With his acquisition of 250,000 diplomatic documents and cables, Julian Assange has shown us we have entered into a new age of human interaction. It isn’t that the documents themselves are remarkable. Rather, as Facebook has proven a radical challenge to traditional notions of an individual’s privacy, so WikiLeaks is hammering away at the very idea – and more to the point, the feasibility – of the secret d’Etat.
For my part, it would have been nice if Julian Assange had been busier between 2006 and 2009 when I was busy writing history dissertations. Our professors were always keen to explain how truth on a given matter most assuredly needed, among other things, access to the Archives. There, diplomatic cables were kept, minutes from the most senior meetings gathered dust, and “top secret” documents lay in wait… Only after having consulted these holies could you have something to say about the decision of Prime Minister so and so to do X or Z.
No longer. With the ease of access to information today – though WikiLeaks among other things – a contemporary history becomes possible. And instead of Mitterrand or the Indochina War, I might have written on Franco-American relations from Chirac’s obession with Lebanon to Sarkozy’s mulling sending French troops to Iraq.. The immediacy of political science and the empirical data of history are quite an attractive combination!
I don’t consider the revelations necessarily to be a great danger for humanity or even American diplomacy. Ultimately, absolute transparency would considerably reduce the risk of conflicts due to uncertainties. The only wars that would occur would be those driven by malice rather than misunderstanding. There would be no legitimate wars of preemption. On that note, the Iraq War might not have been possible had WikiLeaks existed in late 2002. Of course, chancelleries may get better at hiding their information, and it will do no good if only the Americans are paraded naked. We will have to see similar things from Europeans, Russians, Iranians and Chinese. This is not necessarily as impossible as it seems. All you need is a USB key and one disaffected official for the floodgates to be opened..
The media is still picking apart the mass of documentation. Naturally much has focused on mostly unremarkable gossip about world leaders: Sarkozy is a hyper-sensitive jerk, Berlusconi’s playboy antics infringe on his ability to govern, Kim Jong-il is strange, Putin is manly whereas Medvedev is meek… In short, American diplomats have described foreign leaders in much the same way as traditional media described them.
However, there’s been lots of other information too, and lots of it relevant to Europeans. I’ll be discussing them in the coming days as part of a little “Cablegate” series. Stay tuned..