WikiLeaks and Diplomacy
Updated on 07 September 2022
Ambassador Kishan S. Rana writes:
The release of 250,000 diplomatic ‘cables’ (a lovely, quaint term) by the US diplomatic system has produced some shock-waves and a vast outpouring of comment.
Of course, some faces, belonging to those that acted with indiscretion are red; some political figures are hurt that behind their backs, they are seen in unflattering terms – but is that really so unusual; a few that indiscreetly shared with US diplomats information they should not have given out are truly embarrassed – and one senior official heading the German Foreign Minister’s office has reportedly resigned; and the media have had a field day with lots of schadenfreude.
US officials have spoken of grave danger to the system of inter-state exchanges; one reads that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has telephoned a dozen or more high foreign personalities to apologise for the disclosures.
But is diplomacy, as a process of confidential communication between authorised agents of state, with most such exchanges taking place through conversation and information-sharing, really compromised? Hardly.
Countries and their agents need to share information and to collect data, ALL the time. Yes, it is silly, and even pointless, for Hilary Clinton to have asked US diplomats – not the spooks-in-diplomatic-attire that inhabit the embassies of most countries – to collect email IDs, credit card information and passwords of their foreign interlocutors. I find it hard to believe that she might have been so naive to do this, but perhaps someone acted on her behalf in sending out such bizarre instructions.
The 30-year rule on the opening up of archives is not universal. In the US a fair bit of information is now put out much sooner under its freedom of information provisions. In some other countries too, moves are afoot to publish official material much sooner. In the UK, public disclosure of the ‘farewell dispatches’ of envoys ending their assignments has been an established tradition, especially when the departing ambassador has written with perspicacity, laced with humor. For instance, some years back a British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, with a reputation as a ‘friend of the Arab world’ unburdened himself with candid, trenchant comment about the Saudis – and I guess it was one of his non-friends that leaked that dispatch. More recently in 2006, when the departing envoy from Italy, Sir Ivor Roberts unburdened himself, targeting his Prime Minister and others, this rocked the boat for a while and even produced an un-amused response from the FCO, banning the entire institution of farewell dispatches.
Diplomacy is one of the older professions. It has survived over millennia, including the waxing and waning of empires and great powers. It will adapt to the threat of instant disclosure of the ‘secret’ assessments that embassies and their foreign ministries share among themselves. It might even inspire professional diplomatists to improve their syntax and imagery, so that when the stuff leaks out, they are seen as erudite. Because the sad truth is – especially in India – that our cables (called ‘CCB telegrams’ in Ministry of External Affairs lexicon) are all too boring, filled with I-me narratives. So if I may presume to advise my friends in the Indian Foreign Service, learn to pull up your socks and smile – you may soon be on camera!