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Secrecy and Diplomacy in the Age of Wikileaks
As I write these words, headline after headline trickles out revealing the latest diplomatic secret from the latest batch of Wikileaks’ leaks, namely, contents from a giant electronic repository of U.S. diplomatic cables. We presume, according to previous reports, that this is thanks to the work of a member of the U.S. military who has been arrested some months ago and who was reported to have bragged about the cables, even though Wikileaks’ previous scalps concerned Iraq and Afghanistan related communications specifically.
In other words, as far as United States diplomacy goes, the cat is out of the bag, and everything it doesn’t want to admit to its own public about its diplomatic relations is in here.
In reading about this, I read a very apt comment about the decision of Winston Churchill to allow (and insist upon) the publication, the morning after, of the locations in Germany bombed at night by British strategic bombers during World War Two. His logic was, “The Germans already know where we’ve been bombing.” The British bureaucracy is naturally inclined towards making everything secret if it is permitted to do so, to the point of making the utterly ridiculous seem (to itself) perfectly sane. Churchill saw that the purpose of this secrecy was to keep the public in the dark, not to keep the enemy in the dark.
All too often, the public is treated like the real enemy.
The Wikileaks disclosures must be understood in this light.
I’m sorry to say this, I really am, but John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush for a time, and what is generally known in the United States as a blowhard and a hardline hawk, has been proven completely correct that Arab states have been constantly pushing the U.S. to conduct military strikes against Iran. They want Iran taken care of… and it would be inconvenient to have Israel do it.
It’s not really the United States’ bacon on the line here. It’s the public image of the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and so forth. They maintain a public position of hostility to Israel while denying that they whisper sweet urges to the Americans to bomb Iran, which is exactly what John Bolton had been saying to the world.
Apparently he was right, but the official U.S. position was contrary to the truth in order to protect its allies’ sensibilities… from their own publics.
This is why transparency is completely unwanted in diplomacy. If nothing else, countries want to trust that when they speak frankly, the advice they give will be treated with the same respect given to privileged communications Obama’s staffers have with the President. In legal battles, these communications are always protected so that he can get candid advice from his advisors (no matter if this advice is badly mistaken). In other words, the President manages his office and should be judged on the results rather than his being treated as the victim of his advisors; and, this advice should be kept out of the public’s eye for the best interests of the American government.
Laws in most other nations are considerably more draconian.
Destroying Trust? Oh, Please…
The reason that this is largely a problem in public relations – for the U.S. and for its allies – is quite simple: no one in diplomacy ought to trust each other. At all. Ever. If there’s one thing that I can say with a straight face from studying ancient Chinese strategy, it is that diplomats lie, diplomats spy, diplomats foster traitors in the enemy’s camp… and they do this out of patriotism.
So, when I read a headline like… oh… let’s say, Hilary Synott: These leaks could deal a fatal blow to global trust …good god, people!
Just like with Churchill’s bombers, most of the people that U.S. diplomats don’t like are well aware of the fact. (Let’s take Silvio Berlusconi. Do you think he cares what a mere diplomat thinks of him? He’s heard it all back in Italy.) No, it’ s not a matter of trust in diplomacy… it’s a matter of the widely held public assumptions about cynicism and easily disbelieved lies in the United States’ public diplomatic posture being proven to be cynical lies, in public.
In other words, these aren’t so much secrets as embarrassments.
Therein lies the lesson we must take about this.
Face Up To Your Dirty Laundry!!
I would be inclined to say this in any era, but I will be particularly forceful in light of Wikileaks.
DO NOT think that secrecy means your dirty laundry has gone away and that you don’t have to deal with it!!
Relying on secrecy to keep your embarrassments out of the public eye is a short-term strategy only, one that can be a Pyrrhic victory as soon as that secrecy is violated.
Those who delude themselves into thinking that “secrecy” solves the problem don’t understand the problem.
It is acceptable, and indeed, wise, to attempt to use secrecy… but only as camouflage while you solve the real problem. In other words, not solving the real problem makes your secrecy counter-productive, and eventually that secrecy may be lost.
Does your nation have an embarrassment? Does your corporation have an accounting scandal? Does your church have a “moral problem” hidden within it? Does your school have poor electrical safety practices that could result in Johnny burning to death?
Solve the REAL problem.
It is far, far more reliable than secrecy, and when secrecy is used in the place of solving the problem, it invariably makes things worse.
Or, as I’d say with my Sun Tzu hat on…
Secrecy is a tactic, not a strategy. Secrecy is a method, not a solution.
Meditate upon that.
Of course, the root of all this is…
The real root of all this is the naive expectation that the U.S.’ viewpoint of the world is correct, and that all nations that defy the U.S.’ superior viewpoint are engaging in strange, self-destructive behavior that would be embarrassing if revealed to the world. Therefore, to protect them from the invariable embarrassment of being seen to conflict with the naturally correct U.S. position, the U.S. gracefully indulges their strangeness by keeping their words classified as secret. The truth would only leave hurt feelings, after all.
This combines easily with the attitude that such aberrant behavior must be monitored for the benefit of the world through using diplomats as spies. Now there is a place for spying, but this ignores something so simple, it is being missed.
These nations do not have interests identical to the United States. Not all disagreements are founded in the other party being inferior; there are disagreements rooted in simply being not you. If you can’t put yourself in their shoes, you can’t understand what is rational, sane behavior from their point of view.
Or more to the point, a lot of people involved in “diplomacy” for a country in the United States’ position can’t be minded to care what their point of view is, and simply view that point of view as an object, or rather, a target; thus, the opponent’s beliefs are to be attacked and either conquered or destroyed.
If you want to be better than this, learn to divide other people and organizations into two groups.
- Those whose interests align with yours enough that you can do business
- Those who would be insane to cooperate with you because their interests are not aligned with you.
One last thing: trying to find suckers among those whose interests do not coincide with you is a low percentage strategy. Just because they’re smaller than you doesn’t mean they’re stupid.
And stupid people get replaced. Natural interests do not.