The End of Diplomacy as We Know It?

In 1996, after the conclusion of the Dayton peace talks on Bosnia and Herzegovina, the German Foreign Ministry felt that published accounts did not give enough credit to the German contributions to the peace accord. A decision was made to publish all 53 major diplomatic cables dispatched by the team I had led during the 21-day-negotiating process.

However, the documents were carefully edited before publication. For example, most references to the behavior of individual Bosnian or Serb leaders were deleted, as were occasional complaints about differences between ourselves and, say, the U.S. delegation led by Richard Holbrooke.

As a result, the public record of the negotiating process was presented as intended, but none of the participants found any reason to be unhappy. Mission accomplished.

Fast forward, to the WikiLeaks tsunami: Why is this so different? Why are diplomats so appalled by what the Italian foreign minister has called the 9/11 of diplomacy?

First, leaks of secret or confidential diplomatic traffic — whether via pigeon, sealed letter, classic telegram or encrypted e-mail — are as old as diplomacy itself. Leaks happen all the time: They may be caused by interagency strife within a government, by an opposition eager to bring down a government, by a government aiming to threaten or weaken an adversary, by an over-ambitious or hateful individual, or by many other motivations.

Some leaks are harmless, some lethal — and some have even led to war. But one thing is certain: Every single leak damages or destroys trust, in one way or another. And trust is the single most precious commodity in diplomacy. That is why the ongoing WikiLeaks publication of hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables endangers the entire species. It puts the business of diplomacy at risk.

Second, most leaks tend to happen in democracies. It would be a real surprise if the next load that WikiLeaks will dump on the Internet were to contain cable traffic leaked by a Chinese or Iranian government official. Autocratic regimes are less often victims of leaks from within their own government structures. This may be because of severe penalties facing a leaker, but also because of greater internal secrecy and because of the absence of effective opposition or independent media.

Thus, open societies tend to be at a relative disadvantage vis-à-vis less-democratic countries as far as the pursuit of foreign policy objectives, unharmed by leaks, is concerned. No doubt: The conduct of American diplomacy has been seriously handicapped by the leaked diplomatic material. The damage would have been even greater if The New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and the other publications had not demonstrated a sense of political and moral responsibility by allowing some editing to protect certain individuals.

What about transparent government? What about freedom of information as a citizen’s right?

Yes, governments in democracies must be held accountable. But the right of the citizen to know applies primarily to the policies of his own government. Whistle-blowing in cases of governmental or business misconduct or criminal behavior may be a legitimate ingredient of a modern society, but the right to know should not be interpreted to include information presented or discussed by foreign countries under rules of confidentiality.

Again, this is a question of trust — the very fabric of diplomacy. Once trust has evaporated, it is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to rebuild. This is why most countries have legislation protecting diplomatic documents from publication for several decades.

For example, I could not have responsibly signed a large number of cables dispatched by my embassy in Washington during the Iraq crisis years if I had not been able to rely on the promise of secrecy. Of course, my team and I reported in detail about the Rumsfeld-Powell competition for influence. Of course, we provided Berlin with our best analysis of U.S. policy and of who was up and who was down in D.C. — classic and frank embassy reporting that was not always flattering to all, but was of considerable interest and importance to decision-makers in Berlin.

Third, building and strengthening international relationships will be made more difficult by WikiLeaks-type information trafficking. This will not be limited to U.S. diplomacy. Sources will dry up, ambassadors will get to hear only what their local interlocutors want to read in the newspaper, and access to information worth protecting will be less readily available to diplomats.

Even worse, interagency information sharing within governments will be reduced, embassies may find themselves cut off from certain types of information for fear of leaks via technology, and ambassadors may find themselves excluded from certain meetings of their top leaders.

Some heads of government may choose to rely on special envoys rather than on traditional diplomatic machinery, and some may decide not to allow transcripts of their conversations to be made and distributed any more.

This is the WikiLeaks paradox: It will lead to less openness and to a lot more secrecy rather than the transparent information universe WikiLeaks idealists may have been dreaming of.

Finally, international crisis management and crisis prevention are among the nobler tasks of modern bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. But massive leaks will handicap not only diplomatic business as such, but could undermine current and future peace negotiations and crisis prevention efforts in many regions. Think of the Iranian nuclear issue. Think of the Middle East, or of Afghanistan/Pakistan.

This is why this is not just about the hurt egos of some political leaders negatively described in embassy cables. This is more serious: It is about war and peace, and it can be about life or death.

Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference who served before that as Germany’s deputy foreign minister and as ambassador to Washington and to London.