From where I sit - Diplomatic bag's pedagogic pearls

January 13, 2011

Those who teach international relations are rarely short of interesting material from the "real world" to illustrate key points about theory and practice, but the release of masses of classified diplomatic correspondence through WikiLeaks, while horrifying many in the professional world of politics and diplomacy, has provided a veritable treasure trove.

I was just contemplating the revision of some teaching material on diplomacy and foreign policy for the next academic year, mulling over which developments might best engage the interests of students. The usual suspects presented themselves: clandestine nuclear weapons programmes by rogue states; ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere; China's foreign relations; and US hegemony. For these and many other issues, we now have access to a wealth of genuine primary source material thanks to both WikiLeaks and the selected media outlets that have made the documents available.

Much of the material simply confirms what many already knew, or at least suspected, from the fact that fear and loathing of Iran is common among its neighbours in the Middle East, to an assessment that Russia is run like a "mafia state". Some documents, such as the analysis provided by the former US ambassador to Zimbabwe of the political situation and future prospects in that country, are models of professional diplomatic reports providing frank, well-informed assessments with little hyperbole. This is a useful case study in good diplomatic reporting.

For students of international relations, WikiLeaks has also revealed insights into the extent to which lies, deceit, conspiracy, secrecy and hypocrisy attend the pursuit of perceived national interest, and here the spotlight focuses on the US. While engaging in a concerted campaign against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for disseminating classified material, with some US figures even calling for his assassination, the leaked material has revealed the extent to which the US is itself prepared to obtain intelligence illicitly. This includes gathering biodata on high-level United Nations figures and intercepting communications, the latter certainly violating the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Another useful case study.

Although most released documents have been redacted, Assange has been accused of having "blood on his hands" for exposing US operatives and agents to targeting by terrorists. Yet under the George W. Bush administration, and indeed at the instigation of two of his most senior staff, the name of a serving CIA operative (Valerie Plame Wilson) was deliberately leaked, possibly endangering her life. Her husband had written an article exposing certain claims made by the administration as a justification for the Iraq War as false. Here, students may ponder the distinction between "national interest" and specific political interests.

Of course, many documents and other kinds of information are confidential for good reason. This holds not only for the diplomatic world but also for other sectors as well, from the business world to universities. Mr Assange must agree - especially with respect to the confidential Swedish police files on his own case that were leaked to The Guardian.

No great harm will come from most of the leaks, except perhaps to Mr Assange himself if he becomes ensnared by the US legal system. In the meantime, both the original material and the reaction to its release is a great boon to those of us teaching in the field. Student interest and engagement is virtually guaranteed.

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