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More Smoke Than Fire

WikiLeaks more resemble Hollywood gossip published by the tabloid press – titillating , immediately embarrassing, but ultimately insignificant. But diplomacy – an artform that’s changed little, at least since the 19th century – may never be the same.

More Smoke Than Fire
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

The WikiLeaks disclosure of secret US State Department cables has triggered a diplomatic firestorm. American disdain for some foreign leaders – from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – ruffled feathers. China’s willingness to accept Korean unification came as a surprise.

Now that the initial furore has subsided, it’s time to assess the damage for US foreign-policy practice and, more broadly, the diplomacy of all nations in a world where the internet challenges keeping secrets. 

While the WikiLeaks disclosures are fascinating, barring fresh, sensational revelations, the cables created more smoke than fire – of greater concern for diplomats and the media, at least in the United States, than for the public. Nevertheless, management of key foreign-policy issues, such as Iran, is much harder. Diplomacy – an artform that’s changed little, at least since the 19th century – may never be the same.

WikiKeaks was among the top three most reported news items in the US press during the early weeks of December, surpassed only by the economy and taxes, according to the news coverage index of print and electronic media compiled by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The disclosures were also the subject of intense blogger discussions about who was to blame for the leaks, the value of exposing government secrets and the paramount importance of a free press. For the week of Dec. 20-24, the controversy was the number-one topic of discussion on internet blogs, accounting for 35 percent of news links cited on US blogs, according to Pew’s New Media Index.

Nevertheless, an early December Pew survey of the US public found that only 6 percent of Americans said that they had followed the WikiLeaks story closely, compared with 29 percent following the tax agreement between the Obama administration and Republicans in US Congress and 17 percent who claimed to closely follow news of the economy at the time.

At the same time the US diplomatic establishment attempted to downplay any damage from the embarrassing disclosures. “I have not had any concerns expressed about whether any nation will not continue to work with and discuss matters of importance going forward,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in early December.

Such sentiments are self-serving official efforts to defuse the media frenzy, particularly in Europe, South America and Asia, and reassure US allies that Washington is unfazed. Nevertheless, such defensive assertions are a useful reminder that the WikiLeaks phenomenon must be viewed with a jaundiced eye.

WikiLeaks explicitly proclaims that the “document release reveals the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors.” The public assumes that in the world of diplomacy whatever information is public is somehow false and that whatever is secret must be factual. In the complex real world, truth is often a blend of both the classified and the unclassified.

A case in point are the revelations that various Middle Eastern leaders – King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Hamad of Bahrain and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan – have for some time privately encouraged Washington to use military force to halt Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

Some in the press and the public treat this information as reflecting the true sentiments of Iran’s neighbors rather than the doublespeak common in diplomatic utterances.

But such an interpretation is far too simplistic. The Arabs would clearly like the Americans to solve their Persian problem, but not in a way that disturbs the status quo. These Arab leaders want it both ways, for understandable reasons, so the truth about their sentiments is really a blend of both their official and unofficial statements.

While the WikiLeaks revelations provide insight into the crosscutting interests in a complex region of the world, they provide only a narrow, incomplete picture.

This insight is particularly useful going forward. Notwithstanding the media hype surrounding the WikiLeaks disclosures, the public’s indifference and the Obama administration’s defensiveness, the leaks will complicate future conduct of US foreign policy.

Neoconservative critics of the Obama administration’s Iran policy have seized on WikiLeaks revelations as evidence that the White House is softer on Tehran than US allies in the region. Expect Republican hawks, such as Senator John McCain, to step up calls for a military strike against Iranian nuclear sites, citing the WikiLeaks information as evidence of widespread support for such action.

Similarly, WikiLeaks revelations that the Palestinian group Fatah allegedly asked the Israeli government to attack rival Palestinian group Hamas complicate US efforts to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Revelations that US diplomats think the Turkish prime minister is an “autocratic Islamicist” and that his foreign minister has neo-Ottoman sentiments only worsen already-tenuous Turkish-American relations.

The most lasting damage, however, may be to sources and methods of US diplomats. Allegations that American diplomats were asked to gather personal information on their counterparts – DNA samples, credit-card information – reinforces the perception that all US officials stationed overseas are spies, inhibiting their legitimate interaction with foreign governments.

Moreover, the WikiLeaks revelations may enable foreign governments or terrorist groups to identify US intelligence sources. A leaked cable from the US embassy in Berlin described a senior Free Democratic Party official as passing information to the American government. The US State Department has set out to warn hundreds of sources that they may be in danger, relocating some to safer locations. The US ambassador to Libya is reported to have been recalled after his cable referring to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's “voluptuous nurse” was leaked.

Former diplomats warn that, at least in the short run, US officials stationed overseas will be wary of filing cables with detailed analysis of nuances in policy and attitudes gathered in discussions with counterparts. Senior US Treasury officials confide that they now put nothing of significance in cables for fear of moving financial markets should the information be leaked. For the foreseeable future, headline information will be communicated verbally on secure phone and video links. But the context and texture of diplomatic reporting will suffer.

Over time, notes John Kornblum, former US ambassador to Germany, “the longer term implications of the WikiLeaks affair will probably not be revelations of political secrets, but rather the dramatic public realization of how radical the role of information has changed in the 21st century.”

A slim fraction of the 250,000 leaked cables, dated 1966 to 2010, have been published; of the overall total, WikiLeaks reports that 11,000 are labeled “secret” – a small portion of the 183,000 pieces of information designated “secret” by the US government in 2009 or the 55 million documents or communications using such “secret” information that year alone. With such volumes of classified information, leaks are inevitable. 

Also inevitable is an era of greater diplomatic transparency. This will complicate the task of those charged with making life-and-death international decisions. But greater sunlight in diplomacy will still deliver only an approximation of the truth. It will not change fundamental differences in interests that divide nations and lead to global disputes.

Unlike the release of the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s, which fundamentally changed the way historians view the Vietnam War, WikiLeaks more resemble Hollywood gossip published by the tabloid press – titillating , immediately embarrassing, but ultimately insignificant. The only lasting impact will be on the lives of those exposed and the manner diplomatic communications are carried out.


Bruce Stokes is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Rights: Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online

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