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Elevated Gossip: WikiLeaks and the Art of Diplomacy

Elevated Gossip: WikiLeaks and the Art of Diplomacy

By Binoy Kampmark

WikiLeaks is at it again, deluging the channels of the world wide web with material for public delectation. There have been previous grand releases on sensitive material dealing with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The target now has been US diplomacy itself. Washington’s officials have found themselves busy trying to diffuse the situation, seeing as they were the primary source of over a quarter of a million cables of diplomatic traffic between the State Department and hundreds of consulates and embassies. Views have been exposed, allies mocked and ridiculed.

When the guard is down, diplomats supposedly cease to operate by that function. The unfettered mind is deemed a truly dangerous one when it should be an asset. But the release does nothing to sabotage the integrity of a profession well versed in the art of concealment. In another sense, the information released is nothing more potent than elevated gossip, the sort of chitchat that merely confirms the obvious. Consider a few of the tit bits on offer:

Arab leaders, the cables reveal, are not exactly thrilled at the prospect of Iran getting a nuclear option. This is hardly surprising, given their historically toxic association. It had been a key element of European policy for years to keep the Persian and Arab states divided. Antipathies die hard, though how these antipathies are to be satisfied is never a uniform thing.

The US has been spying on the UN extensively. Again, nothing new there. The UN may be a toothless tiger, but a lack of teeth is no excuse not to gain access to the material of its diplomats and officials. One is often suspicious of entities weaker than one’s self. The national ego is rapacious and insatiable.

US allies have received their standard fare of mocking. The current British Prime Minister David Cameron is certainly on no pedestal in the US State Department though he did, after all, win the last election. Others are searching through the material wondering if they also feature in the muck.

The suggestion that such revelations will clam up diplomatic contacts and chill the waterways of communication between diplomatic stations is far from persuasive. In truth, it is very hard to see how a craft that relies on duplicity could possibly be more damaged than it already is. The diplomatic agencies of all countries have a mutual understanding. If in doubt, assume a position on the high fence and lie in the best possible ways imaginable. If there is such a thing as candid diplomacy, it is yet to be invented. The best form of political friendship is stabbing a friend in the front; diplomacy is telling them in a half-decent manner that they should be enjoying it.

The issue with WikiLeaks and the stance of exposing such material is by no means clear cut. The First Amendment in the US constitution offers protections, but the issue is whether such publications might threaten the very public interest a release of information purportedly defends. Exposing government and private improprieties is certainly a cardinal public good, though the public might not always want to be hear the gory details of state misconduct. The justification by the British paper The Times was clear enough. ‘The Times believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match.’ The absence of any self-check on the part of WikiLeaks makes it incumbent for the recipient of the information, in this case the selected key newspapers, to exercise their own judgment on the subject. Evidently, both The Times and The Guardian feel that they won’t be bribed or twisted into doing otherwise.

Information has a means of finding a way past suspicious authorities. Alone, it means little. A pattern is emerging from these mass releases that WikiLeaks is beginning to specialize in. For one thing, the information is simply corroborative of lasting suspicions and generally known facts. Occasional bits of gossip excite, but then again, they always do. As the excitement subsides, one can see governments the world over as keen on one thing: secrecy for its own sake.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently in San Francisco. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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