Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

Russia is corrupt, Silvio Berlusconi’s late-night amusements do not consist of hot-chocolate and Jane Austen novels and Kazakhstani officials are big fans of Elton John. Granted, the last point came as something of a shock, but the general consensus on the “unprecedented insight into US Government foreign activities” is that Wikileaks has not given us all that much of an insight.

One of the surprising claims made by Wikileaks is that America is proving its own guilt and moral baseness – and the onus for Wikileaks is decidedly on America’s activities in the world – by informing foreign governments on what they are likely to read in The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El Pais.

The American government is hardly acting hypocritically here – most of us would make a full disclosure if we knew we were about to be shopped by some holder of privileged information. And neither is America the only concerned country. Governments around the world are afraid that they may be implicated in discussions that look like conspiracies, that they might lose face, or that they might be shown to be acting irrationally. Some will be tempted to gloat at America’s misfortune, and foolishness, but they most likely do so out of concern for their own embarrassment.

Successful diplomacy relies to a considerable extent on discretion. Governments share intelligence and sometimes gossip, criticise each other and make entreaties. The anger that most will feel is that less of what Wikileaks reveals is done in public, such as Canada’s foreign minister pointing out that despite attempted interventions by the US government, the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, acts with relative impunity in releasing prisoners wanted for supplying drugs.

Yet what Wikileaks does not try to do is show the arch of American diplomacy. It is like a thousand close-up photographs of a shape that cannot be assembled by the human eye. Criticism of Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, obscures the fact that the United States has pushed hard for EU accession. It also obscures the chain of command, meaning that an indiscreet comment by diplomatic staff is taken to mean as much as a major speech by a Secretary of State.

An Uncertain World

On the other hand, the careful editorialising of newspapers and other media has given the material some sort of shape – not the moral one that Wikileaks intended – but a more realistic one. Despite being a superpower, and an idealistic one at that, America is quite simply faced with a forbidding and chaotic world. What is most impressive is that it takes its duties as a global policeman so seriously.

There was outcry when Wikileaks published its document troves on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US Army was implicated in torture, the negligent killing of civilians and incompetence. How Iran and China gloated and France and Germany puffed themselves up at the inadequacy of decisions made in the fog of war; all connected, they assumed, to the one big mistake that was the decision to go to war in the first place.

The embassy files show a much less belligerent America than has been imagined, even under George Bush. Several files show a considerable amount of collusion between China and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme. Yet the American attitude to Iran has been patient in the extreme. The history of US-Iran relations has been gloriously indiscreet, but America has been aware that Iran is not only seeking to destabilise the Middle East, but has had evidence of weapons programmes since September 2001 and has not acted unilaterally. Indeed, when in 2004 photographs of an Iranian weapons facility were made public, the US and its allies (if they could be called that) entered into the most intensive trade and incentive talks. From 2006, Iran armed Shia militias in Iraq to cause wanton destruction. Iran then rejected offers to assist the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes in 2007 and in January of this year, and yet, we are on the threshold of a new deal being offered to an unelected and incorrigible regime.

Wikileaks has not yet uncovered American double-standards on Iran because on the contrary, the rest of the Middle East is much more concerned about a nuclear power intent on destroying its Jewish and Sunni enemies. What is also interesting is that Israel has expressed satisfaction in its portrayal through the Wikileaks documents, citing the unwillingness of Egypt to intervene to stabilise Gaza, the unreliability of Fatah and the menace of Iran as justification of its foreign policy.

Much of what Wikileaks has revealed thus far is what we already know, largely because the same sentiments are openly held at the highest levels. As this perceptive commentary has it, the only arena that has had no light shed on it is the Palestinian Question. This is fortunate, not because the US is likely to be behaving in a particularly underhand or despicable manner – the frustrations and limits of American power are pretty plain to see – but because there are so many interested parties in the region, all cynically trying to establish the best means of gaining American support and protection while buying off potentially disruptive domestic or cross-border forces.

Another Shake of the Kaleidoscope?

Julian Assange, who founded Wikileaks, is thin-skinned, prone to interpret everything in an anti-American light and not averse to making deals that would potentially make Wikileaks at least rich. None of these are cardinal sins, and there is a very great virtue in that Wikileaks does not appear to have editorialised by doctoring the documents, only by releasing them in tranches. He says he is releasing these documents in the name of peace, but they may very well mean more war and instability.

One thing that Wikileaks has revealed that could be of some importance is that China might back a united Korea in the interests of securing its border. The latest North Korean crisis has thankfully passed, it seems. But come a time when the dictatorship of the Kim family becomes unsustainable, this intelligence will be difficult for Beijing to row-back on. The other piece of intelligence about China that is new is that America offered to set up an agreement with Saudi Arabia to compensate China for any loss of supply from Iran in order to apply more punitive sanctions. That China refused speaks volumes for the mercantile character of the supposedly communist regime there. It seeks stability above all, but will chip away at American economic hegemony by increment if at all possible.

Iran, Pakistan (hardly covered here) and North Korea form an arc of uncertainty that upholds most of the geopolitical injustices in the world at present. An aggressive Iran menaces Israel directly and indirectly, forcing them to abandon the prospect of engagement with Hamas on behalf of the Palestinians, funds and supplies Hezbollah in Syria and threatens the nascent democracy in Iraq. Pakistan borders on complete failure as a state with attendant dangers in terms of its nuclear programme and the opportunity this would afford to al-Quaeda, whilst threatening the nascent state (I won’t say democracy, although it is more so than Iran) of Afghanistan. North Korean simply plays on uncertainty and fear in order to create differences between the US and China.

Iran is undoubtedly the key to the jigsaw, but a solution to the problem that North Korea poses could be the first step to engaging China more seriously in the world. Barack Obama may be right to spurn a resumption of the Six-Party Talks as North Korea hardly deserve more attention, but he should be discussing the possible reunification of Korea with China as such events rarely happen with much forewarning. The Chinese, however, will not be candid unless they can be quite sure that America’s diplomatic channels are confidential.

An excellent history of diplomatic indiscretion


  1. V

    Great article. Keen to hear what you make of the internet clamp down on Wikileaks and Assange’s arrest! Any comments?

    • joshblack2

      Assange’s arrest is an interesting issue, which I suspect will have a somewhat embarrassing effect on the United States.

      We can’t assume that the warrant is politically-motivated, and any allegation of rape ought to be considered seriously in a court.

      However, the timing of the warrant is suggestive, and I suspect that someone has expected that this would be a useful way of silencing Wikileaks.

      As it happens, Assange turning himself in just shows that Wikileaks are more than capable of operating without him and makes him appear to be a martyr.

      I don’t view Assange particularly favourably, when he could do the world a lot more good by exposing the inner nastiness of regimes like Iran or China, or even Zimbabwe and so on, so forth. If the warrant for his arrest turns out to be spurious, the US and Sweden will have appeared to have stooped even below his level, and will have reinforced his claims, wildly off the mark though they are.

      This is quite a good comment on it.

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