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Founder of the Wikileaks website Julian Assange speaks to the media in London. WikiLeaks has recently released 250,000 private diplomatic cables.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
I am traveling a lot this week -- first to D.C. and then to Toronto. Before I head off to get poked and prodded by the friendly TSA personnel at Logan, I thought I'd leave you with a hypothetical to ponder, inspired by the latest WikiLeaks releases.
Here's the question: How much difference would it really make if all these "private" diplomatic meetings were public? Suppose there was no such thing as a "private" diplomatic meeting or a backchannel discussion. I can easily imagine that world leaders wouldn't like it very much -- but how much would world politics change if all these conversations were held in public so that people could see and hear what was being said?
I don't have a firm answer on this issue, but one possibility is that this hypothetical situation would pose a much bigger problem for authoritarian leaders than it would for democratically elected ones. If an autocrat knew that their conversations would all be public, they wouldn't be able to say one thing in private and then say something else when speaking on the record. And that means that some of them might have to adopt positions that were more in accordance with their populations wishes, particularly if their hold on power was tenuous. It would all be on the record. By contrast, a democratic leader would just have to take positions that they felt would appeal to their electorate, which isn't such a terrible idea on its face.
Of course, there's a downside here: you'd get a lot more posturing, and maybe even diplomatic rigidity, as leaders of all kinds tried to show that they were tough bargainers. And public opinion is a fickle thing, and you wouldn't want leaders to be nothing more than weathervanes mouthing whatever their latest poll told them to say. It's also likely that some diplomatic conversations would be empty and stilted, because nobody wanted to talk about anything serious in the full glare of open disclosure. But diplomatic problems still need to get solved, and a world of full disclosure might actually force leaders of all types to explain the realities behind their decisions a bit more, and educate the population when public opinion was off-base.
But my real question remains: Would it really make that much difference? Would a world of "open covenants, openly arrived at" (to use Wilson's phrase), really be that different than the world in which we live today? And aren't all those people who are now defending the importance of diplomatic confidentiality really saying that there is a lot of information that our leaders have to keep from us, or else the world will all go to h- - -?