Secrecy has always been a hallmark of diplomacy. So has spying. In the game of high stakes power politics, the public face you show is often much different than the one you expose behind closed doors. The one thing that governments friend and foe have in common is that they know this is the case. They have no illusions that the public statements made by President Obama or Prime Minister Putin are somehow definitive or even true. Insiders know secrets about world leaders which never get mentioned, and details about the inner workings of governments here and abroad.
That’s why I am not in the camp of the outraged in response to the latest Wikileak dump. To hear US officials tell it, the leakers and those in charge of Wikileaks are anti-American, irresponsible amoral publicity hounds who, as Senator Lindsay Graham said “may have blood on their hands.” Some have even branded Wikileaks an enemy of the state, and have called for non-judicial retaliation against Wikileaks founder Jullian Assange and others.
The truth, they believe, is for insiders to know. The public is to get a sanitized and often false story, with the knowledge that in thirty years or so historians will get access to documents currently too sensitive to release. The truth needs to be hidden for the sake of national security: the public just can’t handle the truth.
Yet this secrecy also enables powerful states and leaders to pursue policies and actions that shape our world and can lead to immense harm. It prevents citizens from understanding and knowing what is being done in their name, and protects corrupt leaders from being held accountable. Secrecy is the best friend of “big government,” allowing political leaders to say one thing while they’re doing another. More than anything else, secrecy aids the ability of governments to control populations and deny liberty. Without secrecy, government power is eviscerated.
That is why inside the halls of the State Department, Pentagon, Congress and White House there is outrage over the Wikileaks dump. It threatens the power of the elite establishment to run their own game while giving the public only as much as they “need to know.” This creates an “empowered class” – elites who know that they are on the inside and have a sense of both importance and power. They possess knowledge others do not have, and ultimately see themselves as superior to average folk. They rationalize their power by asserting they are protecting the citizens and allowing them to live their lives without having to think about the true nature of a complex and dangerous world.
The “empowered class” fancies themselves the protectors of democracy and the national interest. They see themselves as having a clearer perspective about the world than most, and a more sophisticated sense of moral responsibility. Yes, water boarding may seem wrong, but put in the context of the dangers we face and threats to the western way of life, at times it may be necessary. Those who criticize are naive, uninformed, or lost in a cloud of idealistic wishful thinking. The self-serving delusions of the empowered class hide everything from power orgies to quid pro quo deals and policy choices involving torture, war, and espionage. Theirs is a high stakes, high risk game which must be kept as opaque as possible.
Wikileaks threatens that. There is nothing inherently dangerous in the leak that came out, at least according to initial reports. It does show a United States less able to manage world events than in the past, even if the Obama Administration has improved the US reputation abroad. The United States clearly finds itself more isolated and easy to ignore than ever. The leaks errode US prestige and power at a time when it is already being sorely taxed.
And yes, that’s embarrassing and makes it harder for US diplomats to operate. Yes, foreign leaders may be less willing to secretly cooperate with the US if they fear news of that cooperation might be leaked. Yet there was nothing surprising in the documents. Most new information verified existing suspicions – the fact that Arab states are more worried than Israel about Iran getting a nuclear weapon should surprise no one. Even “embarrassing” portrayals of foreign leaders fit what most people think – Angela Merkel is “rarely creative,” Libya’s Gadhafi is “erratic” and has a voluptuous blond Ukrainian nurse, Putin dominates Medvedev, and Afghanistan’s Karzai is weak and corrupt. Well, all that is pretty obvious (though the Ukrainian nurse is a new).
That the US and South Korea are gaming out North Korea’s collapse may seem big news, but the shocking news would be if they were NOT doing that. And who is surprised that China engaged in a kind of cyber attack on Google? No, the documents were neither shocking, surprising, nor especially harmful. Yet Secretary of State Clinton has a point when she said:
“Let’s be clear. This disclosure is not just an attack on America — it’s an attack on the international community. “Such leaks…tear at the fabric” of responsible government. There is nothing laudable about endangering innocent people, and there is nothing brave about sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations.”
It is an attack on the international community, but it does not tear at the fabric of responsible government. It tears at the fabric of the power politics games enjoyed by governments for centuries. It does not endanger innocent people, it informs innocent people and endangers government elites by showing how they operate. It doesn’t sabotage the peaceful relations between nations, it exposes the secret deals and actions undertaken by and between national governments.
I’m sure Secretary Clinton believes her words; the empowered class has come to believe their own story: secretive games are necessary, and they are protecting the public. This self-serving rationalization of secrecy is as prevalent on the left as on the right. Yet there is reason to believe it to be misguided. While some information would be dangerous or harmful if made public, in general it’s better to shine light on the actions of governments, even if creates embarrassment. If world leaders feared that their statements and actions might become public knowledge, they’d have to behave more responsibly.
Yes, I know. Those in the empowered class would say I don’t understand the sensitivity of the issues at hand, and lack appreciation for the delicate balance diplomacy requires. I understand that argument, and in many instances it’s valid. But overall, the moaning and groaning from the empowered class is less about the public good than the fact wikileaks threatens their power and insulation. That’s a good thing. So Wikileaks, thank you!