Foreign Policy: WikiLeaks Reveals No Big Lies

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Whistleblowing website WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's attends a meeting at the United Nations.

Whistleblowing website WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's attends a meeting at the United Nations Human Rights Council. WikiLeaks has just revealed a huge cache of American diplomatic cables. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

With the latest Wikileaks dump, Julian Assange clearly thinks he's blown the doors off of American hypocrisy:

"The cables show the extent of U.S. spying on its allies and the U.N.; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in "client states"; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for U.S. corporations; and the measures U.S. diplomats take to advance those who have access to them.

This document release reveals the contradictions between the U.S.'s public persona and what it says behind closed doors — and shows that if citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what's going on behind the scenes.

Every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington "the country's first President" could not tell a lie. If the administrations of his successors lived up to the same principle, today's document flood would be a mere embarrassment. Instead, the U.S. Government has been warning governments — even the most corrupt — around the world about the coming leaks and is bracing itself for the exposures."

Um... a few things:

1)  I don't know about other Americans, but I was taught that the "not telling a lie" story was apocryphal.

2)  You know, polite people tell their friends and neighbors about embarrassments that could affect them as well as Big Lies.

3)  There are no Big Lies.  Indeed, Blake Hounshell's original tweet holds:  "the U.S. is remarkably consistent in what it says publicly and privately."  Assange — and his source for all of this, Bradley Manning — seem to think that these documents will expose American perfidy.  Based on the initial round of reactions, they're in for a world of disappointment.  Oh, sure, there are small lies and lies of omission — Bob Gates probably didn't mention to Dmitri Medvedev or Vladimir Putin that "Russian democracy has disappeared."  Still, I'm not entirely sure how either world politics or American interests would be improved if Gates had been that blunt in Moscow.

If this kind of official hypocrisy is really the good stuff, then there is no really good stuff.  U.S. officials don't always perfectly advocate for human rights?  Not even the most naive human rights activist would believe otherwise.  American diplomats are advancing U.S. commercial interests?  American officials have been doing that since the beginning of the Republic.  American diplomats help out their friends?  Yeah, that's called being human.  I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, but it strikes me that these leaks show other governments engaged in far more hypocritical behavior.

In the first season of Mad Men, there's a great scene when ad man Don Draper encounters some beatniks.  After one of them rips into Don working for The Man and his square ways, he responds as follows:

"I hate to break it to you, but there is no Big Lie.

There is no System.

The universe is indifferent."

That's pretty much my reaction to the utopian absurdities of the Wikileaks manifesto.

It is worth thinking through the long-term implications of this data dump, however.  Rob Farley observes:

"I'm also pretty skeptical that this release will incline the United States government to make more information publicly available in the future.  Bureaucracies don't seem to react to attacks in that manner; I suspect that the State Department will rather act to radically reduce access to such material in order to prevent future leaks."

Rob is correct, which means that the chances of an intelligence failure just shot up.  As the Guardian explains here (and in further detail here):

"Asked why such sensitive material was posted on a network accessible to thousands of government employees, the state department spokesman told the Guardian: "The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath revealed gaps in intra-governmental information sharing. Since the attacks of 9/11, the U.S. government has taken significant steps to facilitate information sharing. These efforts were focused on giving diplomatic, military, law enforcement and intelligence specialists quicker and easier access to more data to more effectively do their jobs."

Well, I think it's safe to say that compartmentalization will be back in vogue real soon — which means, in the long run, both less transparency and less effective policy coordination.  It's not the job of Wikilieaks to care about the second problem, but they should care about the first.

Am I missing anything?

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