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Rediff.com  » News » Wikileaks: Caught in the Midnight Sun

Wikileaks: Caught in the Midnight Sun

December 03, 2010 16:40 IST
We should not rejoice over the loss of face that the US has suffered on account of the leakage of its cable traffic. This can happen to any country, says former Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

A dreaded thought for many is the possibility of the sun rising at midnight without warning. People will be caught in the wrong places doing the wrong things. The embarrassment will be not that these things happen, but that these come unexpectedly to public view. At the time of the normal break of day, they will be prim and proper.

To change the image, no one wants to be seen in the green room of a play, when the actors are putting on make up or having a drink, even when dressed up as Mahatma Gandhi. Once the curtains are up, they will play their roles perfectly and receive approbation.

The embarrassment of the US today is that of people caught in the midnight sun, actors caught in the green room.

The world of diplomacy is an elegant and beautiful world. Diplomats dress well, say the right things at the right time, respect other people's views and even appear to change their positions for the good of the world. They are totally rational and reasonable and there are no harsh words.

But that does not mean there is no struggle, no rancor, no arm twisting, no name calling, no plain speaking behind the scenes. It is in the strong rooms of the chanceries that honest opinions are aired, cold calculations are made and strategies and tactics are shaped to subdue the enemy and to put the friend to the best use. Deals are made, concessions are given and the IOUs are counted.

This is not the preserve of the big powers and all nations play the game by their own rules before everything is formalised in accordance with the provisions of the Vienna and Geneva conventions. In fact, it is the struggle behind the scenes that leads to the photo opportunities and signature ceremonies with flowers and smiles all around.

The unwritten rules for protection and promotion of national interests are as important as the code of conduct of diplomats ranging from sartorial propriety to acting for the common good.

Confidentiality of communications within an individual government should be sacrosanct at least for a reasonable period so that the diplomats can be brutally frank in their assessments.

These assessments enable the governments concerned to understand each other and according to their best interests. Such frank assessments and forthright predictions contribute to peace and stability in the world. Indeed, it is the 'cables' that make the diplomatic world go round.

We should not rejoice over the loss of face that the US has suffered on account of the leakage of its cable traffic. This can happen to any country, even though some countries are more discreet than others and maintain a certain decorum in even confidential communications.

But if diplomatic cables leak even in India, there will be many red faces. What we write in these cables cannot but offend the people whose conduct or conversations are reported in what we call 'telegrams'.

Unless the confidentiality of these communications are assured, the very functioning of our missions will be in jeopardy.

The Wikileaks have, however, come as a bonanza for US watchers as they give a rare glimpse of the workings of US diplomacy and the private views of US diplomats expressed in privileged communications to their government. Such leaks may even have a beneficial effect if the US government takes corrective measures to remove the irritants that may be generated by the leaks.

One point to remember is that diplomatic 'cables' or 'telegrams' have undergone many changes over the years. From a situation where each word or each letter was painstakingly coded by hand, we have reached a stage when words keyed into a computer automatically get coded and then get decoded for the recipients.

Neither the sender nor the recipient needs to worry about any unauthorised person reading the messages. Without that comfort and confidence, no one will convey his frank opinions and assessments.

Diplomats are generally the worst critics of their host countries because they watch and learn about their hosts on a day to day basis. They also experience culture shocks each time they change their assignments.

The excellent relations the countries may have do not prevent them from expressing their views among themselves. The hosts will not be too pleased to hear these views. Such conversations take place in diplomatic circles in every capital.

The US government had already warned several countries, including India about the likelihood of irritants emerging on account of the leaks. We do not know the nature and extent of the damage that is likely to result when the thousands of pages, which have been leaked, are published and analysed.

The early revelation about India's aspirations for permanent membership of the UN Security Council had no real surprise in it. We knew for a fact that the US had not yet arrived at a formula for the expansion of the Security Council, which it can expect to accomplish.

It had 'enthusiastically' supported Japan and Germany in the past, but could not succeed in promoting them. The hope to see India as a permanent member may be genuine, but the hope can be fulfilled only if there is a workable formula, involving the nature and size of the expansion. The US is still searching for such a formula.

Hillary's instructions in the leaked document reveals that the US mission in New York would go to the extent of spying on the concerned countries to learn about their moves in this connection. The issues to be followed are listed in these words:

'B. Key Continuing Issues

1) UN Security Council Reform (FPOL-1).

-- Positions, attitudes, and divisions among member states on

UN Security Council (UNSC) reform.

-- Views, plans and intentions of Perm 5 and other member

states on the issue of UNSC enlargement, revision of UNSC

procedures or limitation of Perm 5 privileges.

-- International deliberations regarding UNSC expansion among

key groups of countries: self-appointed front runners for

permanent UNSC membership Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan

(the Group of Four or G-4); the Uniting for Consensus group

(especially Mexico, Italy, and Pakistan) that opposes

additional permanent UNSC seats; the African Group; and the

EU, as well as key UN officials within the Secretariat and

the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Presidency.

-- Willingness of member states to implement proposed reforms.

-- Reactions of UN senior leadership towards member

recommendations for UNSC reform.'

The objection is to the description of 'a key group of countries', India, Brazil, Japan and Germany, as 'self-appointed front runners'. This description need not be seen as derogatory because they are seen as front runners, but not recognised formally by anyone else. India is of the view that it has substantial support, but this is not a matter of public record.

The other criticism is that Obama's statement of support for India voiced in Parliament is proved hollow by the statement of the US secretary of state that India is nothing but a self appointed frontrunner. Here, it is a matter of interpretation of the intent of the US president. What he expressed was the consensus view in New York that if and when the Security Council is expanded, India should have a place in it as a permanent member.

This is indeed a significant shift in the US position as no US leader had expressed this sentiment so far. But too much should not be read into it. Our dream may be a little nearer to reality now than before, but not enough.

There may still be worse revelations in the coming weeks when more documents get published. As long as they are seen in their right perspective, no serious damage will be done to India-US relations. Some of them may even help clarify some of the mysteries of US behaviour around the world.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador.

T P Sreenivasan