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Carne Ross Headshot

The End of Diplomacy As We Know It

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It will take a long time, perhaps many years, for the full impact of the WikiLeaks disclosure of thousands of US diplomatic cables to become known. Make no mistake: this is an event of historic importance -- for all governments, and not only the US.

As politicians of all sides bellow their condemnation of WikiLeaks, governments are with some desperation trying to pretend that it's business as usual. But the truth is that something very dramatic in the world of diplomacy has just taken place, and thus indeed in the way that the world runs its business. History may now be dated pre- or post-WikiLeaks.

The mainstream press has as usual missed the story, with their obsession with Iran or Qaddafi's voluptuous nurse or Karzai's corruption -- which, incidentally, is reported by US diplomats in excruciating detail. But this event carries a much deeper significance than merely the highly-embarrassing and in some cases dangerous revelations in the enormous trove of documents. No one, and neither the US State Department nor WikiLeaks, can say with any confidence whether the effects of this massive disclosure will be good or bad, for in truth no one can know. There will be many and long-lasting consequences. That is all that can be known with any certainty at this point.

The presumption that governments can conduct their business in secret with one another, out of sight of the populations they represent, died this week. Diplomats and officials around the world are slowly realizing that anything they say may now be one day published on the Internet. Governments are now frantically rushing to secure their data and hold it more tightly than ever, but the horse has bolted. If a government as technically sophisticated and well protected as the US can suffer a breach of this magnitude, no government is safe. Politicians can demand the prosecution of Julian Assange or -- absurdly -- that WikiLeaks be designated as a terrorist organization, but the bellows of anger are tacit admission that government's monopoly on its own information is now a thing of the past.

Hillary Clinton has described the WikiLeaks disclosures as an attack on the "international community." But in truth this is something else: an attack on the governments that make up the current international system of diplomacy. The deep-seated assumption, both among the public and political classes, that governments have business that they should conduct in secret with one another has been shattered. Pause, incidentally, to observe the politicians and commentators declaring the need for governments to operate in secrecy, when they don't even know what government is keeping secret. From this day forward, it will be ever more difficult for governments to claim one thing, and do another. For in making such claims, they are making themselves vulnerable to WikiLeaks of their own.

Why? Because the most damaging thing about the WikiLeaks disclosures is not the fact that they happened (though this is bad enough for the US government) but the revelation, long suspected but now proven, of the yawning discrepancy between US words and actions in that most contested area, the Middle East. Cable after cable details the extraordinarily intimate and co-dependent relations between the US and various despotic and unpleasant Arab regimes. One Arab intelligence chief plots with American officials to target Iranian groups, or confront Hezbollah. Another undemocratic Arab leader invites US bombers to attack targets in his own territory. It is this discrepancy -- between word and deed -- that will keep the wind in WikiLeaks' sails, and others like them, for long to come.

Governments around the world are this week telling each other that nothing has really changed and that if they restrict the circulation of those really sensitive telegrams and glue up all the USB slots in their computers, that this won't happen to them. But it will. There will be more such revelations, not about the US (which so far has been the main target of WikiLeaks' somewhat arbitrary attentions), but others -- British, Chinese? -- for the reality is that electronic data is formidably difficult to protect.

The reason is simple. In order to be effective as organizations, governments and foreign offices are required to circulate sensitive data, so that their officials and diplomats actually know what's going on. One reason why the UN is ineffective as an organization is because nothing is secret there, and as a result no one circulates anything sensitive. Don't buy the argument that the really important stuff is kept Top Secret and hasn't been compromised. Even a cursory perusal of the WikiLeaks archive reveals cables that are the very meat and drink of diplomacy -- what foreign leaders and governments really think, and what they really want in their relations with the US.

Governments are therefore confronted with an insoluble conundrum. If they restrict and protect the data, and perhaps even stop recording the most delicate information (as no doubt some diplomats are now considering), they will inevitably reduce their operational effectiveness. If they circulate the data widely, as the US did before WikiLeaks, they will risk compromise on this devastating scale.

There is in fact only one enduring solution to the WikiLeaks problem and this is perhaps the goal of WikiLeaks, though this is sometimes hard to discern. That is that governments must close the divide between what they say, and what they do. It is this divide that provokes WikiLeaks; it is this divide that will provide ample embarrassment for future leakers to exploit. The only way for governments to save their credibility is to end that divide and at last to do what they say, and vice versa, with the assumption that nothing they may do will remain secret for long. The implications of this shift are profound, and indeed historic.