WikiLeaks: counting the costs and consequences

January 30, 2011

When Woodrow Wilson made his Fourteen Points address to the US Congress in January 1918, he called for “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at”.

Setting out his programme for the post-war world, the US president demanded an end to the secret treaties and clandestine diplomatic manoeuvring that he blamed for contributing to the outbreak of the First World War.

The transparent conduct of diplomacy was to fall down the list of priorities at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, but nearly a century later, President Wilson’s conviction is centre stage once again thanks to WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange.

The most recent WikiLeaks disclosures, consisting of tens of thousands of reports and analyses made by US embassies and diplomatic missions around the world, may or may not lead to greater public scrutiny – and hence democratic accountability, as Mr Assange hopes – of the conduct of foreign policy.

The most vociferous criticism of the disclosures has come from those most embarrassed by them, although others charge that they have put the lives and security of confidants at risk. But historians and international-relations scholars have been contemplating the wider consequences of WikiLeaks, looking beyond the content of particular cables to consider the ramifications for their own craft and the future study of the early 21st century.

Some fear that the disclosures, rather than catalysing increased transparency, may constrain the future ability of scholars to understand how decisions were made.

Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University, Massachusetts, believes that the leaks will result in less being written down, with communications conducted more informally where possible.

“Governments do not respond to security breaches by surrendering themselves to the fates,” he said.

He predicted that the circulation of information through government will be tightened and narrowed, making it more difficult for academics to assess the inputs and contours of decision-making.

However, others suggest that the status quo will be maintained as the wheels of government continue to turn.

For diplomats scattered around the world, the clarity and usefulness of their cables to Washington are a key means of advancing their careers, explained Yuen Foong Khong, professor of international relations at the University of Oxford. That is not about to change, he predicted.

Another key factor in determining how and if things change is the instinct for self-preservation of those making decisions on the basis of diplomats’ advice, said Clifford Bob, associate professor of political science at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh.

The political consequences of decision-making ensure that bureaucrats will be reluctant to act without written instructions, “if only to cover themselves”, he added.

Meanwhile, officials and informants around the world will need and want to continue talking to US diplomats, he argued, and undiplomatic asides are very much part of the rough and tumble of international politics.

As such, concern for future historical scholarship, in Dr Bob’s view, is a “red herring”, and worries that the paper trail is about to dry up are “overblown”.

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