The Secret Lives of Nations

While it is too soon to offer any meaningful perspective about the impact of the WikiLeaks disclosures on American foreign policy, it is not too early to reflect on what the leaked diplomatic cables say about the public’s understanding of how diplomacy works.

WikiLeaks’s justification for releasing confidential State Department materials is that the more the public knows about how our government conducts its foreign relations, the better the outcome will be. This is an old idea: Woodrow Wilson advocated “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.” But history also shows that open diplomacy is often fatally flawed.

Secrecy is an essential part of any negotiation: no corporate merger, complicated legal settlement, amicable divorce or serious political compromise could ever be reached without a reliable level of confidentiality.

But secrecy is nowhere more essential than in foreign relations. For example, had the various diplomats negotiating the end of the cold war and the unification of Germany had to deal with public revelations of the disagreements, half-baked proposals and reckless language in their internal communications — like Margaret Thatcher’s opposition to German unification versus Helmut Kohl’s determination to achieve it — substantive talks would have been impossible.

Secrecy was likewise vital after World War I. After a series of debilitating leaks, the leaders of the four primary victors — Britain, France, Italy and the United States — abandoned their policy of open diplomacy and went into closed sessions. Only then were they able to navigate the difficult details of the Treaty of Versailles and reach a final, if relatively short-lived, peace.

The WikiLeaks disclosures have been praised by many who believe that they will allow the public to hold the government more accountable and thus improve American foreign policy. On the contrary, leaks like this simply make those in power retreat further into the shadows to defend themselves and their positions. Consider how Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger cut off all but their inner circle of advisers after the Pentagon Papers were published.

To be fair, there can be value in strategically timed leaks. For example, in 1870 Otto von Bismarck, Prussia’s minister-president, leaked a confidential dispatch by King Wilhelm I about his meeting with the French ambassador. Bismarck had edited the document to give the impression that France had made unacceptable demands of the king (which was true) and that Wilhelm had rudely shown the ambassador the door (which was not).

Bismarck’s move put both countries’ honor on the line and aroused nationalist passions on both sides, escalating an existing crisis into a war that ended in a total Prussian victory, one that fulfilled Bismarck’s goal of increasing Prussian power in Central Europe.

Whatever one thinks of Bismarck’s aims, his calculated, targeted leak served his purposes well. But releasing confidential diplomatic correspondence to influence foreign relations, whether it’s done by governments or by unauthorized individuals, is like using dynamite in a construction zone. Carried out by experts after a careful analysis of the risks involved, it may be effective, like blowing off part of a hillside to build a road.

But the WikiLeaks disclosure, on a scale that, to my knowledge, is historically unprecedented, is totally different — more like the work of irresponsible amateurs using dynamite to expand a tunnel that also contains, say, a city’s electrical lines. The leaks will probably not cause war or even a serious crisis, but they will badly damage America’s diplomatic machinery, processes and reputation.

None of this means that diplomatic correspondence and negotiations should remain secret forever. But except in special instances, confidential communications ought to be released only after passions have settled and scholars can examine the records in fuller context.

Especially in a democracy, the goal of negotiations should be to quietly reach an agreement, followed by ratification or rejection by elected legislators. In other words, open covenants of peace, secretly arrived at.

Paul W. Schroeder, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the author of The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848.