There is no such thing as secret diplomacy anymore, maybe not even plain old diplomacy. This week’s mammoth WikiLeaks dump of State Department Internet traffic has ensured that henceforth all diplomacy may end up in the public domain at the push of a button.
WikiLeaks is nothing less than an assault on the rights of free, sovereign nations to manage their foreign policy and conduct diplomacy in the interest of a safer world. U.S. national security and ability to be a global leader has suffered as a consequence.
What American diplomats report back to the State Department from U.S. embassies—whether their thoughts are profound and insightful or silly and superficial—may in the future end up in the public domain. Like the cache of e-mail traffic from the field in Afghanistan and Iraq that made up the previous WikiLeaks dump, the most recent dump of over half a million U.S. diplomatic cables represents the raw materials of human relations and observations.
None of these cables were meant for the public eye, and in many cases the cables are classified or even secret communication. The argument presented by The New York Times and by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is that Americans deserve transparency about their government’s conduct of foreign affairs. But no, what Americans deserve is a government of sufficient checks and balances to prevent abuse and misconduct, such as exercised by the Congressional Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees. Americans do not deserve to have their diplomats’ confidential communications blasted out to the global public to friend and foe alike.
Just think for a moment what damage to personal relationships a misdirected, tactless e-mail can cause. Now multiply that by WikiLeaks magnitude.
For at least four reasons, this WikiLeaks episode will damage U.S. public diplomacy and indeed diplomacy generally: (1) Foreign governments cooperating with the United States, including several in the Arab world, have been severely compromised, with direct national security implications; (2) foreign leaders who are treated with less than respect in U.S. cable traffic, such as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi or Germany’s Angela Merkel, will not be thrilled—and very possibly their publics won’t like it either; (3) communications between U.S. diplomats will be less candid as public disclosure is a possibility anytime; and (4) the U.S. will find it harder to act as a world leader. The WikiLeaks phenomenon makes the U.S. government look ridiculous, like the gang that could not shoot straight. It all adds to the impression, also fostered by the Obama Administration, that the U.S. is a superpower in chaos and decline.
Several actions need to be taken by the U.S. government to gain control of the situation, as outlined by the speakers at The Heritage Foundation’s November 17 event “WikiLeaks: A Danger to U.S. National Security.”
First and foremost, the leaker or leakers must be punished as severely as possibly under the law to demonstrate the seriousness of the crime. Secondly, the State Department and the Pentagon need to take cyber hygiene and information security far more seriously than they have up to this point. For individuals like Private Bradley Manning (who has been identified as the leaker of the e-mail traffic relating to Iraq and who may also be responsible for this week’s WikiLeaks blast) to have access to this volume of sensitive material is unconscionable and sloppy. And thirdly, all this needs to happen without creating a whole new set of government stovepipes that will prevent the U.S. intelligence community from sharing critically important information.
Indeed, damage control in the WikiLeaks scandal will very much depends on the U.S. government’s ability to show the world that it is back in charge of its own foreign policy.