The voluminous WikiLeaks revelations are neither the first nor the last of their kind; they are part of a well-established tradition of leaked secrets, dating back to the establishment of the nation-state, if not before. However, the WikiLeaks disclosures are distinct in three ways.
First, with a total of 251,287 cables, this is perhaps the biggest trove of secrets ever to be leaked. Even the dramatic Mitrokhin Archive, which revealed the best-kept Russian secrets, was a mere 25,000 pages. Moreover, at the present rate of release of the WikiLeaks cables (less than 1% have been made public until now) we will still be seeing these leaks 25 years from now.
Second, previous exposes have dealt either with a single country (such as the Mitrokhin Archive) or a single issue (such as the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam war). In contrast, the WikiLeaks cables are a global tour de force covering topics from Al Qaeda to Zimbabwe.
Third, the cables also reveal the expanding mandate of traditional diplomacy to topics related to the so-called “new security agenda”, particularly critical infrastructure, such as energy pipelines, undersea cables, ports, dams and pharmaceutical plants.
Notwithstanding these characteristics, some new revelations and the candid nature of the cables, it would be a mistake to accept everything in them as the gospel truth. They are merely insightful observations or hitherto private conversations, which sometimes provide new facts but not necessarily the complete story.
For instance, take Iran, which has been the focus of most of the cables released so far. The disclosure that its Arab neighbours are concerned enough to call for military action, though somewhat embarrassing for the Arab leaders, is not news either for the Iranians or the Americans. It merely removes the veil of a convenient fiction of unity publicly maintained by both Iran and its Arab neighbours. This is why Iran’s president has charged that the leaks are an official US conspiracy to create divisions within the region. Besides, even though Arab leaders might have privately urged the US to “cut off the head of the snake”, they are unlikely to provide public support for such a military action for fear that it would inflame their populations. Moreover, while it costs nothing to encourage military action, it is not clear from the cables whether the Arab states would be willing to pay the price for such a conflagration by increasing oil production to maintain a stable price. In fact, US (and, perhaps, Israeli) military action against Iran might provide an opportunity to the oil and gas rich Arab states to drop production and increase prices while keeping Washington bogged down in yet another misadventure.
The same is the case with the so-called Chinese revelations on North Korea. For instance, the candid observations by senior Chinese officials that North Korea behaves like a “spoiled child” serves Beijing’s interests in two ways. First, it earns China sympathy and credit for having to deal with a truculent ally. Second, it gets China off the hook for not being able to manage Pyongyang’s behaviour. Similarly, Beijing’s assurance that it could live with a unified Korea should be regarded in the present context, when the prospects of reunification are remote. Were reunification to become a real possibility, Beijing could well change its mind (not unlike the reversal in India’s position on climate change) or seek additional commercial inducements and concessions to adjust to the new reality.
To attain a clearer picture in the instances above and to complement the present cables, WikiLeaks would do well to provide similar diplomatic cables from other countries, particularly the Arab states, Iran, China and North Korea. However, the anarchic champion of transparency will recognize the irony that closed societies are better at keeping their secrets than open ones.
W Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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