Diplomacy After Wikileaks: Business as Usual?

By Njoki Wamai

Since November 2010, Wikileaks has been a prominent force in the media after it published thousands of diplomatic cables of the American State Department. The leaks reenergised important debates considering the conduct of orthodox diplomacy in the twenty first century, with the general public becoming increasingly engaged in the conduct of states at national and international levels. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange found support in a number of transparency and human rights activists who advocate for an increased level of openness in government. However, the release of these diplomatic cables was followed by allegations of rape that were levelled against him by two women in Sweden.  

The supporters of Wikileaks argue that the intent in the releasing of these cables was in line with values such as transparency and accountability to citizens. These advocates draw inspiration from the former US President Woodrow Wilson, who, criticised secrecy in diplomacy among world powers in his famous Fourteen Point Speech in 1918. After the First World War, Wilson encouraged states to practice open diplomacy.

The Wikileaks cables are not the first “leaks” that have threatened to strain relations between states. History is replete with other leaks that have greatly impacted international relations. The Ems Dispatch, for instance, which was leaked by Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck, led to the Franco-Prussian War which resulted in the 1871 unification of Germany.

Similarly, a telegram sent in 1917 by the German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman to the German Ambassador in Washington, DC was intercepted by British intelligence when it was forwarded from Washington, DC to the German ambassador in Mexico. The interception revealed its contents to the American public. The resultant public response led to an increased pressure on the US government to join the First World War.

While the Ems and Zimmerman leaks are seen as decisive in shaping international relations from a western perspective, critics argue that Wikileaks have had no significant impact on relations between states. They advise that the leaks should be treated as overzealous journalism from a typical journalist who is “classic information happy”.

Yet the question still remains, does Wikileaks have any impact on diplomacy today? Diplomacy is a peaceful way of managing relations between states. Hedley Bull, a leading scholar on the role of diplomacy in maintaining world order, described the main functions of diplomacy to include intelligence gathering, communication, negotiation and reducing friction. How will the leaks influence the ways in which these functions are carried out? In other words, what impact do the leaks have on diplomacy?

Firstly, diplomats will continue with their roles in intelligence gathering, reducing friction between states, communication and negotiation without any marked difference. From a realist perspective, a state’s relation with other states is governed by self-interest. Similarly, liberals and neoliberals argue that cooperation between states is inspired by the self-interest of individual states: hence states will continue to cooperate despite Wikileaks revelations and it will be business as usual between capitals. However, frosty personal relations between individual American diplomats and host country politicians might be recorded. This will call for transfers to other host countries to reduce friction between the resident ambassador and government officials implicated in the dossiers. The coincidental recall of the US ambassador to Kenya, Michael Rannebeger, after the release of Wikileaks cables could be based on the cables he sent to Washington, DC on the corruption of some elite members of the government.

Secondly, although Wikileaks did not release any new information that was not known to the publics through open intelligence sources, the leaks demystified diplomacy to ordinary citizens. The workings of diplomats are generally viewed with mystery and suspense. Diplomats are sometimes taken to belong to an exclusive club that live glamorous and comfortable lives in foreign capitals sustained by taxpayers at home. Through Wikileaks, citizens have come to understand the day-to-day role of diplomats, which includes mostly administrative work, such as information gathering, communication and negotiation. They show the reality to be a long way from the opulent lifestyles of mythology.

Thirdly, the released Wikileaks cables are likely to increase secrecy in diplomacy. Although transparency advocates believe the leaks will persuade governments to increase openness, critics believe the opposite will happen. There will be increased secrecy and investment in security systems that ensure leak proof communication between diplomats and their capital. Proponents for secrecy argue that traditional diplomacy, characterisedby discretion, still records more success than open diplomacy usually favoured by heads of government during summits. Discretion is important in diplomacy for reaching agreements. Many such agreements require compromises, especially where the substance of the matter discussed involves high security risks.

Eight months after the large scale release of US diplomatic cables, Wikleaks continues to attract media coverage. Although a few commentators at the height of the scandal predicted that Wikileaks may change the practice of diplomacy, the reality appears somewhat different: that diplomacy has not been altered in any meaningful way. One outcome that is assured, however, is that states will invest greater resources in security systems for diplomatic communications to avoid a repeat of the type of embarrassment that Wikileaks caused.


15 July 2011


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