdom, Greece, Turkey, the United Nations, the European Union, and of United Nations Security Council members: the United States, Russia, China, and France. At times, I found myself getting lost in a labyrinth of seemingly minor details that I knew were of significance to one of the stakeholder parties but not to all. I had to pull myself away from the minutia to keep the larger picture in mind.

The U.S. government played the role of “the neutral party” in the 2015–17 round of negotiations as well as in earlier negotiations. As ambassador, even when one side perhaps made a more compelling argument about one particular issue, I did not take sides. In the case study, I made sure to select each word carefully and to be as dispassionate as possible. Words are landmines in Cyprus, as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found when it published a glossary, with the input of journalists on both sides of the island, of alternatives to words that some readers deemed offensive or negative in describing the island’s conflict and division. The glossary triggered a political firestorm in both communities and OSCE officials were forced to defend the publication.

After all this, I had to deal with the dreaded footnotes. I remembered from my university days how painstaking the process was, especially capturing the citations correctly and accurately numbering each one — always making a mistake when doing so. However, I found that decades later, technology has made it simple. As today’s high school students know, footnotes are automatically generated and numbered by a simple mouse click. I was grateful for that major technological advancement.

One of my last steps was to have a peer review of the case study. I needed to have well-informed, well-respected Cypriots from both sides of the island be among the “peers,” who also would respect the integrity of the case study process and not reveal what I had written before the study was published. I was fortunate to have talented and trusted people I could call upon, who also had some time they could invest. I also had the benefit of a substantive peer review from Georgetown University faculty and staff of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (ISD), working closely with ISD staff throughout the editing, formatting, and design process.

I am now mulling over in my mind another possible case study, one on Northern Ireland. A decade ago, as a diplomat, I was dealing with some of the more contentious issues related to the peace process. Do I have too much to say — or too little I can say?

Amb. (ret.) Kathleen Doherty is the chief strategy officer of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands. She is the former U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Cyprus and former deputy assistant of state for western Europe and European Union Affairs.

ISD’s case studies library consists of over 250 cases on an exceptionally broad range of topics and events. These case studies support faculty and students who seek to bring real-world examples of diplomacy in action — its successes and its failures — into the classroom.

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