When we look to our government in the twenty-first century, we ask for just one thing—after all of the ideological distinctions slide away—we ask for competence. We want the people who run our country to know what they are doing. We want them to be willing and able to make the important decisions, which vary from the mundane to the life-or-death, as efficiently and professionally as possible. We encourage policies that we think will help the government do their jobs more easily, and largely discourage reforms that make government jobs harder.
This past week’s publishing of over 250,000 secret U.S. State Department communications by Wikileaks has shocked establishments the world over and provided individuals with a peak behind the curtain of U.S. foreign policy. The revelations range from the deathly serious to the utterly ridiculous. The King of Saudi Arabia has apparently been secretly asking the U.S. to launch air strikes against Iran—information that carries extreme weight in the region. This constitutes an about-face from the public position of the country. The information that Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in the region actually do hold this position changes geopolitical calculations immensely. This has been reported alongside spicy gossip about how the leader of Libya, Mohamar Quaddafi, has a companion described as a “voluptuous blond” and how U.S. diplomats describe Angela Merkel as “uncreative.”
Yet, when we get past the intricacies of these revelations, we must return to the proximate question. Do Wikileaks’ actions help the United States conduct foreign policy in a way that makes the world safer and more secure? I submit that, in this form, it does not. Whatever the benefits of transparency—and there are many—foreign policy benefits from a veil of secrecy. This massive breach of trust, for that is what this amounts to for the foreign governments mentioned in these cables, will make it even more challenging to resolve pressing world issues.
This is not how Julian Assange, the slickly creepy, Australian-born head of Wikileaks, sees it. Assange believes that all secret information should be published because secrecy breeds corruption and malpractice. Although I agree that more information is usually good, I am compelled to disagree heartily in this instance.
Conducting foreign policy is like trying to resolve a fight between two people who are not speaking. We’ve all been in those situations (if you haven’t, you’re lucky). They won’t talk to each other, but they might talk to you. So it is your job to act as an “intermediary.” This is a job that requires a massive amount of competence and a fair dose of creativity. If you are competent and a bit lucky, you can create circumstances in which the two conflicting parties can be friends again.
Now, imagine that someone were to record all of the things that you, the intermediary, said to each of them about the other, and then post it on Wesleying. My guess is that two things would happen. First, the fight would get worse. Second, neither of them would be willing to confide in you again. Your ability to act as a peacemaker has been damaged, perhaps permanently.
This is the situation that the U.S. finds itself in, with Assange as that misguided other friend who insists that each of the two people has the unmitigated right to the “truth.” Saudi Arabia is not about to make these kind of statements to U.S. diplomats any time in the near future, and other leaders will likely be more guarded with what they say and do. Our ability to solve problems, not to mention our international prestige, has been damaged. This fact, not the release of the information alone, makes us less safe and less effective at resolving international conflicts. The Wikileaks publishing, regardless of its other benefits, has damaged the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy. It is likely that we will all feel the consequences of that.
Blinderman is a member of the class of 2014.