The Duck of Minerva

Why Wikileaks Matters

1 December 2010

The initial release of a mere 291 out of 251,287 diplomatic cables has generated a predictable buzz on the blogosphere and established media outlets. Pundits have quickly maneuvered into standard structural roles in relation to the content of the leaked documents: the ho-hum nothing-to-see-here-move-it-along dismisser, the passionate defender, the morally outraged diplomat, etc. What seems to be missing is an analysis of this phenomenon as a form of global politics.

In order to understand why Wikileaks is significant, it is important to realize that the organization is not particularly concerned about specific current issues like the war in Afghanistan or Iraq, much less the tense standoff in Korea. Hence the content of the diplomatic cables or military reports is only instrumental. Assange diagnoses a broader “problem” with complex organizations than current events — namely authoritarian tendencies and hypocrisy — and formulates a (Rooseveltian?) strategy for attacking them. The most intelligent analysis of Assange’s thinking is offered in a blog post by Zunguzungu (I would recommend reading that article before proceeding with this one). Briefly stated: The circulation of relatively unsecured diplomatic cables or field reports is the way in which the state as a complex organization is able to think. The aim of Wikileaks is precisely to force the state to tighten the circulation of information as a mechanism to retard the operation of the (authoritarian or nominally liberal) state. The US and all other states are likely to react in precisely the way that Assange’s organization hopes they will. So the goal is not just about the US although the US is a powerful instrument to effect the type of “regime change” that Assange champions.

The ability of a tiny organization which is only four years old to gain such leverage against the entire system of states is impressive (although not unprecedented in an age of global militancy). That the overwhelming majority of states will fall into the trap set for them is also a sign shrewd analysis and strategic brilliance regardless of how one assesses the potential moral and political implications of the leaked documents. Since it is already known that the next target is the finance industry, the potential to continue challenging the international order is in no way a spent force.

What is most stunning is that the actual techniques used are not highly sophisticated. Many of us possess sufficient technical knowledge to create similar websites and repeat the phenomenon if we want to.  And it is quite likely that even if Assange and his organization are taken off-line, others copycat individuals/ organizations will emerge. (In fact, in the “private sphere” the battle for forced transparency is already being carried out by social networking sites on a daily basis). The critical element is actually not the technology but the willingness and confidence of individuals to leak/post documents. If organizations tighten their information sharing to the point that it is no longer possible to leak documents, then Assange would reason that he has succeeded in retarding the targeted organization’s ability to think.

The ideology that motivates Assange is remarkably similar to Faisal Devji’s explication of the motivation of contemporary global militants in his book The Terrorist in Search of Humanity. Assange does not criticize states and corporations from an external and coherent alternate ideology. Rather, he seeks to hold these organizations to their own rhetoric or to expose their authoritarian tendencies and degrade their ability to function. There is something remarkably naive in this outlook but it needs to be taken seriously nonetheless.

A related issue is that Wikileaks itself evades definition and categorization.  What is Wikileaks? Is it essentially an individual or a collective of anarchists and whistle-blowers? A website or a journalistic organization? Is it a criminal conspiracy?  Is it a source or a conduit?  Where is Wikileaks? Perhaps it should not be a surprise to see new actors emerge on the global stage which defy easy classification and location precisely so that they can more effectively challenge the existing international order.

I doubt that Wikileaks will achieve the ultimate “regime change” it seeks — anymore than global militants will institute a new caliphate. However, Wikileaks does herald another mode of challenging existing structures of governance which will likely become an enduring feature of global politics.