WikiLeaks, the Greenpeace of Politics?

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With more revelations coming out every day, the latest WikiLeaks stunt will stay in the news for some time to come. But what really came out of these leaks? Any surprises, any shocks or just glorified diplomatic gossip? And what effect will it have on world affairs in the months and years to come?

ISN’s editorial staff reacts:

WikiLeaks reminded us of how ugly war is with the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs. Now they shed light on diplomatic practice, which turns out to be less diplomatic than we thought. After having dishonored warriors and undressed diplomats, who will WikiLeaks target next? Business executives, says Julian Assange, and it is only fair that corporate wrongdoers will have to pay their share. And then, whose turn will it be after? The NGOs, I assume, because it would surprise me if they didn’t have anything to hide.

– Ralph Stamm

The latest collection of documents released by WikiLeaks makes for exciting reading. The cache of diplomatic cables contains a bunch of juicy exploits of the sort usually found in gossip columns. Yet that’s exactly the reason why their publication should not be supported. To a disturbing degree, their release is like stealing the diary of the most popular girl in school and posting it on the Internet. It serves no purpose other than to satisfy the public’s curiosity, while embarrassing the officials in Washington and across the world. However, it is part of the nature of human communication that one doesn’t always say the same thing to every audience. Therefore, if we are interested in the existence of a diplomatic corps, it must be allowed to operate without fear of humiliation. By turning into the world’s new diplomatic gossip channel, Wikileaks has lost both its credibility and its integrity.

– Joav Ben-Shmuel

What I think was really surprising about WikiLeaks, is that all their information relates to American diplomacy. I know it is because their source had access to American documents, but still. I think that WikiLeaks need to diversify its ‘attacks’ and try to obtain documents about and from other countries. Otherwise it will slowly but surely lose in credibility by targeting the same country with its secret-but-not-so-original documents. The second point is about the relevance of the documents they published. If they keep publishing documents that are technically ‘secret’, but don’t bring anything new or innovative to the debate, people will start asking questions about Julian Assange’s motivations. Does he want to contribute to the transparency of what’s happening in the world? Or does he only want to embarrass the US? If Assange was really serious about transparency, he would start by publishing some information about WikiLeaks’ finances.

– Jonas Rey

We will feel the effects of this leak for some time to come. Certainly diplomats and politicians will have to be more careful in how (and through what means) they convey their opinions in the future in the face of some unforgiving public scrutiny. But I’m not sure the story is quite as big and altruistically motivated as Julian Assange and the editors of the associated newspapers would like us to think. Some interesting issues have come out (China’s evolving attitude toward North Korea, for example), but the most headline grabbing revelations have been rather unsurprising  in nature. That (bored) diplomats color their assessments of local leaders with some honest, even unflattering, language is hardly news. Neither is the existence of backroom talks that form the backbone of successful strategy in world affairs – you cannot negotiate in this infinitely complex environment without having a few secrets up your sleeve. Foreign policy has never been subject to the level of public scrutiny that domestic policy is and for a reason; it would simply grind to a total halt if it was. International diplomacy requires accountability, but paradoxically it also requires a level of personal trust and confidentiality – a fact Mr. Assange seems to have conveniently forgotten.

– Kaisa Schreck

My suggestion to all those big and small, smart and stupid that now cry out about the damned world of diplomacy in general and the US in particular: Publish all your (digital) life on Wikileaks today! I am sure that this flood of purity and nobility will finally make the world the perfect place we are all longing for. The next great step from reality TV to reality politics, I’d say.

– Matthias Pintsch

Hey Wikileaks, how about holding the good guys to account for a change? I have to admit it’s fun to bash the US government… every self-respecting European left-leaning intellectual likes to read again and again how evil Uncle Sam is. I also thoroughly enjoy the gossip from the diplomatic world and I’ll be delighted to hear just how greedy bankers are when you release your next batch of documents.  But here’s the thing: The US doesn’t hide the fact that it rules the world, diplomats never pretended to champion transparency, and private corporations don’t keep it a secret that their primary aim is to make money. I’d be interested to see more investigations into the ‘good guys’, the world-savers, the non-profit sector… I want more Climategates! If UN-sponsored climate scientists were able to shut out academic opposition in order to secure their funding, what are other politically correct heroes up to? Wikileaks, if you would like to foster integrity in society, start with those who claim to possess it.

– Emilie Boillat

What do you think?

4 replies on “WikiLeaks, the Greenpeace of Politics?”

Dear H Kohler,

I was myself surprised by how critical our comments have turned out. Personally I’ve learned a lot about diplomatic practice from WikiLeaks’ sources and from comments on their publication. I do think diplomacy should become more transparent and WikiLeaks has helped that cause. In addition, WikiLeaks offers interesting sources to OSINT analysts and historians who can now examine certain political conflicts in a new light.

I was being serious (not sarcastic) writing that warriors had been dishonored. Citizens of democratic states deserve to know how the wars are fought that are being fought in their name. I respect WikiLeaks for what it has done and it should do more.

Dear Mr. Kohler,

I can only speak for myself, but I don’t think our reactions were hostile, some were deeply skeptical (including my own) and some in fact quite positive (perhaps tinged with some sarcasm). And we’re clearly speaking about the most recent leak here, not the Iraq or Afghanistan logs which in my view were much more clearly in the public interest (as you point out, they shed some much needed light on some of the most tragic sides of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars). My skepticism relates to these State Department leaks specifically, because beyond some interesting, and indeed exciting snippets of secret information that we now are privy to (and as I said, some of it may prove highly consequential in terms of actual policy as well), I don’t see how it is in the public interest to reveal what Ambassador X thinks of Qaddafi or Merkel. A level of confidentiality is absolutely crucial to the effective functioning of diplomacy and international negotiations, wouldn’t you agree?

Reading the comments by the ISN editorial staff I wonder where all this hostility comes from. As some of the comments above and Timothy Garton Ash (of course he is paid by the Guardian point out: Wikileaks did not reveal much what not everyone already knew. So, what’s the problem? Former Swiss diplomat Thomas Borer seems to be quite relaxed about the whole issue too ( What is rather unsettling in the comments above is the critique about dishonoring warriors. Is it bad to show the truth about American soldiers who killed children and Reuters journalists on purpose and then lie to the world?

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