WikiLeaks and American diplomacy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Little in the way of surprise or revelation has come out of the WikiLeaks cables, writes the Geopolitical Diary at Stratfor.

The following contribution was sent to EURACTIV by the Geopolitical Diary at Stratfor, a global intelligence company.

"WikiLeaks released the much-anticipated first tranche of more than 250,000 US State Department diplomatic cables on Sunday, releasing just fewer than 300 individual documents by the time of writing on Monday (it will take some time for the full archive of diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks – many lengthy – to be published).

Like the previous releases of massive collections of military and security Afghan and Iraq war documents (in July and October respectively), there has been little in the way of real surprise or revelation.

This set of leaks has differed from those of the past. They have included not a single Top Secret report like the Pentagon Papers of 1971 that, despite the plural, were actually a single report comprising thousands of pages of analyses and thousands more of documentation organised into nearly 50 volumes.

Each of these WikiLeaks releases has instead been of vast quantities of fairly low-level reports of lower levels of classification. Many of the military documents released in July and October were initial reports or impressions of 'significant activities'- SIGACTs, in the parlance – and are not even a definitive or complete account of a specific event.

In war, secrecy is of paramount importance. But the value and sensitivity of a secret that is truly actionable is often of a very short-lived nature (as opposed to the continued classification of material that is merely embarrassing). The trick with intelligence in war is that you can never quite know what tidbit of information your adversary might make useful.

But perhaps the single most important and unambiguous lesson of the WikiLeaks releases of Iraq and Afghan war documents has not so much been a security problem (though obviously there was a very important one), but of how overloaded the classification system has become with information of marginal and short-term sensitivity. So many were accessing so much mundane, day-to-day information that no-one noticed when something important (in this case enormous quantities of low-level sensitivity) was being accessed and moved inappropriately: the WikiLeaks releases are a symptom of a classification system that is broken – and not just because someone managed to leak so much.

Interestingly, few of the more than 250,000 diplomatic cables are actually classified – though they were never intended for public consumption. But the real significant difference is the game that is being played: a diplomatic rather than military one. In the practice of diplomacy, no one should be surprised that a country behaves one way and says another. When two leaders talk, their ability to speak in confidence is essential for moving beyond the pomp, circumstance and atmospherics that diplomacy has always entailed.

Indeed, the very act of two leaders talking is the product of innumerable back-channel negotiations and confidential understandings. And even in supposedly more transparent democratic societies, the exigencies of foreign affairs dictate discretion and flexibility. Diplomacy not only requires compromise, but by its nature, it violates ideals and requires multiple layers of deception and manipulation.

The issue that is raised in peacetime diplomacy is that the mutual understanding of confidence is publicly breached. In war, nothing important is going to change based on a SIGACT report from a squad-level patrol from two years ago. If something needed to change, the exigencies of war saw it change long ago – at the company level, things may have changed as a result of the debrief following that very patrol. Other than for the men and women who fought there that day and their families, it has become a matter for history.

But what the sitting US ambassador to a country has been saying to Washington for the last two years has the potential to matter for the functional relationships he has worked to cultivate and for how that country's people perceive their government's relationship with America – and therefore the constraints those leaders face moving forward.

Everyone already knows this is how the game is played and leaders in Washington and beyond have already demonstrated that countries with real problems to work on are not going to let a glimpse of what goes on behind closed doors interrupt important geopolitical relationships.

With the release of these cables, everyone now knows what US diplomats think of Moammar Gadhafi. It may impact US-Libyan relations temporarily, but only if Libya was already in the market for an excuse to muck up the works.

It would be far more problematic if the WikiLeaks revealed that the US State Department was working with an unrealistic political assessment of what a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was going to be like than the fact that what everyone reads in the tabloids also made it into a diplomatic cable.

What's more, the idea that WikiLeaks could hurt diplomatic relationships between the United States and the rest of the world also assumes that the rest of the world conducts diplomacy in a more 'honest' manner – it does not – or that it somehow does not fear that one day its own dispatches may be laid barren for all to see – it does. And given American intelligence capabilities, there's a good chance most countries do not want to gamble on whether the United States is already reading them.

Nevertheless, this latest batch of WikiLeaks has been more anticipated here at Stratfor than the first two. The matters they discuss would have eventually made their way into history books if they mattered, but they offer an unprecedented sampling of what the current administration and the current State Department have said in confidence in recent years on a wide variety of issues.

Nothing that WikiLeaks has released so far – about the Iraq and Afghan wars or American diplomacy – has been so revelatory and of such great consequence to spur entire nations to make significant alterations to their foreign policies, and so far the diplomatic impact has been minimal. But it is fascinating for those who detail the blow-by-blow of history for a living, and have to make estimates about what is going on behind those closed doors based on imperfect information.

These cables provide a way to check not the accuracy of intelligence estimates – and not in a matter of years when they are proven right or wrong – but are based on a vast array of current data. We imagine Stratfor is not the only one benefiting from getting a look at the answer sheet, incomplete and imperfect though it may be."

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