David Rothkopf

WikiLeaks: How the world is really run

The subtitle of this blog has been "How the World is Really Run" since the day it was launched, an editor’s play on the title of a book I wrote. But I am today inclined to lend that subtitle out to the publishers of the most recent tidal wave of information from WikiLeaks. Because the ...


The subtitle of this blog has been "How the World is Really Run" since the day it was launched, an editor’s play on the title of a book I wrote. But I am today inclined to lend that subtitle out to the publishers of the most recent tidal wave of information from WikiLeaks. Because the 250,000 State Department cables contained in the release offer up no single revelation as striking as the overall message they contain: The dark shadowy world of diplomacy and international intrigue is working just about precisely as you suspect it is.

Behind the scenes, diplomats are sending private assessments of foreign leaders back to their bosses. Those assessments are often not entirely flattering. But what would you expect? Further, of all the assessments revealed among the WikiLeaks documents, none fly against perceptions that have long been public. Sarkozy thin-skinned? Berlusconi vain and partying way too hard for an old man? Putin and his cronies collaborating with the mob? The Karzai family corrupt? Saudis financing terror? Other Gulf leaders looking the other way? If you are surprised, then you have not been paying attention.

It is even less surprising, if such thing is possible, that those diplomats are busy trying to collect information on foreign leaders or that behind the scenes they are sometimes saying things that are at odds with their public statements. Does it make sense that Yemen’s leaders would rather it look as though they were the ones striking against terror threats within their borders rather than letting the United States do it? Or that Arab leaders might take a tougher line on Iran behind closed doors? Or that the United States might be critical even of its allies from time to time? The real shock would be if these things were not true.

The landscape described by WikiLeaks is vivid, adding details that are colorful, sometimes embarrassing, and, occasionally, even thought-provoking. In the colorful department of course, we have everything from suggestions of inappropriate behavior from a member of the British Royal family (wouldn’t we be more shocked by revelations of appropriate behavior from them at this point?) to descriptions by top diplomats of the Chechen president dancing at a Dagestani wedding with a gold-plated automatic shoved into his belt. In the embarrassing department we have vignettes as diverse as one featuring the Afghan vice president arriving in the United Arab Emirates with a suitcase full of illicit cash, or another featuring the White House auctioning off meetings with President Obama in exchange for countries taking in prisoners from Guantanamo.

What is thought-provoking is that it seems virtually every country that is a neighbor of Iran seems to be more inclined to see action taken against the Iranian nuclear program than is the United States… although frankly given the history and cultural fault lines in the region, this may actually be an argument for giving the U.S. approach more credence and support. Also emerging from the documents is a picture of just how dangerously immature China’s foreign policy remains. The country is clearly continuing to be too inclined to cosset and support rogue regimes, an approach that is clearly out of sync with China’s broadening international interests or its desire to be treated seriously as a leading nation. Finally, in this category, these documents make clear yet again — from the repeated mentions of corruption in Afghanistan to deeply unsettling perspectives on the vulnerability and risks associated with the Pakistani nuclear program — that the United States’ involvement in that part of the world has us tied up with very bad actors and is likely to end up producing very unsatisfactory and possibly even tragic outcomes.

There is one other subtext that runs through all this, one well highlighted in a very good analytical piece on the releases by Timothy Garton Ash in the British newspaper the Guardian. The cables not only reveal that the world is run much as you expect it would be but for all the venality, hypocrisy, callousness and irresponsibility that is part and parcel of such assumptions, from time to time elements of it run precisely as you actually would hope they would run. For example, there is repeatedly revealed within the U.S. state department a high degree of professionalism, competence and courage. The best U.S. diplomats — like Bill Burns, now undersecretary of state for political affairs, or ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson — provide dependable insights in their communications and show no hesitation to send back assessments that will surely ruffle feathers back in Washington.

The WikiLeaks cables shine light on dark corners of international affairs only to reveal that for the most part, what is going on is what we thought was going on. The light enables us to see details, many fascinating, some disturbing, that also helps us better understand the nature of the world in which we are living and the risks we are facing. As a consequence, on a net basis, the newspapers that first broke the release — the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Der Spiegel and Le Monde — performed a useful service and did so with seemingly admirable restraint and judgment if their descriptions of their dialogue with officials regarding the releases are accurate.

That said, it must be acknowledged that yet another dimension of how the world is really run that is revealed through these releases is the means by which they were made public in the first place. If the U.S. continues to see fit to grant security clearances to three million individuals and all the information in these leaks can be as easily transferred as they were first to a fake Lady Gaga CD and then to the Internet or a thumb drive then we must expect that just like intrigue, deception, bad policies, and earnest public officials trying to advance their national interests, breaches of security like these will become a permanent part of the landscape of international affairs. If such leaks are really as odious and dangerous as many in the United States government are now asserting (a view with which I am sympathetic) then the place they ought to begin assigning blame is on themselves for allowing the creation of a system in which one more widely understood fact of the way the world works is that most secrets are very hard to keep.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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