Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Wikileaks Cablegate Pro & Con

I have tried to avoid airing my thoughts on this subject, but the pile of rubbish from supposedly able foreign policy experts all over the place that has been made public during the week makes this impossible. So, here's my take on Wikileaks and, in particular, the "cablegate" release of about 250.000 US diplomatic cables dating from 1966 up to the beginning of 2010. A very well-structured presentation of the publication, together with analysis and commentary, has been made available by UK newspaper The Guardian.

First of all, some - unfortunately necessary - preliminaries. Although this is not as evident as it should be on the Wikileaks website, the Wikileaks operation is not the same as its founder Julian Assange. As you may be aware of, when this is written, the latter has been arrested and, by reason of probable cause, detended in his absence in my country for one count of rape, two counts of sexual assault and one count of unlawful coercion (during a time he spent in Sweden) – resulting in an Interpol wanted poster, a so-called Red Notice this wednesday. There has been a lot of conspiracy theories aired about this on blogs, forums and places like Facebook and Twitter, but the fact is that the allegations have some history, and that the Red Notice is a consequence of Assange not having made himself available to the police or the prosecutor to clear himself of what he claims to be false allegations. On some forums, I have seen the suggestion that the crimes he is accused of would not be grave enough to warrant international action of this sort and that this would be proved by the fact that Sweden seldom requests the issuing of such notices. Neither is true. Regarding the latter, the simple explanation for the lack of Swedish Red Notice requests is that the suspected perpetrator as a rule can be found in the country or apprehended in another country in simpler ways (ways which, in the case of Assange, have been tried before the notice was requested). Regarding the former, rape is a very serious crime in Swedish legislation and the level of suspicion underlying the arrest is of the higher level. That, together with Assange's apparently deliberate absence and lack of communication with the Swedish authorities is enough to warrant requesting the notice. As to the allegations themselves, it is apparently easy as a Wikileak supporter to forget that there are actual people who have made these - women who have reported to the police that they have been raped and assaulted by Assange - and that the prosecutor has found evidence enough for the court to find probable cause for a detention decision. Now, Assange may, of course, be perfectly innocent here, but as in any country, this is for a court of criminal law to establish, no matter who you happen to be and what good things you may have done.

But the point I want to make here is this: none of that has anything to do with the question about the justifiability of the actions of Wikileaks. Moreover, contrary to what this excuse for a political analyst believes, jailing or even killing Assange does not amount to punishing or, for that matter, closing down Wikileaks. Get it? Good! Over to the main show:

There is, in my view, not a shadow of a doubt that the first leak of US documents - the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs - was morally justified. Yes, the person who leaked the documents committed a serious crime in US jurisdiction. Yes, legally he deserves to be punished within that jurisdiction. However, regarding those documents, he did the right thing, as did Wikileaks when making them public. What made the source's action right is that it is a clear case of justifiable civil disobedience. He acted against the law, as well as his legally sworn professional duty, but nevertheless, he did the right thing. Why? Because what the documents reveal and their revelation is of that level of importance. What they reveal is a stinking heap of elaborate lies and cover-ups all intended at making two bloody and senseless wars look less tasteless in the eyes of the public. That is, the very same public that is supposed to be able to make informed decisions when it is election time. This blinkering of the people is by itself reason enough. However, to this may be added the effect of the lies to make the launching of war more easy. I'm not a pacifist. I believe that war may sometimes be justified. However, war should be made only after a decision made on as correct, complete and relevant information as possible about the expected gains as well as costs of war. And voters in a democracy, should have access to all these facts in order to be able to assess the decisions of their leaders in upcoming elections. The first publication of Wikileak is of the utmost importance for making this slightly more possible in the future. The United States claims itself to be the world's leading democracy and, indeed, is constitutionally bound to the democratic ideology and values by definition. The talk about the leak being against the US "national interest" is thus, if you excuse me saying so, a load of bollocks. There has also been talk about soldiers or others being put at risk by the leak. Well, perhaps that is so, but to make a moral assessment that cost needs to be balanced against the cost of future wars that a preservation of secrecy would have made more likely and all people that would have been put at risk by those.

So, how about cablegate? It does look a bit more complicated, doesn't it? The argument above is surely not applicable here. My assessment so far is undecided. But, what I don't agree with are the many statements about the cablegate leak making the world a less safe place through undermining the prerequisites for efficient foreign policy and diplomacy in the service of peace.

It seems to me that the cablegate revelations fall into two categories. The first one is that diplomats express themselves less than nice and polite about their colleagues in other embassies and foreign dignitaries. Of course, while this was surely not very surprising, it may be used as an excuse by one or the other country to jump out of a negotiation or deal or two. But claiming this revelation to be the end of diplomacy or something close to that, as my own foreign minister did just a day or two ago, is just ridiculous. And it remains ridiculous even if we assume that states will be forced to seriously count on Wikileaks-like leaks in the future. Why? Because the cure to the supposed problem is as easily accessible to all diplomats as it is obvious: Refrain from slandering other people or calling them by less than honorable names - at least in your diplomatic cables. Put more simply: behave yourselves! I'm sure that diplomacy and world peace will survive that apparently drastic culture change in diplomatic circles.

The other category of revelations from cablegate concerns less laughable matters. Secret messages and requests between countries (such as Saudi Arabia asking the US to attack Iran), reports about proofs of various covered up actions of the US as well as other countries (China cyber-attacking Google), and actions taken within the US foreign policy hierarchy. Most sinister of all is a report belonging to this last topic and is, of course, Hillary Clinton's reported orders to US diplomats to spy on UN high-level leadership, staff and representatives. In what way, I ask, do any of these revelations threaten foreign policy and diplomacy in the service of peace? A number of arguments may be launched in response to this, but they all come down to one thing: the need for hush-hush. So, the crucial issue seems to be about this: how necessary is hush-hush for foreign policy and diplomacy in the service of peace?

This question is not an easy one to answer, since it is ambiguous. Here's one apparently sound and valid pattern of reasoning: When making foreign policy and diplomacy in the service of peace with respect to some particular chain of events or a particular topic or area, any nation must have the possibility to adapt to the fact that other players are making things secretly. If a nation cannot act in secrecy itself, it will be played for a sucker by those nations that can or, at least, it will be more difficult to reach desirable results. So, for instance, country A may approach country B with the message that it will yield on some important topic of negotiation only if country B assists country A in an action against country C that country C would react very strongly to if taken by country A. If country B cannot keep this request from A secret, there is a risk of conflict between C and A even in the lack of action from B's side. And if A can't trust its request to B being kept a secret, it will never make its offer regarding the important topic of negotiation. I assume that numerous examples of this sort, many far more complex and dirty than this generic sketch, can be given by those who know better than me. As regards spying, there are many examples through history (not least from the cold war era) of espionage intelligence being very important from the perspective of peace. Conclusion: hush-hush does seems to be a vital ingredient in foreign policy and diplomacy to secure peace. Thus, threats to hush-hush, such as Wikileaks, are  threats to peace.

Against this picture, the following, equally sound and valid, line of argument may be mounted: Suppose that, e.g., the US and the EU countries launched a policy of complete openness about foreign policy actions taken and information received regarding foreign policy. This would include refusing to keep secret any sort of clandestine request or offer, but also openly declare all intelligence or "ops" activities - such as wanting to scan the irises of Ban Ki Moon, or paying off some corrupt Afghan minister for not rocking the boat. From a democratic point of view, such a position would seem to be much more desirable than the one described in the former paragraph. Here, the voters are perfectly aware of what their elected representatives are doing in their name. The argument for this is the same as the one outlined earlier. What is more, however, the strongest powers in international politics taking up such a position would seem to cripple the chances of any other country playing them for suckers by applying a hush-hush policy themselves. This since they will then not be able to cooperate at all with US or the EU. In effect, all other countries would have a strong incentive to adapt the openness position as well! As a consequence, a situation would develop where the default premise in international politics would not be that others are lying to you and hiding things from you, but the other way around. Just as in the hush-hush dominated world, openness and honesty of a single player would lead to ruin, in the openness world, trying to hide your actions or intentions would become extremely risky. Chances are that you are discovered and, as a consequence, made a pariah in the international community. Now, the question is this: which world would the better one from the standpoint of peace - the one where nations habitually lie and cheat and expect everyone else to do likewise, or the one built on the opposite of that? The answer should be obvious and, thus, to have foreign policy and diplomacy promoting peace, hush-hush is, in fact, not essential. Even stronger, hush-hush actually diminishes the chance of foreign policy and diplomacy to deliver peace.

So bear with me being a little bit utopian here. I hereby make the following suggestion to the US, the EU, Russia and China on how they should best respond to the Wikileaks phenomenon in general and cablegate in particular. Use Wikileaks to your advantage! Stop playing the hush-hush game! Adapt the openness position and you will have secured a win-win situation that no one will be able to touch! If you do, tomorrow belongs to you!

1 comment:

  1. I quite agree with your assessment of the Cablegate releases. If people would bother to read them (as I'm sure every world goverment is doing) they would find they are not quite as sensational as the media would have us believe. They do in fact paint a picture which puts the US in a very good light, seemingly working hard to try to resolve many of the world's problems. Some fascinating information is to be found, but nothing that could really give reason to endanger people or put world peace at risk. Though I now I have a fair idea why Qatar was awarded the world cup for 2022! I would hope that your utopian idea that this might mark the beginning of the end of 'hush-hush' politics could be true and that other world governments begin to see the advantages of openness and honesty.