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Wikileaks: What if all diplomacy were entirely open?

Wikileaks screen scot with Julian Assange Image copyright AFP

Do diplomatic negotiations have to be secret? The release of thousands of covert communiques on the Wikileaks website has been an embarrassment to the US, but could diplomacy go the same way as UK parliamentary expenses - and be open to everyone, asks Adrian Henriques.

It seems almost counter-cultural to suggest diplomats' thoughts should be shared. Diplomacy derives from the word "diploma" meaning "official document conferring a privilege". And there's no privilege if something is available to all.

Diplomacy is a means of reflecting national interests. It is the exercise of power. This has been true at least since the Amarna letters from the Middle East written nearly 3,500 years ago, which show remarkably similar appeals for help against enemies to those of the Wikileaks messages.

Open communication - or transparency - is a defence against power; a way for the vulnerable to protect themselves.

Yet of course there need to be limits to transparency. One of those is privacy, but we are talking about state secrets here, not those of individuals who might be entitled to privacy.

In general the limit to transparency is reached when it does more harm than good. The US and UK governments are claiming lives will be threatened by the Wikileaks disclosures.

Coffee and cake

If that is true, it will be a failure by Wikileaks, which says it has tried to remove the names of vulnerable individuals from the messages.

But the consensus so far among commentators seems to be that America has been embarrassed, rather than strategically damaged, by this release.

If diplomats are working in "the national interest", they are working in our name. Do we not then have a right to know what they are saying in our name?

Perhaps diplomatic transparency is a good idea in principle, but how should it work in practice?

A real time stream of Twitter-style messages from diplomats could be a disaster of misunderstandings - who would trust the fate of the world to 140 characters?

That would be an idiot transparency based on the kind of lack of context and perspective that US diplomats' tweets from Syria showed in the summer.

That caused upset because it seemed they were showing disrespect, even if it was just about coffee and cake.

One-month rule

But serious disclosures could be regular and planned, and far, far more up to date than the current 50-year rule, after which UK government archives become public. Knowing that their work would be public in perhaps a month would transform the honesty and respect with which diplomatic work was done.

Apart from making the job of historians immensely easier, what difference would transparent diplomacy make?

Firstly, the attitude of the press would change. Remember, much of what is in such "secret" messages is the stuff of regular but off-the-record briefings of journalists.

So we would at least be spared their frustrated and frustrating attempts to reconcile what they know to be true with what an official is prepared to say in public.

Most importantly, there would be greater trust. Secrets only work if they stay secret, and we now know that cannot be guaranteed.

Provided of course that we have good reason to believe the disclosures, transparency will generate trust. That should result in a far more stable world and diplomatic relations relieved of much paranoia and anxiety.

But the US alone couldn't practice open diplomacy, not without the participation of all other powerful nations. However, if America were to embark first on the transparency route, other countries could be cajoled into it, making it self-reinforcing.

Crisis, what conditions of crisis?

It sounds OK in principle, but diplomacy is about negotiation. Is it possible to conduct negotiations under public scrutiny?

Image copyright Other
Image caption Open diplomacy - but also idiot diplomacy

Closed diplomatic sessions are closed for good reason: they allow sensitive positions to be developed over time. For example, one negotiation tactic might be to float ideas to gauge the response.

If this were revealed too early during negotiations, public pressure might force the negotiators to defend or retract these positions in such a way as to undermine their actual goal.

So while the end of such negotiations may be perfectly acceptable, intermediate bargaining tactics may provoke outrage.

Yet this assumes that people are always immature and incapable of understanding subtleties. In general, people should be treated with respect: if the public is patronised and treated as an imbecile, the public will probably behave like one.

Maybe there are emergencies, such as active conflict situations, where this rule should not apply. While there is probably something to be said for secrecy under conditions of crisis, it is hard to believe that we are always on the brink of one.

The fundamental reason the disclosures are difficult is that they are occurring in a time of transition. It is never comfortable when the rules change towards greater openness.

Best motives

Sadly, we still have a very long way to go before we could possibly claim that we live in an "open society". Beyond diplomacy, what about transparency for the way governments are lobbied by industry? What about transparency from companies over the impacts they have on the environment and on society?

The oldest message released by Wikileaks was written in 1966. It was only a decade or two before then that one of the most venerable UK accounting bodies argued strongly against the disclosure by public companies of an audited profit and loss account.

Their reasoning was that the release of such "confidential information" would only benefit competitors. What is now deemed necessary seemed then unthinkable. The US and UK governments today appear to take the same view, that the release of confidential information will only benefit their enemies.

Instead it will enable the world to judge them. But if we are actually to benefit from transparency, we have to give up the hope that what we see will always be nice. Diplomacy is no doubt above all a mess made by people who are probably trying to do their best. What they could do with is some feedback.

Adrian Henriques is the author of Corporate Truth: The limits to transparency, published by Earthscan.