Stephen M. Walt

‘Don’t Write if You Can Talk…’: The latest from WikiLeaks

As with earlier WikiLeaks "revelations," the latest batch of classified communications is bound to be something of a Rorschach test. With a wealth of cables from which to choose, readers will be inclined to see in them what they want to see. I’ve been reading some of the latest releases and I’ve read the New ...


As with earlier WikiLeaks "revelations," the latest batch of classified communications is bound to be something of a Rorschach test. With a wealth of cables from which to choose, readers will be inclined to see in them what they want to see. I’ve been reading some of the latest releases and I’ve read the New York Times accounts pretty carefully, but thus far, I haven’t seen anything that fundamentally alters my views about U.S. foreign policy. Nor have I seen any other commentator who says that they’ve changed their mind about some important contemporary issue either. That said, here are a few tentative reactions.

First, everyone should remember that these documents are not revealed truth or literal transcripts of an event. Like most forms of diplomatic reportage, they are a version of events or a summary of impressions, as seen through the eyes of the person (in most cases mid-level officials) who are drafting the message. Even when one is just summarizing a meeting, whoever is drafting the cable gets to emphasize certain things and to omit or downplay others, and that includes the possibility that they misheard, misinterpreted, or misunderstood what was said. Context matters too: what foreign officials say will be shaped by what they are trying to accomplish and also what they think their American interlocutors want or need to hear, and it’s hard to identify the full context from these releases alone.

Please note that I am not arguing that there isn’t useful information here. My point is that we bear in mind that these cables are the products of individual human drafters who have their own agendas and frailties, and that the discussions they are summarizing do not occur in isolation. And although these documents clearly tell us something about a number of key policies, they are a very incomplete picture.

Second, as with previous WikiLeaks releases, we need to be very wary about our initial conclusions. Only a small number of cables have been released so far, and the media outlets that were given access to them (the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel) are picking and choosing from among the one’s they’ve seen. Until we’ve had a chance to see the full set of releases, a degree of interpretive caution is in order.

Third, I am less troubled than some others about the possibility that these documents will expose gaps between what governments say they are doing and what they are actually doing.  Some commentators worry, for example, that these documents have exposed the hypocrisy of the Yemeni government, which has been pretending that it wasn’t allowing the United States to conduct drone strikes on its territory. Others probably fear that some particularly pungent comments about various world leaders might get exposed, and thereby creating undesirable frictions. There’s also the concern that foreign representatives will be less candid in the future, for fear of being exposed by some subsequent leak.

But let’s get serious for a second. I doubt there are any major world leaders who once believed that we held them in the highest regard, and who will now be crushed to learn that some of our officials had reservations about them. (I’m willing to bet that plenty of foreign cables say less-than-flattering things about U.S. officials too, and that those officials wouldn’t be entirely shocked were those reports to go public). I give most leaders a bit more credit than that: most people know when there are significant differences between allies and even personal points of friction, even if they are papered over with appropriate diplomatic niceties. It’s mildly embarrassing to have this out in public, but I’m not sure anybody is going to feel seriously betrayed or misled.

And as for the possibility that American diplomats will be exposed as less than 100 percent honest: at this stage in our history, is all that even remotely surprising? I mean, after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Iran/Contra, the cruise missile attack on Sudan, Colin Powell’s cooked-up testimony to the Security Council in 2002, how many people are under that many illusions about the dark underbelly of U.S. foreign policy? And it’s hardly headline news to learn that the United States has been obsessed with Iran’s nuclear program, reflexively solicitous of Israel’s concerns, worried about North Korea, or deeply concerned about al Qaeda. Some of the details in these cables are interesting, but none of the dispatches I’ve read or the news accounts I’ve seen suggest that a major rewriting of recent diplomacy is in order. 

Fourth, the recurring theme that I keep seeing in these documents — it’s my own Rorschach, I guess — is how everybody around the world wants Uncle Sucker to solve their problems.  South Korea and the U.S. talk about what to do if North Korea collapses. Israeli officials keep demanding that we deal with Iran and preserve their "qualitative military edge." Some Arab leaders in the Persian Gulf want us to stop an Iranian bomb too, but they don’t agree on the steps we should take to achieve that aim. And so on.

You’d expect these documents to contain a lot of this sort of special pleading, of course, because they are reports from American officials who have been meeting with various foreign counterparts and trying to figure out what they think or want. Nonetheless, it is still striking how many pies the United States has its fingers in, and how others keep expecting us to supply the ingredients, do most of the baking, and clean up the kitchen afterwards.

Fifth, the big story in the early releases — at least as highlighted in the Times — seems to be the combination of the clear U.S. obsession with Iran and the fact that some Arab leaders expressed great concern about the prospect of an Iranian bomb.  It was as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow that hard-line advocates of doing whatever it takes to stop an Iranian bomb would immediately seize upon the initial releases to buttress their case, but the documents don’t actually support that conclusion. As Andrew Sullivan points out, the same people who routinely dismiss Arab calls for a different U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestinian peace process are now suddenly convinced that these same Arab leaders are pillars of wisdom. In any case, it is hardly a revelation to learn that some Gulf rulers would a) prefer a non-nuclear Iran, and b) would prefer it if the United States did the heavy lifting and bore the onus of taking care of this problem. It would be astonishing if they thought any other way.

But the crucial question all along has been how to address that issue, and here these releases show some ambivalence. There is hardly a consistent chorus of voices telling the United States to go ahead and bomb the place. Some leaders seem inclined in that way; others much less so. I’ve heard other senior Arab and Muslim officials say that it would be a calamity if we did.

Lastly, the big question I keep pondering is this: would it be all that bad if diplomats understood that secret deals and two-faced diplomacy wasn’t going to be that easy anymore, because the true facts might leak out sooner rather than in twenty or thirty years time? I can think of a few cases where secrecy has been useful (Kennedy’s deal over the Jupiter missiles in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis comes to mind), but in general I think human beings — and this include foreign policy-makers — are more inclined to do bad things when they think they can do so without being exposed.  If you have to keep something secret, that’s often a sign that you shouldn’t be doing it at all.

And at the risk of seeming like a naïve Wilsonian (the cruelest thing you can call a realist like me!), the whole episode raises the larger issue of whether the citizens of a republic have the right to know exactly what representatives are doing and saying in their name, backed up by the money and military power that the citizens have paid for with their taxes. And I don’t mean finding out thirty years later, but now. I’m sure that most diplomats would prefer to minimize democratic scrutiny of their activities, as it would surely be annoying if Congress or the media or (God forbid!) ordinary citizens were to peer over their shoulders while they are trying to line up foreign support. But given that I am less and less convinced that our elites know what they are doing, I’m also less inclined to want to let them operate outside public view.

But there is a real downside, which is why I retain some concerns about this latest batch of revelations. If diplomats start fearing that any conversation or cable might get leaked, they will either stop talking, stop taking notes, or stop sending message back to headquarters in any sort of republishable form. There’s an old line from Chicago city politics: "Don’t write if you can talk; don’t talk if you can nod; don’t nod if you can wink." Somehow, I’m not sure our diplomacy will be enhanced if our representatives are reduced to making facial gestures, and communicating back home only through secure telephones.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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