Sending shock waves: the 9/11 of diplomacy (?)
When a monopoly is challenged, panic sets in with those who guard it. Diplomacy holds a monopoly on information. Confidentiality and secrecy are its cornerstones. Cable Gate, the release of partly confidential and secret diplomatic cables sent between US embassies and the State Department, shocked the diplomatic community around the world. Franco Frattini, the Italian Foreign Minister, called Cable Gate the 9/11 of diplomacy (1): a catastrophic event that shocked people’s consciousness and after which there is no turning back.
However, now that the dust has settled and the aftershock is over, the impact of Wikileaks seems far less dramatic then suggested initially. Now is the time to take a closer look at the implications of WikiLeaks on diplomacy without resorting to dramatising, earth-shattering rhetoric. Rather, the destabilized feeling that Cable Gate left us with, I believe, should result in a long-term programmatic reflection on diplomacy in relation to transparency and democracy.
Some gossip … and the call for total transparency
What has been revealed by the cables is not at all dramatic. What the five media partners of WikiLeaks, among them the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel, pulled out of the secret bag can be summarised as international diplomatic gossip: exciting, but short lived and without any major impact. Most commentators agreed that there is little new information in the cables and the thrill of rummaging around in the forbidden drawer has quickly worn off.
Clearly, the challenge to diplomacy posed by WikiLeaks is not to be found in the content of the cables. WikiLeaks is an ideological challenge to the principles of diplomacy. Behind the release of the cables stands an ideology that sees total transparency as the solution to tackling unjust regimes. The argument is that leaking information hits unjust regimes much harder that just ones and that in a world of mass leaking, the unjust regime will eventually be weakened to such an extent that the opportunity for its replacement arises (2). But what about diplomacy, doesn’t diplomacy require secrecy?
To keep diplomacy running … in an accountable manner
Diplomacy is the blood stream of international relations. The contact between official representatives works as the lubricant of international conduct. While Cable Gate caused a small clot and some friction, it is the ideology behind WikiLeaks that is fundamentally inconsolable with the workings of diplomacy. Total transparency will not just harm the unjust regime; it harms the very life stream of international conduct. There are compelling reasons why diplomacy requires a confidential or secret space. Many diplomatic negotiations and certain tactics such as taking soundings or talking-up-the-talks can simply not be performed under public scrutiny.
And here is where the fundamental dilemma comes in: a degree of confidentiality and secrecy is necessary but how is that to be consoled with the democratic principles of the “rule of the people”? How can accountability over something that is secret be achieved? Who can rightfully decide what is secret and what not? Simply assuming that whatever is made to be a secret is rightfully made so is not enough.
Democracy and diplomacy: shining the light (and reflecting it back)
The question then becomes how to make the diplomatic process more democratically accountable. Total transparency doesn’t offer the right solution and runs counter to the very process of diplomacy. However, various ways of how to make something that is a state secret democratically accountable have been explored philosophically, albeit with mixed results (3). It is here that we need to dig further and find answers to the dilemma.
There is a second dilemma that introduces a sense of irony. Diplomacy is over and over again portrayed as a means to spread democratic values. We can find this trend pronounced by the then-US Secretary of State, James Baker, after the end of the Cold War, in the term Transformational Diplomacy coined by Condoleeza Rice in the same capacity, and more recently in Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s speech on 21st century statecraft, digital diplomacy and citizen diplomacy.
It is the light of democracy that they aim to spread, the beacon of hope – to borrow from the language of American exceptionalism – that is supposed to shine beyond the American border, carried by American diplomats into the world. In the post-WikiLeaks era it is the responsibility of academics and diplomats to take precisely that light and reflect it back onto the diplomatic process itself.