COMMENTARY
 
Limiting the Damage from Wikileaks
Weekly Pulse
December 10-16, 2010
The cablegate—the recent release of classified secret communication between US embassies and the State Department by WikiLeaks—has already done considerable damage to the reputation and credibility of America and its allies around the world. The damage to US standing in the world in particular continues, as not all the potentially explosive content of over 250,000 cables has yet been publicised selectively by few Western newspapers having access to the unauthorised material.

So, it will be weeks and months from now before we can reasonably assess the extent of the full damage done by WikiLeaks. In the meantime, however, the US government, and governments and leaderships across the world, whose credibly and image has been tarnished by the cablegate, can be expected to earnestly attempt to recover from this unusual crisis of global diplomacy. In fact, they have already started the process. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had even pre-empted the leaks by pre-warning allied regimes and leaders of their potentially negative impact on America’s relationship with them.

For both philosophical and practical reasons, the political storm generated by Wikileaks’ latest disclosure may soon die down, due to the states’ enormous capacity and ability to absorb the shocks caused by such anarchist challenges.

The world we live in is still dominated by states and international or regional organizations constituted by states. Despite the coming of Information Age as part of the process of globalization—the cablegate being one of its destabilizing implications—there are inherent powers at the disposal of states to recover from crises like these. One example in this regard is the tightening of immigration policies by governments the world over in the post-9/11 era. After all, this development spanning almost a decade now has also taken place, in contradiction to the all-pervasive trend of globalization while the communication revolution has proceeded at full gear.

Given that, the recent claim by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that the world order would have to be redefined now as pre and post cablegate, may not eventually come out to be as true as he hopes. Even his personal future and the future of his site are already nearly doomed. He is already in British police custody, after his request for bail was denied by the court. Interpol is seeking Mr Assange’s extradition to Sweden, where he is charged with sexual misconduct. Sweden has an extradition treaty with the United States, which may seek his extradition on charges of treason. Meanwhile, the Swiss authorities have frozen WikiLeaks’ accounts, while the whistle-blowing website itself is finding hard to stay alive on the internet.

This does not mean the age of whistleblowers has come to an end. Like Napster did for the music industry a decade ago, WikiLeaks has attempted to do the same with the US government. There will always be weirdo internet hackers and risk-takers looking for potential whistleblowers to provide them unauthorised material, that has hitherto been a domain of state agencies, so that a crisis of similar nature or even deadlier could be created for states, governments, leaders and bureaucracies around the world—“the hated political authorities,” as 19th century anarchists or 20th century leftist revolutionaries would describe them—and, all this, in the name of “open government.”

Power of the States

In the end, however, the states and governments, with the enormous tools of power at their disposal, generally tend to prevail upon such challenges. Just look at what eventually happened to neo-leftist marches and protests in the streets of Western Europe or North America, each time a G-8 meeting took place in the 90s to set the new rules of global trade and commerce. By the time the age of terror began a la 9/11, the movement had virtually fizzled out.

So, as for teaching a lesson to the whistleblowers and those who put their material on web, we shall soon see the noose being further tightened around WikiLeaks and its founder; we can expect speedy progress in the trial of US soldier Bradly Manning who stole for WikiLeaks the Afghan and Iraq war logs from the Pentagon and is facing charges of treason; and the same may happen in the case of the yet to be identified cablegate whistleblower.

Many of the sites and their founders who began to break the monopoly of the music industry a decade ago have faced hard times in the court, with the pioneer Napster eventually agreeing to conclude a deal with the industry whereby downloading a song is no more cost-free. However, music lovers have found other, more complex ways of gaining free access to their songs of choice. But state secrets are no musical compositions. Once they are revealed, lives can be at risk. This is a convincing argument, even if some of the responses from US and Canadian leaders to the cablegate may sound irrational or offensive.

To be sure, a certain level of flexibility is acceptable in cases where sites geared towards sharing files within the realm of entertainment. However, when it comes to cases such as the cablegate, where an attempt has been made to break the state monopoly over secret or classified diplomatic information, what we can expect from the state authorities is zero tolerance—internet or no internet. The State Department and the Pentagon have been unlucky enough to be its first victims. And they should be justified in taking the due legal course, or adopting tightened security measures, to prevent such a fiasco from ever happening again. Like them, can we expect the Kremlin or the state offices and foreign ministries of any government whatsoever which would like its classified and secret dealings to be exposed publicly?

Argument against Anarchy

States, big or small, compete in a highly anarchic system. It is out of this competition that inter-state relations are sometime conflict-prone and sometime oriented towards cooperation. It is next to impossible to openly conduct the business of inter-state diplomacy, be it at a bilateral level, or at regional and international levels. Doing otherwise will be contrary to the basic principles on the basis of which international politics has been played over centuries. Even otherwise, states’ creation and existence can be rationalised on the ground that humans alone cannot govern themselves. Yes, the governments need to be more open!

But the ‘open government’ argument that Mr Assange advances, and reveals state secrets in its guise, is irrational, since states are created and they exist only because people living in them have voluntarily agreed to surrender some freedoms—one of which is not to have access to diplomatic information which a state or government establishment thinks should better remain within the realm of secrecy—and this makes sense.

In sum, the way the system of states has been structured traditionally, and especially the way it continues to function even in the present age of information, there is no scope for cablegates to become a norm in future. States alone, or in partnership, will do whatever is deemed essential for a fiasco like the present one to never occur in future—and deal with the violators of the basic norms of the international system in as exemplary a manner so as to dissuade the world’s would-be whistleblowers and sites catering for their material from acting “irresponsibly.”

And, perhaps most important of all, as it normally happens, those who constitute governments, whether as their leaders or part of the bureaucracies, develop a stake in the continuity of the system they are part of. The very factor explains why relationships that governments build between themselves through their respective political leaders or diplomats are more likely to be sustained than suspended. Readjusting Relationships

Just the other day, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Afghan President Hamid Karzai stood shoulder to shoulder in Kabul, re-affirming close Afghan-British ties. As they did that, the disclosure in a 2008 leaked US cable about the Afghan President expressing dissatisfied over the British performance in Helmand became history. Before that, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani visited the Afghan capital, with both him and Mr. Karzai vowing to stand together to resist foreign dictates—a public stance carefully choreographed to overcome the credibility crisis confronting them since the leaked material was released publicly.

Despite sensational revelations about Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in the leaked American documents, there will most likely be a business-as-usual approach in their respective ties with the United States—if not now but eventually. For America remains a global power, with which the rest of the countries of the world, with the exception of only a few, would have to remain engaged, whether they like it or not. For instance, they need America to manage inter-state crisis situations, in which what the mediator does or what the contesting nations think or perceive of each other should better be confined to the realm of secret diplomacy. Otherwise, crisis can culminate in a war, which may in turn have horrible consequences.

Come to think of another Indo-Pak crisis! Given its global political clout, Washington would be there in one form or the other to help manage it. At least as far as one’s memory goes, the most critical one back in 2002 was resolved when Cent-Com General Tommy Franks told the Indians in their face that any further effort by them to up the ante will be responded by the United States and its Western and Eastern allies to withdraw their citizens and investors from India. In fact, before he is said to have issued this warning, the Americans, the British, the Australians and even the Japanese had started to advise their citizens to leave India, as the Subcontinent faced a lurking nuclear catastrophe.

Of course, in response to WikiLeaks revelations, there will be expressions of angry protest by those leaders of the individual states about whom serious aspersions have been cast in the leaks—such as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyab Erdogan’s reported threat to sue the former US ambassador to Ankara Eric Edelman who stated in one of the cables that Mr. Erdogan hides illegally acquired money in Swiss banks. But we have not seen such harsh reactions from other leaders in similar situation. Did King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, with whom so many controversial statements have been attributed, protest publicly? Did President Zardari mind the Saudi leader saying what he is reported to have said?

Reclaiming Credibility

The sort of duplicity the leaders of several government leaders, allies of the United States, are found to exhibit in their conversations with US counterparts has indeed reduced their credibility before respective masses. Take the case of the Yemeni president, who privately assures American leaders no opposition to US attacks in the country but opposes the same before the countrymen. Has he resigned after the hypocrisy on his part has been unearthed? Will the leaks make a difference insofar as the monarchical order in Jordan is concerned, or the long rule of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt is?

The fact is that all other governments and their leaders, who are somehow in trouble owing to their controversial statements and conduct revealed by the leaks, will find ways and means to survive the crisis. Pakistan army’s spokesman General Athar Abbas, for instance, has responded to the leaks, which revealed General Asfaq Pervaiz Kayani’s distaste for mainstream political figures, by assuring continued support to the political process within the constitutional norms. The rightist leaders and forces across the Muslim world affected by the leaks have started to use the all-familiar theme of conspiracy theory: that WikiLeaks is a tool of the Zionists, and the leaks are meant to “coerce us into submission, or isolate our country in the region, or to destroy our Ummah”—so on and so forth.

All said and done, the story that WikiLeaks unearthed is very much alive and kicking today. But, months or years down the lane, will anyone bother about the secret information it leaked? However, the United States and the world might have to deal with the implication of what the whistle-blowing website has presently done. For instance, the implication of its disclosure, the most recent bombshell reported by selective media outfits, of the vital security sites for the United States across the world—which is now an open secret for trans-national terrorists to choose their target from. Tomorrow, if one of these facilities is successfully struck based on the revealed information, whose responsibility will it be?

Challenge before America

In the end, it is the United States whose credibility and standing across the world has been most affected by the disclosure of secret and classified US diplomatic information. The Obama Administration has already been more open and pragmatic than its predecessor, and that is why it was able to gain greater trust and confidence abroad in terms of US dealings with the world—so much as that, as the leaks reveal, the Pakistani military was ready to let the American Special Operations Forces embed with its forces fighting against terrorists and insurgents in Waziristan region.

Allied leaders and governments may show significant restraint in their dealings with America due to the embarrassment caused by the leaks. US diplomats and government leaders may be even more embarrassed when they interact with their global counterparts. Perhaps the only way the Americans can regain their trust is to do, by default, what the WikiLeaks founder bases his entire rationale behind his most explosive expose yet: open government. In the absence of these leaks, it was better to keep the matters as secret as they were.

That is no more possible now. For instance, if the US forces are embedded with Pakistani soldiers, how can either Islamabad or Washington can now deny they are not? It may also not be possible for the United States to publicly pronounce Pakistan as its frontline ally against terrorism in the region, while privately help the Indians consolidate their influence in Afghanistan. Another revelation in the leaks is that coercion, even if it is done by a world superpower, does not work, and its lesson is that the United States would have to be even more realistic and pragmatic in its future foreign dealings: Understanding and recognising that the states crucial to US vital security interests do have their own legitimate security concerns and interests.