Friday, December 3, 2010

The Diplomats Strike Back

On December 3, the New York Times and the Financial Times published a pair of op-eds about Cablegate, one written by Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington, and the other written by Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Washington.

In his article, Ischinger acknowledged that “leaks happen all the time.” According to him, sometimes a government will leak a piece of information in order “to threaten or weaken an adversary.” Hmmm…that sounds familiar.

Amazingly, after acknowledging that leaks happen all the time, Ischinger went on to boldly proclaim that WikiLeaks “puts the business of diplomacy at risk” because leaks damage trust and trust is “the single most precious commodity in diplomacy.”

This, of course, is completely ridiculous. Governments do not trust each other. They do not trust each other because governments look out for themselves, and not each other. Leaking information is one expression of this attitude, but not the only one. There is, for example, the actions that are mentioned in the leaks.

Braithwaite and Ischinger each had different opinions on whether the public had a right to know about what their government was saying to other countries. Braithwaite acknowledged that transparency was important. However, the conflict between government “privacy” and government transparency “has to be managed,” according to him. Unfortunately, he seems to have no idea how to do this, or at least none that he was willing to share in his article.

On the other hand, Ischinger believed the public did not have a right to know this information because the public only has the right to know about what their own government is doing. This is another completely ridiculous argument. It is impossible to understand what your government is doing unless you understand what other governments are doing. For example, it is impossible to know why our government is having a hard time dealing with its budget deficit unless you know that foreigners finance our deficit and that we must negotiate with them over this issue. And I don’t believe for a second that Ischinger actually believes that people do not have the right to know what other governments are doing. I absolutely cannot imagine that Ischinger has not commented publicly on the actions of another government. Once you do that, you are telling your public information about what another government is doing. And why would the public not have the right to know about what other governments are doing, especially when the actions of those governments directly affect their lives?

In the opening of his article, Braithwaite discusses the contents of the WikiLeaks cables. The cables themselves were all written by U.S. ambassadors living in U.S. embassies located overseas. Ambassadors know that their conversations will be recorded by the local spy agency, and so they are careful about what they say. They also assume that those spy agencies will have access to the cables they write. That, of course, implies that ambassadors know that the “unflattering comments” they write in their diplomatic cables will get read by the government on the receiving end of those insults. Though Braithwaite does not say this in his article, I can only assume that ambassadors write their “unflattering comments” in an attempt to send a message to the local government. You would think leaking these comments would not be such a big deal. But that’s not what Braithwaite writes.

He believes that the release of the Cablegate documents will make other government less willing to talk to America. Leaks, after all, can create “a media storm” that makes politicians reluctant to adopt a certain policy. Of course, if that happens, the government probably leaked those documents with the intention of creating “a media storm” that would make the public oppose the policy and thus give the politicians an excuse for not adopting that policy. As another example of why governments should not leak information, Braithwaite notes that if a leak damages the reputation of a foreign politician, that politician might become angry with the country that leaked the information. Again, in that case, I’m sure the entire point of the leak was to offend that politician.

But regardless, in the end, governments need to have a way to express their positions to other governments. You can do that using your ambassadors. You can do that using your media. You can do that using a bunch of activists. You can do that using the Internet a la the New Diplomacy. But you need to do it in some way or else other governments will not do what you want them to do. That’s your loss. Not their loss.

Perhaps Braithwaite agrees with this line of thinking because after he said that leaking information could reduce the willingness of governments to talk to one another, Braithwaite seems to argue that WikiLeaks would not change anything (burete imasen).

“Once the dust settles, life will go on comparatively unaffected,” said Braithwaite.

According to him, the old way of doing diplomacy is the only “sensible” way in which business can be conducted.

Ischinger, on the other hand, believed WikiLeaks would “lead to less openness and to a lot more secrecy rather than the transparent information universe WikiLeaks idealists may have been dreaming of.”

In response to WikiLeaks, Ischinger argued that government agencies would reduce the amount of information they share between themselves in order to prevent leaks. Governments would provide less information to their ambassadors, exclude their ambassadors from important meetings, begin to use special envoys, and ban diplomats from writing transcripts of their conversations. Ambassadors would either lose their sources or their sources would only tell them want they wanted the media to publish.

In reality, Ischinger is simply describing the world as it was before WikiLeaks, for the most part.

The Obama administration had several special envoys before WikiLeaks made the headlines. They had George Mitchell deal with the Middle East and they had Richard Holbrooke deal with South Asia. I don’t understand why Ischinger believes governments will be more reluctant to allow officials to record transcripts of their conversations when, after looking through some of the WikiLeaks cables, I can’t find a single transcript of any conversation. All I could find were reports of conversations that were written after the conversation took place.

As to the claim that ambassadors will lose their sources, I will bet you anything that those foreign “sources” that Ischinger referred to only tell foreign ambassadors the things their government wants the media to publish in the first place. Remember what Braithwaite said. Ambassadors live in foreign lands that have spy agencies that follow them.

From what I can tell, governments do not tell their diplomats what their true intentions are. This is particularly true of the Japanese government. In the book “With Japan’s Leaders,” a book about the run up to World War II, journalist Frederick Moore referred to many of the Japanese diplomats as “false fronts,” meaning they were people who said things that they believed were true, but unfortunately, those beliefs did not match the beliefs held by the Japanese government (e.g. We’re you’re friends! You can trust us! Really!). I think the Japanese government continues to use “false fronts.” I am virtually certain that the current Japanese ambassador, Ichiro Fujisaki, had no idea what his government’s true intentions were when he first arrived in Washington. In fact, I am virtually certain that the DPJ had no idea what their country really wanted to do during their own administration.

There are several reasons why Japan might want to withhold information from its diplomats and politicians. Politicians and ambassadors have to travel overseas. That makes them vulnerable to losing information (especially with all the tricks the CIA seems to have now). Perhaps Japan believes that its politicians and ambassadors are more convincing if they really believe the crap they are saying.

Cablegate did change the world in one important way. The media stopped doing its job completely. Of course, they were doing a lousy job to begin with, but after WikiLeaks, they took their self-serving, cowardly lousiness to unprecedented new heights. They decided, apparently, that leaks were a bad thing and that they should be really careful about what they tell the public.

Apparently, they agreed with Braithwaite when he said, “We do not need our rulers to worry more about leaks than about getting the policy right.”

For the media and people like Braithwaite, apparently getting things right means instigating civil wars in Arab countries in an effort to kill Muslims and drive up the price of oil. Of course, were the public to realize what people their government was doing, that would worry our “rulers” and we wouldn’t want that, would we Braithwaite?

And for the media, apparently, 2011 was also a great success. If you listen to them, we decimated another Muslim country (Libya), but this time, we only spent like a billion dollars doing it instead of a couple trillion dollars like last time when we trashed Iraq and Afghanistan. For the media, this is great. I think it’s awful.

In 2010, we tried a year of the New Diplomacy. In 2011, we tried a year of the old diplomacy. Both years sucked ass.

Now it’s time to tell the public the truth and hold the people responsible accountable.

History ends here.

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