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Why WikiLeaks was the biggest story of 2010

January 14, 2011 15:06 IST

This WikiLeaks cables will strategically weaken the US in ways that are currently difficult to predict. But more damagingly, it will make effective foreign policy making even more difficult for all nations. And that would be a tragedy given the times we live in, says Harsh V Pant.

Even as federal prosecutors in Washington are looking for evidence that would enable them to charge Julian Assange with helping an army intelligence analyst suspected of leaking the information, it is clear that the Assange and his WikiLeaks gamble has changed the face of foreign policy forever. While many may not have realised it even yet, WikiLeaks is the biggest story of the year gone by in terms of the policy impact it will have on the future conduct of global politics.

Even in the best of times conducting an effective foreign policy is one of the most challenging tasks facing a nation's decision-makers. Foreign policy is different from domestic policy as nations operate in an anarchical structural environment where is there is no higher authority to mediate differences among the nations.

So, countries have to rely on themselves to further their national interests and in so doing they have to take recourse to all kinds of means. Secrecy is a vital instrument in the armoury of states without which long-term decision-making would be virtually impossible. This is especially true of liberal democracies where transparency is essential in the domestic sphere, making the conduct of diplomacy even more challenging.

An ability to communicate under a cloak of secrecy so essential for diplomacy took a major hit when WikiLeaks, a self described 'whistle blower' site, began publishing more than 250, 000 leaked US embassy cables last November. This disclosure of a cache of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables has sent shudders through the diplomatic establishment, endangering American operations abroad and even putting the lives of confidential sources of American diplomacy at risk. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made it clear that WikiLeaks acted illegally in posting the material but the global reaction so far has also been universally condemnatory.

It is a sad sight to see the world's sole superpower losing control over so much of its classified information in one go. No doubt the leaks have exposed American vulnerabilities and have put the spotlight back on the American handling of sensitive information. It is baffling how a 22-year-old army private, Bradley Manning, at a remote Iraqi base could have got access to 250,000 State Department cables, as well as tens of thousands more military reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, and how he could have downloaded them onto CDs without being detected.

Traditionally, the US used to bemoan lax standards of secrecy in other countries. It turns out that it was Washington that has not been smart enough in handling such information. The balance of power has now shifted between the US and its allies on this issue.

Another troubling aspect of the leak is the policy of directing American diplomats to collect personal data of foreign officials. This dangerously blurs the distinction between diplomats and spies and perhaps is best left to the spooks. American diplomats will now be suspected more as they go about dealing with other nations.

What is also revealed in the diplomatic traffic is a portrait of the world that is much more disturbing than many had envisioned -- the devastating stuff about the Iranian nuclear programme and the Arab panic about it; the vulnerability of Pakistan's nuclear stockpile to rogue Islamist; anarchy and corruption writ large in Afghanistan; growing presence of Al Qaida in Yemen; the tight grip of organised crime groups on the Russian state.

The world today is dangerous place and as the US decline continues, the role of the US as the guarantor of global stability is increasingly coming under question. The released documents do nothing to assuage growing concerns about the ability and/or willingness of Washington to tackle the global challenges effectively despite the hopes of several states. In these documents, we witness an American unable to deal with Iranian nuclear ambitions and unable to convince Islamabad that using terrorism as an instrument of state policy is a bad idea.

But there is a larger issue here that comes to the fore. In releasing US diplomatic documents WikiLeaks has underlined that statecraft itself was imperilled by a reality in which no secret is safe if it is written. It is indeed a difficult case for leaders in democracies to make that there is a limit to what the people should know, or at least when they should know. The art of diplomacy is crucial if conflicts are to be mitigated and wars are to be avoided and that art is now being viewed by many as under attack.

The vulnerability of diplomatic correspondence damages the ability of the diplomat to engage in frank, confidential discussions not just with government officials but with all kinds of other actors. What really matters for the successful conduct of a nation's foreign policy is the confidence, a word that denotes trust and secrecy. When private conversations become public, it is more than mere embarrassing. It leads to a loss of trust in the interlocutor making it difficult to gather reliable information in the future. WikiLeaks has been rightly accused of "information vandalism" with no regard for privacy or social usefulness.

No doubt as a consequence of these revelations, traditional diplomatic cables will now be phased out and that will be a serious loss not only to the policymakers but also to the scholars and historians who rely on this archival material to get a fuller portrait of the larger environment shaping policies at a particular point in time. Most diplomatic cables remain secret for decades and work as raw material for historians, long after the participants have bowed out from the scene.

It is certainly the case that this unprecedented violation will strategically weaken the US in ways that are currently difficult to predict. But more damagingly, it will make effective foreign policy making even more difficult for all nations. And that would be a tragedy given the times we live in.

Harsh V Pant