Daniel W. Drezner

What should scholars and foreign policy wonks do with WikiLeaks?

What should scholars and foreign policy wonks do with WikiLeaks?

There’s going to be a lot of scholars, policy analysts and enthused amateurs who are going to drink up the Wikileaks documents as a great new empirical resource. So they should — they did nothing to cause their release, and these are documents that ordinarily would have taken 25 years minimum to be declassified.

That said, there’s going to be a natural inclination to think that any Wikileaks document will endow it with the totemic value of Absolute Truth. "If it was secret, then it must be true," goes this logic. That’s a more serious problem. For Exhibit A, let’s go to Simon Tisdall of The Guardian‘s interpreting what the Wikileaks documents reveal about how China views North Korea:

China has signaled its readiness to accept Korean reunification and is privately distancing itself from the North Korean regime, according to leaked US embassy cables that reveal senior Beijing figures regard their official ally as a "spoiled child"….

The leaked North Korea dispatches detail how:

      • South Korea‘s vice-foreign minister said he was told by two named senior Chinese officials that they believed Korea should be reunified under Seoul’s control, and that this view was gaining ground with the leadership in Beijing.
      • China’s vice-foreign minister told US officials that Pyongyang was behaving like a "spoiled child" to get Washington’s attention in April 2009 by carrying out missile tests.
      • A Chinese ambassador warned that North Korean nuclear activity was "a threat to the whole world’s security".
      • Chinese officials assessed that it could cope with an influx of 300,000 North Koreans in the event of serious instability, according to a representative of an international agency, but might need to use the military to seal the border.

In highly sensitive discussions in February this year, the-then South Korean vice-foreign minister, Chun Yung-woo, told a US ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that younger generation Chinese Communist party leaders no longer regarded North Korea as a useful or reliable ally and would not risk renewed armed conflict on the peninsula, according to a secret cable to Washington.

Ah, OK, this explains why China has slowly distanced itself from North Korea’s recent actions. Oh, wait, I’m sorry, China has done nothing of the sort.

I don’t doubt that Chinese officials said everything reported in the documents. I do doubt that those statements mean that China is willing to walk away from North Korea. It means that Chinese diplomats are… er…. diplomatic. They will tell U.S. and South Korean officials some of what they want to hear. I’m sure that they will say somewhat different things to their North Korean counterparts.

The key is to determine whether China’s actions reflect their words. And over the past six months, China has not acted in a manner consistent with Tisdall’s claims.

This is not to imply that China is acting in a particularly perfidious or underhanded manner, by the way. They’re acting like any great power would — stall for time while trying to figure out the best way to handle a troublesome ally. The point is, just because someone says something in a Wikileaks memo doesn’t make it so.