lighting, Diplomacy

WikiLeaks and the Future of Diplomacy

11 January 2011

GCSP, Geneva

Event summary

Three different – at times convergent – perspectives on the way WikiLeaks has affected diplomacy emerged during the policy briefing on ‘WikiLeaks and the Future of Diplomacy’ held at GSCP, Geneva, and online, on 11 January, 2011.

GCSP academic dean Dr Khalid Koser, DiploFoundation director Dr Jovan Kurbalija and World Radio Switzerland director Mr Philip Mottaz discussed the leaks from security, diplomatic, and journalistic perspectives. The debate was followed by questions from the audience and a brief summary. Professor Francois Heisbourg, GCSP Foundation Council chairman, opened the debate with a few thoughts…

The following is a digest of the policy briefing, based on presentations, discussion and interviews.

An Image of Professor HeisbourghProfessor François Heisbourg summarised the main points of his article that will be published shortly in the Survival journal. He made the following main points.

Although people focus on diplomacy, the impact of WikiLeaks is much broader, there are other significant aspects in terms of cybersecurity, the relationship between ‘state’ and ‘non-state’ actors, and the stress put on the value-systems of democracy which are facing this challenge.

When it comes to diplomacy and WikiLeaks, he distinguished between specific and generic effects. It is difficult to judge specific effects, because we are working on the basis of 0.92% of cables which have been released so far by WikiLeaks. It is too early to judge, but there are some initial signs. For example, Wikileaks cast severe tension on German-French co-operation in the satellite industry. 

As for generic effects, there are good and bad news. The good news is that it has put American diplomacy in good light. American diplomats write factually, dispassionately and highly professionally. It also shows that American diplomacy does what it says. Discrepancy between its public and secret communication is minimal. The bad news is that the USA will need to spend a lot of time in order to re-establish credentials. Who will go tomorrow to American embassy, except to talk perhaps about the weather? There is a potential risk for people mentioned in cables. At the current sample of 0.92%, there are 37 people who are mentioned by their name as “strictly protected”. It means that they are not only protected anymore but potential target of attacks.

In order to illustrate the low level of US security, Prof. Heisbourg gave an example of him using credit cards in failed state (Somalia, Uganda). Whenever he uses his credit card from these countries he is called by the bank to confirm his identity. The bank notification system is a basic service provided to tons of millions of people. But if someone wants to download 251,000 cables from SIPRNet, nothing happens.If Ms Clinton wants to download 251,000 cables nobody is going to call her to check if she really wants to download so many cables. He therefore describes WikiLeaks as a security breach due to incompetent organisation.

The good news is that it is easy to correct, a no-brainer! One needs to introduce very basic protection that is used in e-banking or e-commerce. He thinks that cybersecurity has to be addressed in a much broader manner, and not just as a military issue. There is a US cybersecurity command, but it did not prevent someone from downloading 251,000 cables. Cybersecurity cannot be dealt with as a military issue only.

Another aspect is the existence of data exchange agreements which the US has with many states. One of the requirements for these agreements is that US needs to know how other contracting states manage their data, but they do not allow reciprocal audit. It would be good for the US to employ full reciprocity and let others inspect their way of handling data. It would help the US to enter into best practices mode.

Prof. Heisbourg expressed concern that we know very little about governance, funding and operations of Wikileaks. He commented on Fratini’s analogy saying that Wikileaks is the ‘9/11 of diplomacy’. It is not a proper analogy since Wikileaks is not act of terrorism. But it would be even more damaging if the US made an analogous reaction to Wikileaks. The US reaction to 9/11 was very damaging for the world and itself (Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Grade, torture). It would be terribly damaging if the US similarly over-reacted against Wikileaks and Mr Assange. There has already been a request for declaring WikiLeaks as a terrorist organisation. If this took place, it wouldn’t improve US cybersecurity, but would seriously damage its standing in the world.

Dr Khalid Koser asked where WikiLeaks posed a security threat. It’s not clear what the nominal threat is. The website, the people posting the information, the newspapers, Julian Assange himself, or the governments who have been trying to gag WikiLeaks? It is also not clear what is being threatened by the so-called security threat.

So far, WikiLeaks is not a threat for national security – at least, not yet. However, nothing, apart from locating the right source, precludes the publication of more sensitive information in the future.

What does WikiLeaks tell us about cybersecurity? The information does not appear to have been hacked, but has been released by someone who had access to the system. What is really striking is the lax protocol surrounding data protection.

Does the response of governments pose a threat to freedom of speech? No, at least, not yet. Closing down WikiLeaks does not solve the problem.

What are then, the security risks associated with WikiLeaks? The first is that diplomatic cables in particular may have damaged the relations between states. But is this short-term or long-term? Secondly, people are beginning to realise their virtual power. Thirdly, and of most concern, is the instinctive reaction of states to protect their info. The 9/11 tragedy could probably have been avoided if the right information reached the right persons and the right time. With WikiLeaks, one expects a reduction in information sharing, and that poses a security issue.


Dr Jovan Kurbalija used the drawing of ‘Blind Man and the Elephant’ to illustrate how the same issue – Wikileaks crisis - was perceived differently worldwide. On one hand there are some, especially in the US, who see WikiLeaks as an act of terrorism requiring capital punishment for its main inspirator, Mr Assange. On the other hand, there are many who argue that WikiLeaks is one of the best things that happened to the world recently, announcing a more just and transparent world. In between there are many different views, focusing on the question of freedom of expression, future of diplomacy, Internet governance, to name a few. Dr Kurbalija said it was difficult to navigate through this avalanche of articles, blogs and texts. He said that we should zoom out and see what the underlying changes are, and try to imagine how WikiLeaks will look over a five-year perspective. The first question is if diplomacy will survive this major shock. The answer is simple, he said. Yes, diplomacy will survive. It won’t only survive, it will thrive. Diplomacy, through negotiations and compromise, was always the main way of handling relations among humans and enabling them to live together.

Diplomacy will thrive in the forthcoming period because, the more interdependent the world becoems, the more there is a need for solving problems through negotiations and compromise. He noted that we see from Iraq and Afghanistan, the potential of using military force for solving conflicts is limited. With more social and economic integration of modern society it will be increasingly limited. In this way diplomacy is not just an ethical choice, superior to the war and use of force, but a practical necessity. It is good news. Diplomacy will survive.

On the other hand,  some will consider it bad news that diplomacy will have to change, to adapt to the new post-WikiLeaks world. If we review carefully, diplomacy has not changed substantially since Richelieu established the first ministry of foreign affairs during the 17th century, or Metternich and Talleyrand established the basis of a modern diplomatic system at the Vienna Congress in 1814. In the meantime, the world has changed profoundly. Dr Kurbalija said diplomacy has to ‘sync’ with these changes. In this context, WikiLeaks can be seen as an accelerator of these changes that have been waiting to take place. Dr Kurbalija outlined what the main challenges to diplomacy triggered by WikiLeaks are.

He started with the word ‘WikiLeaks’ which contains two parts – wiki (technology for collaborative online text editing) and leaks. A leak is the way liquidity moves or escapes. It is inherent to water and other liquids to try to move. Leaks can be temporally contained in pools, dams, glasses and bottles. But ultimately, they tend to leak. He proposed that it is difficult, if not impossible, to prevent leaks. Water leaks are a good analogy for digitalised documents. Once a document is digitalised it ‘waits’ to be moved in many possible ways via e-mail, a website, a lost notebook or a memory stick. He said in principle, it is next to impossible to stop digital data from moving, in the long run. The very nature of digital data has enormous consequences on the way diplomatic services should manage their data and protect their confidentiality. If they want to preserve the security of their data they should not digitalise it. Data should be sent in paper format or exchanged via secure telephone, or, we may experience return of messenger pigeons.  Is that a viable option?

Dr Kurbalija said that paradoxically, the reaction of many governments will be opposite to the realisation that one cannot stop a leak of digital documents. The first reaction is instinctive. US diplomacy and many other diplomatic services feel threatened and under attack. In such situations people usually withdraw and re-group. In the case of modern diplomacy one can expect more confidentiality, more security and more restrictions. Governments will try to increase control of data flow. The security business will flourish. ICT-security is one of the fastest growing businesses, based on a rather naïve view that cyber-security can be achieved as a technical solution. He said many oversee the fact that all recent leakages were done mainly by insiders, rarely as a consequence of a breach in technical security. It includes not only WikiLeaks but also bank leaks (Societe Generale, UBS). Therefore it is very likely that many institutions will try to seek solutions in the wrong direction – by involving expensive consultants and trying to bring solutions for internal problems from outside as ready-made security procedures and systems.

Dr Kurbalija said the problem is that more security is likely to lead to more isolation of diplomatic services. It can endanger the communication with public and other interlocutors, which is one of the main functions of diplomacy.

The next aspect which Dr Kurbalija mentioned was the impact WikiLeaks has had on diplomatic reporting. He said diplomatic reporting is the basis of the internal communication in diplomatic services. Diplomats are judged by their reports and reports influence career progression. After the WikiLeaks, diplomats will start writing their reports with the subconscious perception that one day their reports may be read.It can have both positive and negative aspects. It can force them to write better reports. But it can also lead towards self-censorship and possibly less reports. Diplomats may prefer to use a telephone instead of written reports. Some future anarchists may view the post-WikiLeaks time as the dark age of archiving and storing institutional memory.

Dr Kurbalija said the last point in tectonic changes triggered by WikiLeaks is the changed relations between diplomats and politicians. Diplomats are traditionally scapegoats for politicians. It is part of their terms of reference to take blame for mistakes of politicians. In this case diplomats come out as rather professional, unlike some politicians who are seen with all of their vices.

Dr Kurbalija said the conclusion could be that, after WikiLeaks, the more diplomacy changes the more it remains the same. It will change in its modalities, but it will remain the same in its function of solving conflicts in the society through negotiations and compromise.


Mr Philip Mottaz said there was a symbiotic relationship between diplomacy and the media. But he said that we first have to go back to the fundamentals, to what press and media are all about.

He said that we (media) believe – this is our DNA – that there is no innocent act of communication. No act of communication is ever conducted without vested interest. We probe with healthy scepticism and with do this fundamentally to try to shed light on the workings of institutions. We do it in the public interest, and we do it in a responsible manner.

So what are the guiding principles behind WikiLeaks? Global transparency? But at what cost? Self-advertising? We don’t know. Wikileaks have changed the modus operandi, but why did they do it? They moved from being a dumpster to being a supplier.

On the other hand, Wikileaks has acted quite responsibly as to the timing in which the information was released.

As for diplomats, WikiLeaks is the first industrialised accident of the digital age. However, diplomacy will survive. It is the scale and the new regime that we operate under which has to be considered. We live in a connected world. We won’t be able to unplug; we won’t be able to go back. Yet, we still need to express ideas.

So how do we deal with democracy in a digital world? Fundamentally, this is the security question which needs to be raised. Technology is a way for us to exchange, trade and discuss. It’s a work in-the-making, which is undergoing a very disruptive moment, but is still very promising.

Mr Marc Finaud summarised: the risk of having confidential documents published will probably change the way diplomats communicate. Due to new technology and interest in the media to reveal this, the media will continue to publishing the leaked information. The question is therefore – how to protect sources.

Another central question is: What is WikiLeaks’ greatest scandal: publishing confidential information, or the facts contained in the published diplomatic cables?

Mr Mottaz intervened: First, a lot of information that is released is not published by the media but comes from other sources. Secondly, who is, in the end, the beneficiary? It’s an obscure chapter. And what do we know about Bradley Manning? Nothing!


Questions from the in situ and online audience

Name inaudible: If the voters are not clear about democracy, what does democracy mean? What is all of the secrecy that’s being held, and to what extent are our lives and the misuse of media to project stories that aren’t true poisoning the concept of democracy to be able to know what’s really going on? What role should secrecy play in our lives? Do we have meaningful democracy?

Name inaudible: Who decides what gets released? I would prefer to live in a world where each organisation sets its own rules. Who gave Julian Assange the right to release this information? Do we live in a society of anarchy? There is a responsibility on each individual to police him or herself: Julian Assange has displayed a weakness or inability to do that.

Dr Koser said he agreed that we have a culture of secrecy that is being exposed by the WikiLeaks issue. Does WikiLeaks strengthen this culture or narrow it? It strengthens it! As for self-censorship, we can say it doesn’t exist with regard to WikiLeaks.

Mr Mottaz commented: Assange and WikiLeaks people needed to clarify where they’re coming from. It’s a very collective cyber process. We have to bring time into the equation. Can we think without time? Democracy in a connected world will have to grasp with this: what do we do with our time management?

Dr Kurbalija took comments from the online audience. One participant commented that the paradox was that the main victim was the US government, the same government which promoted open access to date. In fact, the first Act that the Obama administration signed when it came to office was the Open Access Act.

Marilia Maciel from Getulio Vargas Foundation, said: The released top secret intelligence data contained rather trivial information. She asked: Is somebody re-considering the need for intelligence, especially since this involves huge funding and large human resources?

Dr Kurbalija comments that the underlying tension was that people were not any more ready to tolerate secrecy. It would take some time before we cracked this, even etymologically, such as ‘secretary’, ‘First Secretary’ and so on. However, discretion – not secrecy – should remain. Otherwise, we turn into anarchy. It also remains to be seen if Julian Assange’s hypothesis is valid: the more transparent a government is, the more just it is.

Mr Finaud quoted Julian Assange: mass leaking leaves unjust systems vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance. He said the purpose of WikiLeaks was clearly to put pressure on governments to work more transparently. The paradox is that that pressure is on one of the most open societies. What will happen when this kind of incident affects less open governments?

Another online participant, Klaas van der Tempel, from Clingendael Institute, Netherlands, asked: How transparent can diplomacy become without hindering its work? Unhindered communication is central to diplomacy. For example, the Vienna Conventions have exactly that purpose. This is not about transparency only, but also efficiency. There will always be friction between transparency and diplomacy. As Abba Eban wrote: peace with secrecy may sometimes be preferable to secrecy without peace.

Name inaudible:What could the US government do to control damage? What is the US doing in advance of receiving this avalanche of leaked information?

Mr Mottax replied that the US was indeed doing damage control. The US has come out pretty unscathed. What else can be done? Will people be talking to American diplomats? Yes, because we need to. Not much is going to change. People will want to continue telling stories. Secondly, countries have interests, and need to pursue those interests. That’s not going to change. Thirdly, communication is about human behaviour. Six months or one year from now, things will continue to come out, little by little, but nothing at the end of the day will change.

Professor Fred Tanner, GSCP director, asked about the legal status of WikiLeaks: a secret, under American law, even if it’s being leaked, is still a secret. What does the US do about this? What about newspapers publishing it? People referring to the leaks? Also, who decides on what is being released?

Philippe Petit, former French Ambassador, said that one could sum up WikiLeaks’ objectives to two: to expose, and to contribute to peace through more transparency. With regards to the first, most of the cables which have been published are considered trivial, even if in reality they portray good communication. Therefore the first object has failed. As for the second objective, diplomacy is a contribution to peace.What will happen after Cablegate: will diplomats remain open to express judgments? They will not dare to express judgments as they have done!And who will dare to speak to diplomats, knowing that it may become public? So WikiLeaks has failed there too.

Journalist, name inaudible: Diplomacy does not preclude wars, and leaks does not preclude wars, so how does all what we said today apply to this situation?

It is a dream of each and every journalist to create something like Wikileaks. There has been a French version, which for a long time has fed on leaks. But how did WikiLeaks establish itself as the ultimate source, which every leaker is now referring to?

Summarising his intervention, Dr Koser said that much of what we’ve seen in the cables are fairly trivial. However, some cables are not trivial at one. He asked, what has the State Department done in relation to this? There’s a feeling that WikiLeaks has been tackled more than the issues the cables themselves have raised.

In his summary, Mr Philippe Mottaz stated that leaking has always been traditional. The economy of scale has changed and the actors have changed. This is what technology does. He stressed the conviction that democracy was a risk, and that it needed to be tested every day. This is not a conspiracy, but an openness that benefits, by definition, a larger number.

Dr Jovan Kubalija summarised his intervention by saying that leaks have always existed, will always exist, and have always had some impact. Most previous leaks had a specific policy purpose (Ems Telegram, Zimmerman Telegram, Pentagon Files). WikiLeaks is different because it does not have specific political purpose but rather general objective of challenging the way world is governed.

Immediate changes will be minor. However, in the longer term, three to five years from now, there will be earth-shaking changes:. This is good news for diplomacy, and essentially diplomacy must adjust, not only for its own survival but to fill the enormous need that society has for diplomacy. We need compromise, negotiations and understanding of others in the Internet era more than ever before.

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Report prepared by Stephanie Borg Psaila

Event description

Three different – at times convergent – perspectives on the way WikiLeaks has affected diplomacy emerged during the policy briefing on ‘WikiLeaks and the Future of Diplomacy’ held at GSCP, Geneva, and online, on 11 January, 2011.

Three different – at times convergent – perspectives on the way WikiLeaks has affected diplomacy emerged during the policy briefing on ‘WikiLeaks and the Future of Diplomacy’ held at GSCP, Geneva, and online, on 11 January, 2011.

GCSP academic dean Dr Khalid Koser, DiploFoundation director Dr Jovan Kurbalija and World Radio Switzerland director Mr Philip Mottaz discussed the leaks from security, diplomatic, and journalistic perspectives. The debate was followed by questions from the audience and a brief summary. Professor Francois Heisbourg, GCSP Foundation Council chairman, opened the debate with a few thoughts…

The digest of the debate is available here.