WikiLeaks: Why They Help American Diplomacy

For all the State Department's understandable security concern about the recent disclosure of classified telegrams from its embassies by WikiLeaks, there are elements in this exposé that can actually improve how Americans and the rest of the world view US diplomacy and, most important, the United States itself. As the cables demonstrate:

--American diplomats can write. If you read the missives -- and, granted, no way I could read them all -- they provide strong evidence that Foreign Service officers (FSOs) construct solid, logical, and detailed analyses that (if not always correct) are thoughtful and carefully crafted. Compare them to the instant, superficial reporting of the mass media, and you can see the importance of diplomatic dispatches not only for giving Washington the background and nuance to a given situation, but also for providing a reliable historical record of major global events.

--American diplomats are not naive, an all-too-frequent characterization of US officials by their foreign counterparts. FSOs, as their candid, sometimes critical portraits of their overseas contacts suggest, strive to be subtle judges of character; of course, they are not always right, but they are intelligently seeking to understand, as best they can, the nature of their foreign interlocutors, and their reporting demonstrates it. Far from permanently embarrassing the U.S., the WikiLeaks disclosures may, in fact, result in increasing respect overseas for American diplomats, as their communications to headquarters (now made public, regrettably or not) demonstrate they seek to be insightful observers, and are not gullible country bumpkins who believe everything they hear.

--American diplomats are not inhuman automatons but have a sense of irony and humor. To cite one example, the Moscow US Embassy's characterization of Putin and Medvedev -- Batman and Robin -- is not only funny, but may end up in the history books as a "catch-the-moment" way to describe this odd, sinister duo.

On the negative side, the WikiLeaks's damage from a US perspective may be that:

--Some foreign officials may be offended by how they were "treated" in the cables. But any experienced statesman, no matter from what country, expects that he/she will be criticized/ridiculed in confidential diplomatic communications, and not to lose sight of his/her national interests because of this -- national interests that include dealing with the United States. Would Obama be mortally offended by what the British Ambassador negatively said about him in a leaked report? As Secretary Clinton humorously noted regarding the leaks, "In my conversations at least one of my counterparts said to me, 'Well, don't worry about it, you should see what we say about you.'"

--American Embassy contacts overseas, especially dissidents, will be reluctant to stay in touch with US diplomats for fear of being revealed to local authorities. But most foreign opposition leaders -- courageous people in most cases -- know what "they're getting themselves into" when they meet US diplomats. They are not fools: they know what they say will be reported back to Washington when they talk to FSOs. Indeed, that is probably why they talk to them in the first place.

--American diplomats will no longer provide candid assessments in classified communications to Washington, for fear of being "exposed." The State Department may urge FSOs not to "write it down," but "say it over the secure phone." Or not say it at all. That is the greatest danger: silencing our diplomats.

On the whole, though, the WikiLeaks episode is not a disaster for America from a public diplomacy or "behind closed-doors" diplomacy perspective, so long as diplomats are not "shut up" by a State Department overly concerned about future leaks.