In the middle of the American civil war William Seward, secretary of state, unexpectedly released a huge chunk of diplomatic correspondence – including confidential and very frank dispatches from ambassador Charles Francis Adams in London. Although mortified at the consequences this disclosure could have in a time of great danger for his country, Adams kept his well-known composure. “I scarcely imagine it wise in diplomatic life to show your hand in the midst of the game,” he said.
I couldn’t agree more with my illustrious predecessor. The deplorable WikiLeaks disclosures put innocent lives at risk and damage US national security interests. And to what purpose?
WikiLeaks styles itself a whistleblowing organisation. This is not whistleblowing. There is nothing laudable about endangering innocent people. There is nothing brave about sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations on which our common security depends.
Fortunately, as Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state has made clear, this will not stop US diplomats, in concert with our vital ally Britain, working on the many urgent challenges we face around the world – Afghanistan, nonproliferation and arms control, addressing violent extremism, promoting global economic growth and the spread of democracy and human rights.
The need for confidential discussions is not unique to diplomacy. Lawyers, doctors and journalists (yes, journalists) all need a space of trust for important communications. But it is central to diplomacy, and this breach in confidentiality – even if it did not come from the state department – shows a disregard for the wellbeing of countless individuals.
Who are these individuals? They are human rights activists, journalists, faith leaders and civil society representatives. They are politicians, government officials, candidates for office, community leaders and volunteers. They are academics, thinktank representatives, students. They are business leaders, inventors, scientists. In fact they are people from every walk of life around the world who engage with US diplomats in good faith every day.
Our diplomats use these encounters to observe and gauge developments abroad, and present and defend the US view, all the while looking for common ground on difficult issues. Their frank assessments of people, policies and action – the raw material of diplomacy – inform the policies decided by the president and the secretary of state. Nothing, even in an age of Wikipedia and global news, can replace informed observers reporting from the field.
WikiLeaks seems indifferent to the damage it has caused to these relationships. We cannot be so sanguine. There is too much work that needs to be done for us to be sidetracked. Reinvigorating America’s relationships around the world has been a top priority of president Obama and secretary Clinton. That will not change. We will not alter our commitment to working with our friends and allies on building a more peaceful and prosperous world.
A world in which diplomats cannot operate with discretion and trust is a more dangerous world for all of us. We are improving our systems to protect the confidential information that is essential to US diplomacy. We will hold accountable those who are responsible for the compromise that led to these disclosures.
And as US diplomats work on the many pressing issues before us, central to those efforts will be our uniquely productive, close and strong relationship with the UK. I appreciate the support given us by prime minister Cameron, his government, the diplomatic community and others. The prime minister says these reckless disclosures have not changed the “fundamentals” of the special relationship. I couldn’t agree more.
Louis B. Susman, the current United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom.