How will WikiLeaks affect diplomacy?

Posted on November 30, 2010 by

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Probably the only positive impact WikiLeaks will have is that it will demystify diplomacy. Many people see diplomacy as an exclusive and mysterious profession. While diplomacy is perceived as glamour, black limousines, receptions, and the comfortable life,  the reality is significantly different. Basically, diplomacy is a profession like any other. There is a lot of administration, routine, and technical work. The glamour is vanishing, and when it is present, it is simply part of the working routine (Ivo Andric on diplomacy).

The list of negative impacts is much longer……

In order to discuss the absurdity of the recent WikiLeaks action in releasing over a quarter of million US diplomatic cables, we need to start with the basics about diplomacy and its function. Diplomacy is a peaceful way of managing relations in human society.  It is as old as humanity itself. Diplomacy started when our predecessors realised that it was better to hear the message than to eat the messenger. Diplomats have always represented groups of people in negotiation with other groups of people. Throughout history, people have been organised in clans, tribes, empires, and more recently in nation states. These groups could not live in isolation.  They need to interact: sometimes fighting, sometimes negotiating, and sometimes cooperating.

Today’s diplomatic system is a result of this long evolution, which crystallised certain principles of diplomatic conduct. The main principle is that communication, even among adversaries, must be maintained. Without communication there is no diplomacy. Communication is to diplomacy what blood is to the human body. Frank and engaging communication is rarely conducted in public. It requires a certain secrecy, or more precisely perhaps, a certain discretion.

Secrecy/discreetness in diplomacy is one of the ‘implied’ targets of this WikiLeaks release. This is where we should make clear a distinction between secret and discreet diplomacy. According to former US President Woodrow Wilson, who banned secret diplomacy in his Fourteen Points speech back in 1918, all diplomatic deals must be made public. However, the way in which these deals are achieved does not need to be public. While openness is the guiding principle of good governance, the reality shows that most of the successful diplomatic deals have been done discretely, far removed from the public eye.

There are many reasons why negotiations should be discreet. Sometimes, it is needed to protect the interlocutor on the other side of the table. In many cases negotiators spend a lot of time finding face-saving formulas for the audience back home. Discreetness usually helps to prevent effective negotiations from turning into a show for the general public. We should not forget that compromise, the core of diplomacy, is not popular in many societies, especially when it is contrasted with national pride and glory. Reaching a compromise and maintaining discretion in negotiations are very often closely linked.

What will be the impact of this WikiLeak? Consider it a major earthquake in the in the global diplomatic system at the time when we need diplomacy more than ever before. The contemporary world is so interdependent that its conflicts can no longer be resolved by military force. Diplomacy is a necessity, not just a choice ethically superior to war. Iraq and Afghanistan are the most recent examples of the limits of the use of military force and the increasing importance of diplomacy.

WikiLeaks also comes at a time when diplomacy is at crossroads. It has to deal with the accumulating global problems resulting from the financial crisis and climate change. At the same time it has to reform itself and open itself more for citizens worldwide who are empowered by the Internet and want to have more say in the way world is governed. Global diplomacy has to become both more legitimate (involving more people in decision making) and more efficient (solving problems). The global diplomatic plane has to be fixed while it is flying.

It is very likely that diplomatic services will immediately react by increasing security, becoming more exclusive, and even more secretive. It will, at least temporarily, discourage those who argue for having more engaging and inclusive global diplomacy. The exact opposite, in fact, to what, at least declaratively, WikiLeaks wanted to achieve.

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