Mary   02 Dec 2010   E-Diplomacy

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… letting the cat out of the bag a claw at a time and this particular cat has about a quarter of a million claws. As I write, US diplomats around the world are probably replaying every social occasion, state meeting, and corridor conversation that resulted in a cable being sent to Washington, wondering what they said and how damaging it might be. The more enlightened of them will no doubt have already stopped being concerned about what they themselves might have said, and instead, be coughing up fur balls wondering if their informants will be compromised.

Diplomats, like journalists, have their sources – people on the ground who speak to them in confidence, and with candour, giving them the inside scoop on what’s happening in their country. Knowledge that’s so important to their mission. These sources have oiled the diplomatic machines for centuries, ever since our predecessors wised up and decided to listen to the messenger rather than to eat him. Those living in despotic states, fighting for a democratic and open society, who have spoken candidly and in confidence to US diplomats or perhaps had no more than an incidental conversation with a US ambassador, must be molting right now, waiting to see whether they, and their families, will be unmasked and endangered. Just what was Julian Assange thinking of? What did he hope to achieve by making these cables public?

Gossip is…

…when you hear something you like about someone you don’t, and there’s a lot to like about the content of these cables. But are they really anything more than diplomatic pillow talk? Is there anything really substantive in them? Anything we didn’t know or suspect already? Diplomats are human. They talk. Perhaps their private conversations are peppered with healthy doses of scepticism and paranoia but in essence, they’re not doing anything that any one of us doesn’t do every day – discuss our work colleagues, our friends, our relatives, our politicians, our neighbours. As Oscar Wilde so famously said: the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about. And for every red face out there today, there’s another one waiting to be rouged tomorrow.

Never mind what the Americans have said about the rest of the world, what has the rest of the world said about them?!  Back in the late 1990s, Ambassador Fahmy, then Egyptian Ambassador to the USA made the decision to shift 80% of his confidential cable traffic to open conduits. He rightly concluded that by the time his message got to Egypt via diplomatic cable, CNN would have done his job for him (remember, this was pre-Internet). The only thing he actually sent by cable was opinion: ‘my opinion, somebody else’s opinion, criticism of my own government, criticism of the US government’.

Gossip is…

…the art of saying nothing in a manner that leaves nothing unsaid and the same, perhaps, could hold for diplomacy. Greek philosopher Demosthenes said of ambassadors: ‘ [they] have no battleships at their disposal, or heavy infantry, or fortresses; their weapons are words and opportunities.’ So armed with words and opportunities, diplomats the world over make the best of what they have. They discuss. They negotiate. They compromise. They flatter. They cajole. They intuit. And they talk to home. And they used to be able to do this securely.

What’s at issue here is not really what has been said. The fact is that secure cables were stolen and for some reason, Assange and his cohorts decided to make them public, via the Internet. So now, the Internet will be seen by many as the conduit of doom. Up to now, the Internet has been more or less self-governed. The various stakeholders function well together, recognising each other’s mutual interests and best efforts and playing by a set of unwritten rules in order to facilitate the free movement of information. Assange has just set us back years. This time he’s messed up. How can his blatant undermining of global diplomacy (because make no mistake, it’s not just America who is affected here) be in the public interest? Mass hysteria about the security of the Internet is sure to follow. The kneejerk reaction is bound to be more government regulation, more rules, and more limitations. Just what we need!

But hey, I love gossip just as much as the next person. So I logged on to see what WikiLeaks had to say about Hungary. And I got the following message: The security certificate presented by this website was issued for a different website's address.Security certificate problems may indicate an attempt to fool you or intercept any data you send to the server. Just who is being fooled here, I wonder?

This article was first published in The Budapest Times.

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