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How The WikiLeaks Leaks Could Backfire

The leaks, of course, were meant to embarrass the United States, but in the end the opposite seemed true.

Those looking for skullduggery won't find very much, although of course as they will remind us, that is because all the skullduggery is hidden behind much higher layers of secrecy. As Timothy Garton Ash writes, "from what I have seen, the professional members of the US foreign service have very little to be ashamed of."

Rather than die-hard imperialists bent on a nefarious masterplan, U.S. diplomats appear to be honest brokers dealing with a complex world. The cables show what a flawed and decidedly human game diplomacy is, where foreign policy is at the mercy of personalities, hearsay, high-level gossip, and charlatans.

One of the biggest ironies, though, is that a WikiLeaks world could end up being a world with less transparency rather than more. In a commentary for "The Guardian," Heather Brooke talks about how the digital revolution has just begun. It's all rather techno-deterministic, in the same vein as old arguments that "information wants to be free" and how the Internet just routes around censorship.

She talks of a brave new world where the "way to move beyond leaks is to ensure a robust regime for the public to access important information."

We are at a pivotal moment where the visionaries at the vanguard of a global digital age are clashing with those who are desperate to control what we know. WikiLeaks is the guerrilla front in a global movement for greater transparency and participation.

But when being candid has consequences, diplomats will either be less candid or more cautious. Diplomats will use different channels: either retreating to an analogue world of hidden notes and snatched conversations, or using top-secret channels, with much higher levels of encryption, for even the most mundane chatter.

Or diplomats will simply censor themselves, writing with less candor so that information becomes sanitized to the point of banality -- just as we might censor ourselves in our emails at work, never knowing whose in-box our message will end up in. Diplomats will write cables, but perhaps always with an audience beyond the intended recipients in mind.

As Anne Applebaum writes:

Don't expect better government from these revelations; expect deeper secrets. Will the U.S. ambassador to Country X give Washington a frank assessment of the president of X if he knows that it could appear in tomorrow's newspaper? Not very likely. Will a foreign leader tell any U.S. diplomat what he really thinks about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if he knows that it might show up on WikiLeaks, too? I doubt it.

Diplomats by their nature are meant to be duplicitous. It was the 16th century English diplomat Henry Wotton who said, " An ambassador is a man of virtue sent to lie abroad for his country." Rather than making the private public, WikiLeaks could just heighten the levels of diplomatic double-speak. Diplomacy would simply retreat further back into the smoky backroom and we would all be much poorer for it.