Wikileaks and the global public interest

29 November 2010, 1745 EST

A couple of observations on the Wikileaks diplomatic info-dump as seen from London. First, European governments have been unanimous in their condemnation of Wikileaks, disgraceful undermining of diplomacy etc etc.  But what do they really think? I’m sure they will be philosophical about the content of the US cables. These are the sort of assessments that every diplomat makes, and is supposed to make; I would bet a year’s salary that the sort of things American diplomats said about David Cameron would pale into insignificance beside the sort of things British diplomats said about George W. Bush – indeed I’d bet a month’s salary that they were barely more complimentary about Barack Obama in the early days of his run for the Democratic nomination. There used to be a custom that British Ambassadors when they finally left a posting would write a long, frank valediction – Matthew Parris has just published a collection of these Parting Shots and very amusing (and occasionally xenophobic) they are, and certainly not the kind of text that the locals would have been allowed to see at the time. That’s the nature of diplomacy – as is the allegedly horrifying proposition that diplomats were requested to collect information on their opposite numbers; the State Department added the rider, ‘if possible’ to this general request, and I image US diplomats at the UN and elsewhere will have immediately assessed that e.g. collecting Ban Ki Moon’s credit card numbers wasn’t going to be possible and will have binned the memo.

The point is, foreign governments will understand all this, but what they will find unforgiveable is the fact that the US Government did not protect their own diplomatic correspondence adequately.  It simply isn’t good enough that accounts of conversations with the King of Saudi Arabia or assessments of Putin’s involvement with the Russian mafia are simply graded as Secret and potentially made available to anyone remotely connected to the military and/or homeland security.  Diplomats may understand the need for frank assessments of friends as well as enemies, but popular opinion, led by tabloid journalists and professional anti-Americans will play these indiscretions for all they are worth and then some. This is a self-inflicted wound, and it is no good blaming Wikileaks – although there are things we can blame them for.
This gets to my second point which is that I find it interesting that critics such as Assange are actually so obsessed with what they imagine to be an evil Empire that they come to possess the faults they attribute to it, in particular an insular inability to understand that not everything is about America, and that local actors aren’t simply reacting to US policy, but have goals and minds of their own. The Middle East leaks are a particularly interesting illustration of this point. Without actually saying so, Wikileaks manage somehow to convey the impression that America is stirring up hostility against Iran in the region, a position gratefully accepted and repeated by the Iranian government – but the leaks make it clear that virtually all of  America’s allies in the region want her to get tougher with the Iranians. What Wikileaks has done by releasing this material has been to make it more difficult for America to keep its friends on the reservation, but they seem completely blind to this, presumably on the principle that an increase in the chances that Israel will attack Iran with Saudi covert assistance is a worthwhile price to pay for the opportunity to lessen US influence in the world. This is a rather peculiar understanding of the global public interest; it makes sense only if you are so obsessed by America that nothing else matters.  
The general point is, there are times when it would be good to reduce American influence on particular issues, but there are times when it would be very, very bad indeed.  Wikileaks seem incapable/unwilling to distinguish between these two situations, and that is what makes it a public menace.