More Wikileaks: Public versus secret diplomacy in the 21st century


In her programmatic statement of July 2009 about the future conduct of U.S. foreign policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained why the Obama administration favored transparent, public diplomacy. In the person of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, civil society has taken her at her word and bitten back. Read on…


More Wikileaks: Public versus secret diplomacy in the 21st century



By Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.





As the flurry of controversy surrounding Julian Assange has risen apace with the release of hundreds of thousands of pages of U.S. diplomatic papers, the stern-faced image of our Secretary of State appears in the media castigating the perpetrators of the leaks for their defiance of civilized norms. Other less temperate voices in the blogosphere speak of the the arrogant behavior of Assange & Co. or liken the release of purloined documents to terrorist acts directed against the entire international community.

Coming from the mouths of Americans, these are strange accusations indeed. Let us remember that open and transparent diplomacy was the rallying cry of President Woodrow Wilson when he railed against the secret covenants of Europe’s balance of power diplomacy which allegedly got the Old Continent, and the world with it, into WWI.  President Wilson offered us instead ‘public diplomacy.’

And Wilson’s idealism is precisely the well from which the Neoconservatives who have dominated American foreign policy thinking for the past twenty years have been drawing their water.  Ditto the Democratic liberal hawks who now run Washington

But why reason from principles dating to times long gone by?  Let us speak concretely of the rank hypocrisy of the U.S. government in its pretended shock and awe over the Wikileaks disclosures judged against its own words within the very recent past.

Our present Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered the programmatic statement of the newly constituted Obama administration in a speech to the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington on July 15, 2009.  So let’s put on our thinking caps and go over it.

Borrowing from the hyped up writings of Joseph Nye and his spin doctor’s approach to the conduct of foreign policy, Mme Clinton assured us that we are living in a new age, an age of globalization and transparency.  She specifically eschewed  ‘the 19th century concert of powers, or a 20th century balance of power.’ America would not only work through existing international institutions while reforming them: it would go further and pass over the heads of the nation states to bring in non-state actors and individuals so they may contribute to the solutions.  According to the Secretary of State, America was going to stress communicating with peoples from the bottom up – using educational exchanges, outreach and ventures in entrepreneurship.  All this would be facilitated, in her view, by today’s instant worldwide communications and interactivity, which create new and unique conditions for such partnerships.

Well, it appears that in the person of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, civil society has taken Mme Secretary at her word and used instant worldwide communications and interactivity to bite back.

Now we are being told from the highest towers of power that secrecy is essential to success in 21st century diplomacy, that governments must deal with one another over our heads, and the public be damned.  Ladies and gentlemen: you can’t have it both ways.


As many observers have noted, the batches of diplomatic cables put in the public domain by Mr. Assange’s organization beginning last week do not rival the previous releases of documents pertaining to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in overall importance. There will be no charges of war crimes against American and allied troops, nothing to support the anti-war movement arising from these documents. But they do drive a stake through the notion that our government’s policies in the international arena correspond to the wishes of the American people.


We learn from the Wikileaked cables that U.S. foreign service professionals posted abroad have been implementing policies which U.S. voters thought they had effectively rejected in November 2008 by casting their ballots for Barack Obama. And in their ample spare time they are busily spreading malicious gossip and maligning the powers that be in the countries where they are stationed, or they are using strong-arm tactics to force friends and allies to do things the American way. Put in other terms, we see in these papers the unbending, untamed arrogance of power in Mr. Obama’s Washington.



© Gilbert Doctorow, 2010

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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.