The 11th century Jewish philosopher, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, wrote: "Your secret is your prisoner; once you reveal it, you become its slave."
In the case of the latest WikiLeaks – which exposed thousands of confidential US State Department cables – it is too early to tell how things will play out; who will assume the role of master, who servant. Will the Department of State become a slave to its own secrets? All that can be said with certainty is that WikiLeaks has captivated a large international audience.
How will these unanticipated disclosures, comprising a half million pages of sensitive and uncensored information affect diplomacy, international relations, and ultimately even the stability of international security interests? A comprehensive answer to this question will require years, not months to resolve. During the past few weeks, US diplomats have been frantically concentrating on mitigating the fallout instead of doing their “day job.” But this is, for the time being, the priority of optics over substance. Some offended foreign leaders are simply being consoled, while other autocrats, in trickier domestic milieus, are being mollified by public US declarations of their good intentions.
The really relevant questions can only be answered in the passage of time. And even though some commentators have already announced “The End of Diplomacy as We Know It,” it simply is not so. However, it is impossible to deny that we are dealing with an historic event, the equivalent of a 9/11 for traditional diplomacy.
But 9/11 did not result in the collapse of the USA nor even the West. Neither did the collapse of the USSR mark the end of history. Similarly the leak of US top secret cables will not bring about the fall of western diplomacy. At the moment we are simply in a mild state of shock at what has happened.
In the long run, the repercussions on diplomacy and international relations of “Cablegate” will depend to a large degree on public opinion… perhaps more so than at any other time in the history of diplomacy.
In the minds of some critics, diplomacy has evolved, up until now, like a plant left to languish in a 19th century greenhouse.
Everyone now, nevertheless and more-or-less, agrees that these times are past. The world’s most powerful country’s diplomatic service has been unclothed. The Emperor is naked. Academics, terrorists, whackos, journalists, politicians, and taxi drivers from Perm to Pretoria are reading top secret US dispatches. Diplomacy has entered the same environment as a modern teenager joining an internet social network.
International dialogue has not been immune to the effects of the era of the internet. Information has been leaked, diplomacy computerized, and many of us read the daily tweets of Sweden’s Foreign Minister [and former Prime Minister] Carl Bildt and Russia’s Ambassador to NATO Dmitri Rogozin. Many of us are Facebook “friends” of Estonia’s Foreign Minister Urmas Paet. But this is merely diplomacy donning the cloak of modernity. The “real McCoy” has always been handled the old way. Not anymore. Or, at least, not this time. If today’s youth are accustomed to the fact that each of their friends know what they think, say, or write about others, or who’s going out with whom, and who said what about anybody else and when – then for diplomats this is, to put it mildly, a crisis.
To gauge how all of this has affected history, one must first off understand what actually has happened. Enunciating official US policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared WikiLeaks an attack “against the international community.” Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) called for declaring WikiLeaks a terrorist organization. Up to now, however, the “international community” has failed to find a common voice, least of all in proclaiming the leaks a terrorist attack. By the same token, WikiLeaks itself hasn’t been illustrious in rationalizing just why these documents needed to be released. Julian Assange, the organization’s leader, has given a very divergent set of explanations regarding his organization’s goals and objectives.
In 2007, he said that WikiLeaks’ goal was to expose the excesses of despotic regimes in Asia, the former Soviet block, and South Africa; and to help expose to their publics their governments’ and big business’s unethical activities.
This summer its purported goal was the exposition of repression and censorship in general.
Seemingly, the more WikiLeaks’ leaks leak, the fuzzier its goals become.
The most relevant question tied to these leaks and the one that will determine the future of both the substance and form of international relations is a simple one. Is WikiLeaks good or bad? Are we dealing with a new norm or an undesirable exception?
In an attempt to answer precisely this question, a global Info-war has been started, one where both sides are battling for the “hearts and minds” of the world’s thinking people. Currently neither side has the edge; people are simply unsure of what to make of WikiLeaks.
Can the US and other governments sway public opinion that what has happened is deplorable, if not criminal? Or can the WikiLeaks’ activists and their supporters in the media convince us that the disclosure of national secrets actually improves our world?
Naturally, there really isn’t an answer that will be to everyone’s liking. There will always be those who consider Julian Assange a hero, but what the mainstream thinks is important. And here’s the rub: the mainstream is yet to emerge. After 9/11 there was no doubt as to world opinion, despite the fact that we will always find those who idolize Osama bin Laden. The take on WikiLeaks is more complicated. On the one hand, the world’s most respected media outlets are cooperating with Julian Assange and all political observers are reading the leaked cables with glee. On the other hand, Al Qaeda has announced that it is examining the leaked material with great interest, not to mention that the US and allied governments are preparing to criminalize WikiLeaks.
The outcome of this Infowar, in terms of world opinion, depends above all on two future developments.
Firstly, will the leaks lead to a decrease in stability, maybe resulting in human casualties or even armed conflict? People may have a streak of curiosity along with a wide-ranging distrust of government, but they are conservative and conformist by nature. At the very least, they implicitly acknowledge that the current rules of diplomacy have kept us out of the abyss. If the leaks ultimately result in an increase in the sum-total of world anxiety, public opinion – its curiosity having been sated – will condemn WikiLeaks.
Secondly, will Julian Assange and his team succeed in convincing us that their goals and actions really do promote our welfare? To date, it would appear that they are having trouble in this area. Despite their promises to expose purported corruption, betrayal of the public trust, and open deceit by and in the US government, the leaked cables have shown the opposite. The memos have demonstrated, at least to the thoughtful, that US diplomats really do have a grasp on what is going on in the world and that their behaviour is guided by a moral conscience. In a messy world, the US is generally good and faraway despots bad. Despite Assange’s assertions that he has exposed US hypocrisy, he has done the converse and US diplomacy will be all the stronger as a result.
Barring the future release of something truly earth shattering, the self-proclaimed info-freedom fighter Assange is on his way to becoming a pariah, just like Osama bin Laden already is. The US Foreign Service will not become a slave to its own secrets. Instead, it will only confirm the universality of this teaching from Scripture: “…you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" [John 8:32].
WikiLeaks: Shock and Awe?