Wikileaks: The darker side of diplomacy

2010-12-14 00:00

WIKILEAKS’S release of

thousands of diplomatic cables by United States diplomats in over 100 countries is anti-diplomatic in two ways. One is that diplomats say nice things to deceive their enemies, but can say nasty things about their hosts to their headquarters through secret cables. If made public, these candid notes will hurt relations between states.

The second concern is that, according to Randolph Bourne, diplomacy is “a disguised war, in which states seek to gain by barter and intrigue … the objectives they would have to gain more clumsily by means of war.” If confidential notes are revealed, diplomacy recedes and war becomes likely, for as Tony Benn put it: “All war represents the failure of diplomacy”.

Diplomacy is one of the oldest tools of statecraft, a means by which states maintain friendly relations in the midst of deep mistrust. One student of the art of diplomacy among European nations observed: “The real diplomat is one who can cut a friend’s throat without having his neighbours notice it.” The release of secret cables is letting everybody know that their throats are being surreptitiously cut. Will they laugh this off as a bad joke and move on?

The cables were not meant for the global audience, and certainly not for the countries and leaders that they mention. The intended audience was Washington. If these cables sounded nice about arch enemies like China, Russia, Iran and Zimbabwe, Washington considers these diplomats ineffective. United States diplomats know what their headquarters expect to hear even about tactical friends like the kingdom of Morocco, Germany and France about whom the cables reveal scathing criticisms.

So, the adjective “candid” does not necessarily mean truthful and objective. By candid, headquarters actually invite intrigue and hyperbole from diplomats abroad. Intrigue because diplomats are often inclined to communicate in a manner that bolsters the favoured course of action from their home country.

This must, therefore, be kept in mind when reading about information in the cables. But I do not suggest that these diplomatic notes are to be taken lightly. In fact, they will have a lasting impact on public perception of diplomacy and the diplomatic relations between the U.S. and states mentioned in a bad light.

By leaking these cables, WikiLeaks has embarrassed the U.S. As a result, the U.S. has dispatched its senior diplomats to do damage control, especially in countries that the U.S. considers pivotal, including China, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Canada. It has also launched a reprisal, leading to many of WikiLeaks’s partners withdrawing their support and the accusation against its founder of rape charges.

The leaks project U.S. diplomats as too opinionated about others. Of course, comments quoted are not official policy, but coming from ambassadors they reveal the inner thinking in Washington. Countries described in leaks may not openly take exception to the revelations, but they are irked. For instance, Angela Merkel (Germany), Nicolas Sarkozy (France), Dmitry Medvedev (Russia) and King Mohammed (Morocco) must feel personally affronted. Some countries have had their confidential views about Third World countries splashed out in the print media with potentially negative impacts on their relations with those countries. The Saudis’ plea for action against Iran projects them as stooges of the U.S. in the eyes of an Arab world deeply divided over the roles of the U.S. and Israel in the region.

The leaks reveal how much the American diplomats despised former president Thabo Mbeki for his strong positions on issues they saw as strategic. On the contrary, they regard President Jacob Zuma as both intelligent and tactical, a man they can build relations with. For Americans, Mbeki was a bad native, holding strong views that prevented the building of relations, whereas Zuma, like Nelson Mandela, is a good native who is intelligent, yet malleable.

But to be admired by American diplomats is not really a compliment for a leader of a rising power and a key player in the slow shift of global balance in favour of the developing world. It can either be that Americans misread Zuma’s charm for acquiescence or by emphasising foreign relations over foreign affairs, Zuma has indeed become consenting.

The impact of all this juicy information will be subtle and difficult to discern, but certainly widespread and profound. South Africa should not overplay this idea of relations at the expense of principles of international equity, justice and democracy.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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