WikiLeaks, Diplomacy and the Public Interest

Looking back over the key developments affecting international relations during 2010, the continuing release of over 250,000 US-origin diplomatic communications stands out as especially significant.

The story broke just over a month a month ago, and has been with us every day since. This must already amount to something of an endurance record  given the relentless pressures  of the 24/7 news cycle, and there is much, much more to come.

The WikiLeaks saga raises a host of complex, multifaceted issues. What to make of it all?

For starters, the content of individual messages appears to have had only fleeting impact, notwithstanding some initial concerns regarding possible damage to the fabric of bilateral relationships. Had the more sensational revelations had been introduced singly and over time, each individual issue might have generated its own momentum. Instead, even the most newsworthy releases have been quickly overtaken by the appearance of newer material, or have become lost in the ever-growing trove of documents available for review.

The effect has been somewhat numbing. With the possible exception of a handful of diplomatic scholars and a relatively few dedicated analysts, most readers seem already to have reached or exceeded the point of overdose, or have been distracted the gossip and legal problems besetting the site’s founder. The prominence of specific, message-related media coverage, which diminished steadily during December 2010, has been recalibrated accordingly.

It may be that some unanticipated or salacious headlines will again elicit broad interest in this data deluge. In the meantime, however, there are several larger implications which merit more sustained examination.

In a piece penned in the immediate aftermath of the first round of releases, I argued that over time, the image and reputation of diplomacy stands actually to benefit from this demonstration of the trade’s relevance and effectiveness. Diplomats are shown to be working very hard at doing their jobs, and adding unique value by advocating policies, pursuing interests, and providing advice and analysis to policy and decision-makers. That case, I believe, stands. For the first time in many years, interest in diplomacy has migrated from the esoteric margins of public consciousness into the cultural mainstream. The world’s second oldest profession may come to be seen in a more sympathetic light as a result.

On the other side of the ledger, a likely short-term effect could be a general chill on diplomatic exchange. This form of international political communication is based typically on interpersonal confidence, trust and respect, the very attributes which have been subverted by the WikiLeaks revelations. Higher levels of classification, more limited distribution, fewer written records, and recourse to other forms of transmission, such as secure telephony, can accordingly be predicted. All of that is negative.

That said, governments will always have business to transact among and between themselves, and that business can accumulate quite rapidly. Concerns over the militarization of international policy are finally coming to the fore; given the limited possibilities associated with the remedial use of hard power in the age of globalization, there are very few practical alternatives to inter-state dialogue, negotiation and compromise. This is particularly true in addressing the host of issues which are rooted in science and driven by technology, none of which are amenable to the application of armed force. Governments really have no choice but to keep talking, and for that reason any costs imposed on diplomatic practice are likely to prove temporary.

On the losing end, there have in  my estimation been two principal casualties. The first is American foreign policy, and that country’s overall place and standing in the world. Viewed as a whole, these cables do not illustrate the seamless inner workings or high-level strategic calculus of an empire at the top of its game.  Instead, readers are offered chronicles of something akin to imperial retreat – snapshots of  defensive,  rearguard actions and generalized geopolitical disarray. Given the magnitude of the recession still besetting the USA, for example, one might have expected to see intensive coverage of the various national responses to the global financial crisis. Economic reporting, however, has been notable mainly for its absence.

That is surprising indeed, and suggests a lack of priorities and direction.

The second casualty, ironically, may be the public interest. I generally favour openness, transparency, and disclosure, but not at all times or in all things. I would not want to see sensitive, pro-democracy sources in China or Zimbabwe. for instance,  exposed in the name of information freedom. Similarly, serving up a list of critical infrastructure and facilities, and in so doing potentially facilitating the work of terrorists, seems to me inimical to the common good. Even if the locations are not a secret, why ease the research requirements, or make available the government’s estimation of sensitive targets?

The public revelation of government wrong-doing or corruption usually makes good democratic and governance sense. But probity and disclosure are not the main issues here.  In that respect, I have detected something  slightly curious about this episode from the start. The WikiLeaks site – if it ever reappears –  is not a wiki, these cables do not constitute “leaks”, and the entire exercise seems far removed from anything which could be associated with whistle-blowing. I see little in this which serves any elevated moral or public policy purpose. Rather, it seems to have been done mainly because the means were available.

Is this, then, a “Napster moment” for the state, one from which there is no turning back? Perhaps. The wholesale dumping of classified documents, the content of which was often obtained in confidence, certainly makes mischief and attracts attention. But is it something to celebrate? That is less clear. Sure, much of the reporting makes fascinating reading. Yet this kind of splatter-gun discharge violates privacy and does not align well with the rule of law.

Even with waning public and media interest, the complexity remains. We are far from the end of this story.