Why Wikileaks Matter


Judging by the profound glibness shown by a wide range of U.S. officials in response to the latest Wikileaks document dump, you’d think that Julian Assange had simply republished a pile of old newspapers.

I’m not entirely sure why we care about the opinion of one guy with one website,” said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.  We are meant to feel exceedingly reassured that there is nothing to worry about in these dispatches.  “Nothing in any document that allegedly is in the tranche of WikiLeaks or in possession of WikiLeaks changed the role of any diplomat, anywhere in the world,” argued P.J. Crowley of the State Department.  Even the Russians picked up on the exact same talking points, dismissing the revelations in the documents with quips about “Hollywood characters,” and hearty laughs about the incompetence of U.S. intelligence.  This coming from the government whose Desperate Housewives deep cover spies got caught arguing over mortgages.

Anytime we hear so many politicians saying that something isn’t important, the opposite tends to be true.  No, it may not be a revelation to anyone in Russia that Putin is the “Alpha Dog” (in fact, he probably enjoys the compliment), or that Ramzan Kadryov made it rain with $100 at a lavish wedding.  However it is somewhat more important that we have confirmation from the Azeri president that orders from Medvedev must make one more stop for approval – representing a constitutional breakdown in the country’s governance.

First of all, it’s hardly been three days since the documents went public, and given the quantity of information released (only 593 out of some 250,000 dispatches), it could take weeks of sifting and examining to gather critical insights.  As for Russia, there are apparently many more in the pipeline that haven’t yet been released. The cables released so far provide an unprecedented look into the state’s thinking on a wide range of issues, revealing, sometimes painfully, considerable gaps between Washington’s rhetoric and the realities within many of these countries.

And to say that there are no surprises in these Wikileaks?  How might North Korea feel about watching the Chinese come so close to pulling the rug out from under them?  Or the realization of the disproportionate obsession with Iran at the cost of so many other relationships?  It is not insignificant, for example, to have on the public record the recognition on behalf of the U.S. government that Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi are involved in criminal networks.  And lastly, it goes without saying that there are few other governments I can think of where the Secretary of State would retain her position after having been outed for ordering her diplomats to spy on Ban Ki Moon and the United Nations.

While it is completely logical that confidentiality is a necessary feature of diplomacy, I am in agreement with the argument that Wikileaks is ultimately good for the policy community at large (which does not necessarily relieve Mr. Assange of his liabilities).  Writing in The New Republic, John B. Judis argues that, like the release of WWI secret treaties by the Bolsheviks in 1917, Wikileaks represents “a protest against great power imperialism,” revealing the unpleasant reality of many of the authoritarian juntas which we call our allies.

I don’t know what kind of scandals everyone was expecting to come from these leaks, but we shouldn’t be in such a rush to dismiss the event as unimportant.