Monday, December 6, 2010

Does Wikileaks Really Matter?

Julian Assange is now quite probably the most-wanted man on the planet. In a story that sounds like part of a Neal Stephenson or Cory Doctorow plot, Assange’s tiny nonprofit group, Wikileaks, managed to unload gigabytes of official secrets onto the Internet for anyone to read, throwing diplomatic circles into disorder across the world and infuriating one of the most powerful countries on the planet. As a direct result, Mr. Assange is currently living in hiding, literally on the run from the law, and a massive international effort has been launched to shut down Wikileaks in an attempt to close the barn door after the cows have gone.

Most of the documents in this hoard are internal communications from within the Department of State, the government agency charged with the day-to-day management of the USA’s foreign affairs. It is, in a sense, like an email discussing his coworkers in scathing terms that some unfortunate man accidentally forwards to the entire corporate mailing list.

Two questions arise from the Wikileaks incident. The first is, will it really be important in the long term? The second is, is more transparency in the diplomatic world necessarily a good thing?

In terms of the first question, the array of embarrassments to come to light so far ranges from the egregious through the banal to the laughable. Secretary of State Clinton is documented as approving a program of spying on United Nations officials and other diplomats. A list of “vital” sites, important to the interests of the USA, includes an insulin factory in Denmark and a snake venom antidote factory in Australia. If Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi never leaves the house without his voluptuous blonde nurse Galyna, what have I to say but good for him?

There is no surprise at all in learning that Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is in antiseptic State Department prose, “risk averse and rarely creative,’ or that Italy’s PM Silvio Berlusconi is a party animal with an eye for (much) younger women. Anyone paying attention to international affairs would probably reach the same conclusion. It would be impolite to say as much in public, of course, and their will doubtless be plenty of awkward moments for the next several months as diplomats find themselves in meetings with persons they described in unfavorable terms.

Some of the leaked documents sound incendiary but, as in the case of the memorandum describing Saudi Arabia as an “ATM machine for terrorists,” the quoted comments from various Arab leaders expressing concern for Iran’s nuclear program, or the note describing Afghan president Hamid Karzai as a corrupt weakling with delusions of grandeur, don’t contain anything that hasn’t been public knowledge for over a decade.

Some of the largest embarrassments will likely come from the American public finally learning what their government has been up to under the table. Karzai may not really care what a US diplomat thinks of him, but the American public will likely want to know why the USA is supporting a corrupt weakling in the first place

Although the State Department releases lack the immediate and visceral effect of Wikileaks’ previous releases of documents concerning the Iraqi and Afghan wars, the long-term consequences of StateGate, CableGate, WikiGate, or whatever it will eventually be dubbed will become more clear only over the long term. It is premature to say what these consequences might become. They could be quite severe, or perhaps not. It is entirely possible that the total damage done by CableGate will add up to less than that incurred by the Bush Administration’s never-adequately-prosecuted outing of Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA agent in 2003, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

In some respects, the Wikileaks incident may not actually matter very much. Regardless of what US diplomats may have said behind closed doors about South Korea, Seoul will still have to contend first and foremost with the psychotic hermit kingdom of North Korea, and will perforce retain close ties to the USA. Persons and countries already predisposed to dislike the US—Iran, for example-- will continue to do so, while our longtime allies will likely not see the documents as sufficient cause for severing a mutually beneficial relationship.

In fact, it is likely that CableGate will only really matter in areas in which the US already has a multitude of problems- for example, in dealing with China, Pakistan, or client states in Afghanistan and Iraq, or in the arena of the United Nations. In those areas, the US will likely have severe troubles, akin to trying to play a game of poker when all the other players have already seen what’s in the hand. The exposure of Secretary Clinton’s espionage initiative is probably the single most damaging revelation to date, but of course, the act was an egregious breach of the gentlemen’s agreement protocols surrounding the UN, and should not have been undertaken in the first place.

This isn’t the first time that diplomatic secrets have become public and created a furor. In fact, the United States should be thankful that the reaction so far has been benign—at least, by comparison to historical precedent. After all, the infamous “Zimmerman telegram” of 1917 was a diplomatic communiqué from Foreign Secretary of the German Empire, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German ambassadors to the United States and Mexico. This telegram, surely one of the shortest important documents in history, directing the ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, to propose a military alliance between Germany and Mexico in the event that the United States appeared likely to enter the First World War, and to offer Mexico assistance in recovering the lands lost to the USA in the previous century. British intelligence intercepted the telegram and cracked the code, and Whitehall promptly published the incriminating little memo. The USA was of course infuriated at what Washington and the general public alike saw as foreign meddling with an ostensibly neutral USA, and entered the Great War three months later.

In one of the more curious postscripts to the Zimmerman telegram and to the private becoming public in general, in 1929 President Hoover’s Secretary of State, Henry L. Stimson, disbanded the United State’s own telegram-reading and code-breaking unit, the Black Chamber, with the dismissive remark "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail." Stimson later found himself in charge of a massive intelligence apparatus when he served as President Roosevelt’s Secretary of War during the Second World War.

One thing the United States should not worry about, however, is offending its ‘friends,’ since to paraphrase Charles de Gaulle, “nations have no friends, only interests.” The community of nations is not a high school class in which one group suddenly takes a visceral dislike to a particular kid in math class because of something he said about a girl in the cafeteria. It may have been like that at times—for example, the Ems Dispatch which sparked French public opinion into the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870—but it is not now. The carefully-measured cynicism of realpolitik is a century and a half old and has seeped its Savile Row-clad way into every nook and cranny of every embassy in the world. A nation does not stop needing oil or wheat or steel just because the ruler is called out for hiding money in foreign bank accounts and becomes annoyed with the foreign diplomatic corps.

De Gaulle was right. For all the talk of globalization, cooperation on mutual concerns such as international terrorism, and the growth of supranational organizations such as NATO or the European Union, each nation is still out for its own interests, which often conflict. For this reason, modern diplomacy still includes a great deal of secrecy and deception, a recursive tangle of “I know that they don’t know that I know that they know.” This is also the reason why even nations that have long histories of alliance still spy on each other. Consider how the Bush Administration coaxed, chivvied, and coerced other nations into accepting the bogus claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in 2002 and 2003—eventually outright falsehoods had to be presented on the floor of the UN because all the ‘legitimate’ arguments had been presented and discredited.

It is no coincidence that one of the first fields laid out for studies in information theory was the issue of what information one could use in negotiations without rendering the information valueless.

This brings us to the second question: is more transparency in the diplomatic world necessarily a good thing?

The world’s international relations are a gearbox, in which nations’ interests and goals are inflexible blocks, and where deception, secrecy, doublespeak, and general sneakiness play the essential role of lubricant for the gears. “To be diplomatic” is itself a euphemism for shading one’s true feelings with language intended to avoid upsetting someone, whether negotiating an international nuclear weapons treaty or politely suggesting the ambassador from Belarus not eat all the canapés at the reception. It is precisely because of this film of the untrue or half-true or intentionally overlooked that the big pieces of metal can slide past one another to keep the machine spinning.

What causes the system to break down is when someone drops a big handful—several gigabytes big, let’s say—of truth into the gearbox, or when some thread of the international conversation becomes public when one or more parties to the discussion would rather it stay out of public view. That’s when all the difficulties arise.

For example, several major spy rings operated by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, have been uncovered in the United States over the last forty years, when all the while the United States has been by far Israel’s most generous and (for better or for worse) most loyal benefactor. Whenever Israeli spies are caught at their business, the whole nasty business is usually shoved under the rug—at least, to the extent the public can see.

Although the long-term effects of CableGate are not yet clear, the importance of what Wikileaks has done is shown simply by the speed and ferocity of the attempts to shut Wikileaks down. Within a week of publication, had booted the group from its servers, PayPal had shut down the group’s donations access, the website was hacked repeatedly, and a New Hampshire internet services firm had essentially shut off the Wikileaks website. All this led Assange and his representatives quite reasonably to complain about the US government’s attempts to shut Wikileaks down and re-bury the documents.

Try as Wikileaks’ opponents might, however, the cows have already left the barn—Assange and his cohorts spread their information far and wide across the Internet, in the form of encrypted ‘doomsday bombs’ that contain far more information, and far more sensitive information, than has been released to date. There is now essentially no way to re-bury that information without shutting down the entire Internet in every country on Earth. The United States is no longer in control of the situation, and if it takes extraordinary steps to try to keep control it may end up doing more damage to its own interests than the leaked documents would have inflicted.

The saving grace of the situation is that although the United States has been caught out on a great many lies, bogus promises, or nasty comments about world leaders, it’s very likely that most of those people already expected the USA to be lying to them, or at the very least to have hidden opinions about them. We know that, they know that, and we know they know we know that. If anything, Mr. Assange and his cohorts should have held off on releasing their information until they had ‘dirt’ on every government and major corporation, and released it all at once to level the playing field.

Of course, to borrow the catchphrase of the urbane, thoroughly vicious, and fortunately fictional British politician Francis Urquhart, “You might well think that, but of course I couldn't possibly comment.”

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