By Richard Dalton

It is still early in a long story, and the impact of the release of the cache of classified governments documents by WikiLeaks is not yet clear. There will be local effects, some serious, but so far repercussions have not fundamentally changed the diplomacy game and there will bemore continuity than change in the long term.

One important theme running through overseas reactions to the leaked cables is that they have confirmed pre-existing opinions. So Muammar Gaddafi says that the leaks prove America is not what it has led allies and friends to believe it to be. Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, talks of being stripped of illusions. Another theme is that quarrels that already rage can be made worse, as in Yemen and Lebanon and between certain Arab states and Iran.

There could be revelations to come that will utterly change a current international issue; the texts published so far have not done so. This is partly because the leaks are about things past: a week can be as long a time in diplomacy as it is in politics.

To pick a few examples, despite the drama of certain revelations, the leaks so far have not increased the chances that Israel or the United States will make war on Iran, or will fatally impair relations between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), or loosen the grip of the generals in Burma. Despite any leak-induced bile they may have felt, Russia and China appear to have worked well with the European Union and the US at the Geneva talks with Iran on 6 and 7 December.

It is also true because even though we have eavesdropped on some private conversations and assessments the main factors that shape our world have all stayed the same: finance and trade, ideologies, national power and interests, world leaders' preferences, natural forces, unpredictable crises, and the compromises and clumsiness inherent in the work of multilateral institutions.

Confidential Affairs

There is no public interest in placing all diplomatic material in the public domain. Citizens have a solid interest in good governance in foreign affairs. This requires that confidences given overseas are respected and that policy advice and discussion can take place freely. We do not demand that British coalition leaders David Cameron and Nick Clegg take minutes for publication of all their conversations on domestic policy. That confidentiality applies in foreign affairs: conduct of our business relies on close partnerships with overseas leaders.

So WikiLeaks' claim that total openness would lead the world to a better place has largely fallen on deaf ears. With one important exception: most people would agree that an oath of secrecy cannot bind absolutely in the face of undoubted and grave wrongs if all recourse within the organisation in question has been tried and exhausted.

Will governments be able to keep secrets in the era of huge electronic systems, the collapse of deference and rampant individualism? Yes - not invariably, but they will devise and protect adequate systems to do so for practical purposes.

Occasionally, a determined individual will be able to evade tighter restrictions and the more careful direction of texts to the people who genuinely need to see them. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic should not just review the law and the techniques public servants use to protect information, but also consider how they motivate betrayal if they pursue illegal policies.

It was welcome therefore that the British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a recent speech: 'The experiences of Iraq and the world since 9/11 have caused a serious erosion of trust in the integrity of British foreign policy, and the widespread view that we fell short of international standards while seeking to combat terrorism.' Above all we must be willing as governments to subject our actions to democratic scrutiny and to heed the warnings of civil society".

To paraphrase the famous civil servant Sir Ernest Gowers, despite all appearances to the contrary, officials are servants of the public, not the other way round. And the British public is fed up with being swung around on the tail end of destructive US policies.

The US foreign Service has been most seriously affected by the release of the cables. It is already wrestling with huge and vital challenges facing its country. It now has to deal not only with damage to US public and private diplomacy on issue after issue, but also with the impression reinforced by much of the material leaked: that a great deal does not go the US way.

Public sentiment is one of the forces that sometimes shape our world. Both democracies and dictatorships claim to be constrained by it when it suits them, but evade it when it does not. It is relevant to assessing the effects of the leaks because so many people are already disillusioned with the US and more may now be emboldened to express and act on their feelings.

The fresh damage to US prestige will lead to a further loss of influence that only future US successes on issues will restore, and even then only gradually. Then there are the contacts who may be reluctant to speak openly, leaders who worry that their confidence may be further breached.

The apparent catalogue of errors that facilitated the leaks is exasperating. We do not know for sure how it happened. The US has not contradicted the general belief that millions of officials had access to a US Defence Department database and that one, in Baghdad, was able to download whatever he liked onto his own CD and take it out of the building.

Many in the US want WikiLeaks' founder, Julien Assange's blood. But do they really think that, once the material had been stolen, it would not have been published if WikiLeaks had not been there? At least one of the innumerable North American and European media outlets would not have handed it all back to the State Department unread if offered the chance to use it. It seems ridiculous that the Scottish Transport Secretary should have resigned in December 2010 after exceptionally heavy snowfalls had wrong-footed the public services for which he was responsible for but that, so far as we know, no senior personnel of the US Defence Department have gone.

Information security requires leaders, personnel managers, job supervisers and systems designers to work well together. There appear to have been surprising failures at every one of these levels - among them the failure to divide the archive into compartments, so that users could not access material irrelevant to their work, and failure to disable the download capability on the leaker's computer and to monitor activity on it.

Restoring trust in US diplomacy depends not just on explanations given on matters that have caused offence, but on reassurances that all the lessons of the episode have really been learned in the agencies that handle confidences.

(Richard Dalton is a former Ambassador to Iran, and an associate fellow on the Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House.)


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World - WikiLeaks: Diplomacy as Usual | Global Viewpoint