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WikiLeaks vs. U.S. Diplomacy

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
By Christian Caryl
The online release of a quarter of a million classified U.S. diplomatic cables by the WikiLeaks organization has stirred up a world of controversy. Days after the release, with world leaders and U.S. government officials scrambling to exercise damage control, journalists and experts continue to pick over the revelations for the most revealing tidbits about the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

This is no ordinary media firestorm. One of the most striking aspects of this latest WikiLeaks affair is just how genuinely global its impact is. The cables, apparently handed over to WikiLeaks by one or more sources within the U.S. government, come from U.S. diplomats stationed in practically every country of the world. The contents have triggered excited and sometimes angry coverage in countries ranging from Spain to South Korea, Argentina to Iran.

But one of the most intriguing questions thrown up by the fuss involves the extent to which these revelations will rebound upon the United States itself. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a case for the importance of confidential conversations in diplomacy, saying:  "Every country, including the United States, must be able to have candid conversations about the people and nations with whom they deal. And every country, including the United States, must be able to have honest, private dialogue about issues of common concern."

Those sentiments are echoed by Thomas Pickering, an ex-diplomat who represented the United States as ambassador to Jordan, Russia, and the United Nations. Speaking to RFE/RL, Pickering says that's why he believes Washington's apparent vulnerability to leaks will damage the United States' credibility.

"My sense is that this badly undermines the credibility of the United States through its apparent inability to maintain secret what has been passed on to it in secret," Pickering says.

Criminal Probe Launched

Such views are based on straightforward assumptions about the need for confidentiality in matters of government. U.S. diplomats, the argument goes, will have a harder time conducting candid discussions if their foreign counterparts have to fear that their conversations will become public. And sources inside foreign governments, or who live in countries where the mere fact of their contacts with U.S. officials would immediately make them suspect, might opt out of sharing information with U.S. diplomats for fear that their identities might be revealed.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced on November 29 that the government was launching a criminal probe into the WikiLeaks website, saying that group's actions "put at risk our national security." Other officials held out the possibility that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could be charged under the terms of a 1917 law that forbids the publication of secret government documents.

Some experts do wonder, though, whether the claims of the damage inflicted upon U.S. diplomacy might be overdone.

Geoffrey Berridge, an emeritus professor of diplomatic history at Britain's Leicester University, says that the aftereffects of the WikiLeaks revelations are likely to be short-term -- "as long as the experience is not repeated." "What will inflict temporary damage on U.S. prestige is the fact it was stupid enough to allow such wide circulation of such material in the electronic age," he says.

Thomas Pickering: "Badly undermines the credibility of the United States"
In their responses to the leaks, U.S. officials have acknowledged that the current scandal is at least partly rooted in the government's own policies. Responding to criticisms after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, the government put measures into place that were designed to facilitate the sharing of information among different government agencies -- since the failure to do so was widely cited as one reason for failing to prevent the catastrophe. It was precisely the lowering of these firewalls between different government bodies that allowed the alleged source or sources of the leaks to access such a wide range of information from within the bureaucracy.

Danger Of 'Compartmentalization'

Now, say experts, the new danger could be a return to pre-9/11 "compartmentalization" and a crippling reluctance to reveal information among different branches of the government. The Department of Defense has already announced that it is implementing a series of measures designed to prevent comparable leaks in the future.

In some quarters, though, it's the damage to U.S. prestige by the scandal that looms largest. "Whoever leaked all those State Department documents to the WikiLeaks website is a traitor and should be executed or put in prison for life," said Bill O'Reilly, a well-known commentator on the private Fox News channel, who, in one of his broadcasts, called Assange a "sleazeball" who "is bent on damaging America. Since he's not a U.S. citizen, it's hard for U.S. authorities to move against him. But we can prosecute those who leak the documents to Assange." "America's Red Face" was the headline on the November 30 edition of the tabloid newspaper "The New York Post."

Needless to say, more radical advocates of freedom of speech contend that these worries are overblown, and they celebrate the exposure of government secrets as healthy testimony to the power of the Internet.

Heather Brooke, writing in the U.K. newspaper "The Guardian" (one of the news organizations that has cooperated with WikiLeaks in publicizing the documents), defends the release as a triumph of transparency. "Ironically, the U.S. State Department has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for technical innovation as a means of bringing democracy to places like Iran and China," she notes. "President Obama has urged repressive regimes to stop censoring the Internet, yet a bill before Congress would allow the attorney general to create a blacklist of websites. Is robust democracy only good when it's not at home?"

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "Every country must be able to have candid conversations about the people and nations with whom they deal."
Still, some wonder whether even the United States -- a society already awash in openness -- has to recognize limits to transparency. Berridge, the diplomatic historian, points out that publicizing the contents of official treaties -- a relatively recent practice that is now widely regarded as a standard of good international behavior -- shouldn't be confused with the principle of discretion required for negotiations, where both sides must thrash out their differences on the path to compromise.

An Inability To Deliver

If one measure of the Obama administration's effectiveness is its ability to make good on its promises, this scandal couldn't come at a worse time.

"The WikiLeaks fiasco crystallizes for Obama a new challenge: restoring the sense that the United States can effectively project its power," writes the newspaper "Politico." "The third tranche of documents from WikiLeaks caps a series of failures whose common theme isn't American arrogance or humility, imperial overreach, or defeatism but a more basic inability to deliver."

Pickering points out that the rest of the world depends --  to an extent other countries don't always fully acknowledge -- on that U.S. ability to deliver. "The U.S., of course, plays an inordinately important leadership role in the world because of its size, its economic and military strength," he says.

Right now, Washington is struggling to juggle the demands of two wars in Asia, to contain Iranian and North Korean nuclear aspirations, to find a way toward Middle East peace. Pickering wonders whether the WikiLeaks scandal won't throw a wrench into the works at just the wrong time.

"All these questions are in one way or another put in some jeopardy by this inability to project diplomacy and conduct diplomacy in the traditional way," he says.

As it continues to unfold, the WikiLeaks story will show whether he's right -- or not.

Christian Caryl is RFE/RL's chief Washington editor
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
December 02, 2010 02:41
Nice report and truly a post-modern affair. New technologies ought to remove the artificial barriers between individual and state. Imagine. These revelations have not uncovered any new 'truths.' Politicians and statesmen, like the rest of us, are vain, judgmental, rash, selfish, and prone to delusions of grandeur. Be assured of this: If Bill O'Reilly thinks that Assange is a traitor, then it is almost certain that Assange is a hero.
In Response

by: Jane from: Prague
December 02, 2010 09:44
And a nice comment from Ray in KS.
I'm baffled by the tizzy these governments have worked themselves into. Anyone who has read a reputable news source within the last year will have already known most of this surprising new information. Furthermore, anyone with any sense knows that diplomats are trained in obfuscation. It's their daily bread.
They really think we're idiots, don't they.
In Response

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
December 03, 2010 06:16
Ray, I wonder how you could fall for such facile "enemy of my enemy is my friend" stuff. Just because O'Reilly is a right-wing blowhard doesn't mean that when he says Assange is a traitor that he's wrong. Of course, "traitor" isn't the word to use about a non-citizen. I would use the term "saboteur". He is a foreign national bent on destruction of the U.S., which in no way is any sort of manifest good as you seem to imply. Indeed, it aids and abets the tyrants and terrorists of the world.

There seems to be this commoner's wisdom now that "these cables don't tell us anything we didn't know". Actually, they do. And actually, they reveal people with common sense and pragmatism in the world, say, Chinese and Turkish diplomats, willing to go to the U.S. and express valid concerns about rogue states like Iran. And that's a good thing. We didn't know that before; their thoughts were put in private channels; now that these channels are destroyed by Wikileaks we can expect less cooperation.

It really is as Hillary Clinton said: Wikileaks is an attack on the international community. While I'm the first to say that concept is a tattered fiction, it's still intact enough to try to rally support against obvious problems like North Korea's attacks.

What this is about is a competition for who gets to run the international community. I don't want an international community run by Assange. He is not elected; he isn't even appointed. Nothing he does is transparent; there is no rule of law over him. No thank you.

by: toosinbeymen from: NYC
December 02, 2010 11:05
While it's not really news that US diplomats and government officials exercise hubris on a stratospheric scale and it must be acknowledged that all governments should be allowed to keep some secrets, I don't condemn Mr. Assange or think he's a hero. He falls somewhere between. What is important is that the cover comes off occasionally to show citizens of a democracy what their government is up to in their name. If we're also responsible for our representatives actions, we d*** sure ought to be able to know what their actions are. We know what they say cannot be trusted.

by: john from: australia
December 03, 2010 11:20
im wondering if my comments will be scrutinised by the land of the free and an arest warrant or death warant issued. Isnt that how the US really works despite the facade? So their naked truths have been exposed...and its confirmed what we already know, that the USA will do and say whything to retin its pre eminent position, that this generation of its politicians are still suck in an old world and struggling to contend with a new. Times have changed guys and so has democracy. We the citizens are now so much better and instantly informed that you cant afford or even try to stretch or distort the truth....its now we who are watching your every move of those whom represent us......gee...maybe we might just become democratic after all?

by: Perspective from: a Banana Republic
December 04, 2010 20:21
The US' ruthless persecution of Wikileaks and of Julian Assange personally, causes far greater damage to its international credibility than the damage made by the embarrassing "Cablegate" release. More importantly, by indulging in such persecutions, the US undermines the ideals of democracy and individual human rights, including free speech. Many repressive regimes around the world will use this case to further discredit within their populations these very same ideals. The US citizens and the democratic segment of the international community should stand up firmly in defending Wikileaks and its team from such unlawful persecutions.

by: Guy from: Prague
December 14, 2010 15:50
Contradiction is at the heart of WikiLeaks. Given what I have read Assange saying, he seems to me to be an opponent of war and a supporter of peace. Yet what he did in leaking these documents, if the leaking did anything at all, is make diplomacy more difficult. It is not that it will lead to war by any means; it is simply that one cannot advocate negotiations and then demand that negotiators be denied confidentiality in which to conduct their negotiations. No business could do that, nor could any other institution. Note how vigorously WikiLeaks hides the inner workings of its own organization, from how it is funded to the people it employs.

Assange's claims are made even more interesting in terms of his "thermonuclear" threat. Apparently there are massive files that will be revealed if any harm comes to him. Implicit is the idea that they will not be revealed if he is unharmed -- otherwise the threat makes no sense. So, Assange's position is that he has secrets and will keep them secret if he is not harmed. I regard this as a perfectly reasonable and plausible position. One of the best uses for secrets is to control what the other side does to you. So Assange is absolutely committed to revealing the truth unless it serves his interests not to, in which case the public has no need to know.

It is difficult to see what harm the leaks have done, beyond embarrassment. It is also difficult to understand why WikiLeaks thinks it has changed history or why Assange lacks a sufficient sense of irony not to see the contradiction between his position on openness and his willingness to keep secrets when they benefit him.

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