Thoughts on economics and liberty

Wikileaks will not make the world a better or safer place

I get to read The Economist a bit late, about 3-4 weeks after its date of publication, so you'll notice that my comments on some of its articles are delayed. This editorial on Wikileaks (4 December 2010 issue) caught my attention today. It shows why Wikileaks is not a good idea (in its current reckless form and shape). I'm gratified that the The Economist made similar observations to mine. [See my blog posts here, here, and here.] 

Before reproducing the Economist article below – for it is really worth reading – let me re-iterate the fine line involved in relation to Wikileaks: I'm all for whistleblowing. Therefore, so long as Wikileaks sticks to disclosure of crime, corruption or such things, I'm all for it. 

But going beyond that is inappropriate – for then it impinges adversely on the world's security against the enemies of freedom. 

(Cartoon from The Economist, 4 Dec 2010, p.10 – copyright with The Economist)

Read cables and red faces

You don’t have to be Julian Assange, the man behind WikiLeaks, to think that governments have a nasty habit of abusing their powers of secrecy. Or that, whether governments are corrupt and malign or merely negligent and incompetent, then sunlight is often the best disinfectant. One of the jobs of journalism is to make a grubby nuisance of itself by ferreting out the establishment’s half-truths and embarrassments. And one of the jobs of the courts is to police the press by protecting whistle-blowers while also punishing libel and treachery.

But the most recent WikiLeaks dump of diplomatic cables has overturned that order in two ways. First by its sheer volume. When you have not just a handful of documents to release, but more than 250,000 e-mails seemingly touching on every file in the State Department, however dusty, you discredit not just one government official or one policy, but an entire way of going about diplomacy.

It is too soon to know what effect the leak’s revelations will have. The newspapers have so far published the e-mails piecemeal, and a lot more are to come. Foreign-policy experts are right when say they have learned little that is radically new. Revelations about the tireless nightlife of Italy’s ageing prime minister will surprise no one. Given that hundreds of thousands of people had access to the cables, the sensitive stuff will already be in the hands of many a spy service.

But the experts also miss a larger point: they themselves are part of the elite inner-circle that WikiLeaks wants to break open so that Everyman can judge for himself. Perhaps shattering all those taboos might do some good. The public airing of Arab leaders’ fears of an Iranian bomb might shake others’ complacency about the issue.

But any gains will come at a high cost. In a world of WikiLeaks, diplomacy would no longer be possible. The secrecy that WikiLeaks despises is vital to all organisations, including government—and especially in the realm of international relations. Those who pass information to American diplomats, out of self-interest, conviction or goodwill, will be less open now. Some of them, like the Iranian businessman fingered as a friend of America, could face reprisals.

In the past, the rights and wrongs of all this could have been determined by public debate, the passage of some legislation and the courts. Not any longer. The second way in which WikiLeaks has overturned the old order is by being beyond any jurisdiction. America can and will try to use its laws to protect its secrets. But even if it locks up Bradley Manning, the 23-year-old serviceman thought to be behind the leaks, and even if it captures Mr Assange, the information is out, on a network of computers somewhere in cyberspace.

Back to Chinese whispers

In any case, there will be other Mannings and other Assanges. You cannot uninvent the technology for copying a State Department’s worth of cables and carting them pretty much anywhere. The only remedy is to manage secrets better. The damage that America’s diplomatic service has suffered is partly the result of sloppy practices. It has now tightened access to the e-mails and the scope to copy them. Sensitive information will have to receive a higher classification.

On reading diplomats’ dissembling, people may be tempted to sneer. In fact diplomacy’s never-ending private conversation ultimately helps see off war and strife. That conversation will continue. Too many people have too much to gain for it to stop. But it will be less rich, less clear and therefore probably less useful. WikiLeaks claims to want to make the world a better place. It will probably do the reverse.

ALSO FROM THE SAME ISSUE OF THE ECONOMIST:

It would be an exaggeration to say that diplomacy will never be the same again. Self-interest means that countries will still send and receive private messages. Butcommunication will be more difficult. The trading of opinions, insights and favours necessarily requires shadow, not light. Unofficial contacts such as businessmen, journalists, campaigners and other citizens who talk to American diplomats, out of goodwill or self-interest, will think twice about doing so. Being tarred as an American crony can be lethal.

Addendum: WikiLeaks damages free expression by choking private talks

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21 thoughts on “Wikileaks will not make the world a better or safer place
  1. raj

    If America really conducts diplomacy then we would have to worry. The problem is America does not do diplomacy..all it does it simply invade and bomb and kill people because "diplomacy" has failed according to Bush and other idiots.
    I agree that the state department cables didn't do any good. It has made the world much dangerous; however wikileaks is a necessary evil. One of the main functions of press is to check the abuse of power of the government. But how free is the press in the U.S? Since the introduction of the PATRIOT ACT, the freedom of the press has been greatly reduced. The act is very vague and can often be used to suppress the press which Bush did try to use against the New York Times in 2007(not sure about the date). Even though the press has not been directly censored say like in Communist Cuba, the government "suppresses" the press through intimidation with a vague law.
    Then there are numerous other agencies that intimidate people through "monitoring" in the name of security. Often they monitor people with radical ideas(eg: anti-war protestors), views and members who support a third party in the U.S. Recently the Feds have a database of close to 150,000 people who have not committed any crime but are being monitored because they "could pose a threat to national security"(again what constitutes a threat—opposition to policies of the government). In fact opposition to the policies of the government too have been considered a threat. Opposition would mean against bailouts, fed reserve and health care reform and anti-war protestors. When you have such monitoring on a large scale, people would not take the risk to speak out and that ultimately means the end of a free society.
    Ultimately only organizations such as Wikileaks can promote transparency when the press is on the receiving end. I support Wikileaks for its release of the Afghan and Iraq war logs(not the diplomatic cables). Both wars were filled with lies and it is good truth comes out. In a way, Wikileaks reduces the "stability" when lies are brought out, but those lies are necessary in a free society.

     
  2. raj

    If America really conducts diplomacy then we would have to worry. The problem is America does not do diplomacy..all it does it simply invade and bomb and kill people because "diplomacy" has failed according to Bush and other idiots.
    I agree that the state department cables didn't do any good. It has made the world much dangerous; however wikileaks is a necessary evil. One of the main functions of press is to check the abuse of power of the government. But how free is the press in the U.S? Since the introduction of the PATRIOT ACT, the freedom of the press has been greatly reduced. The act is very vague and can often be used to suppress the press which Bush did try to use against the New York Times in 2007(not sure about the date). Even though the press has not been directly censored say like in Communist Cuba, the government "suppresses" the press through intimidation with a vague law.
    Then there are numerous other agencies that intimidate people through "monitoring" in the name of security. Often they monitor people with radical ideas(eg: anti-war protestors), views and members who support a third party in the U.S. Recently the Feds have a database of close to 150,000 people who have not committed any crime but are being monitored because they "could pose a threat to national security"(again what constitutes a threat—opposition to policies of the government). In fact opposition to the policies of the government too have been considered a threat. Opposition would mean against bailouts, fed reserve and health care reform and anti-war protestors. When you have such monitoring on a large scale, people would not take the risk to speak out and that ultimately means the end of a free society.
    Ultimately only organizations such as Wikileaks can promote transparency when the press is on the receiving end. I support Wikileaks for its release of the Afghan and Iraq war logs(not the diplomatic cables). Both wars were filled with lies and it is good truth comes out. In a way, Wikileaks reduces the "stability" when lies are brought out, but those lies are necessary in a free society.

     
  3. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Raj

    Statecraft is 99% about diplomacy and 1% about war. I disagree with your perception that America jumps recklessly into war. I believe it uses diplomacy to the extent it works. And while America did make a few mistakes (e.g. supporting the Shah of Iran when a genuine democratic movement was available), on balance it has supported liberty in US and across the world. Without the US we would be all a stooge of communist USSR or communist China.

    It was American diplomacy by the much reviled Richard Nixon that drew China into the mainstream in the 1970s, because of which the threat that China imposed on countries around it (such as India) has significantly reduced.

    The day the American nuclear umbrella is withdrawn, the world will enter into disastrous war. I do not need to remind you of the events of World War II. Without US the war would have been lost to the Hitler and Japan.

    I do NOT support mindless criticism of USA. It is the world’s GREATEST bastion of freedom. Let us support US in its defence of global freedoms, let’s not undermine it.

    Note again that I have no problems with release of ACTUAL corruption or crime – regardless of who did it. But to give a blanket approval to the undermining of diplomacy is EVIL. Mr Assange has no clue about world history or world politics or about human nature. He is an innocent who lives in a dream world. His recklessness must be curbed.

    Regards
    Sanjeev

     
  4. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Raj

    Statecraft is 99% about diplomacy and 1% about war. I disagree with your perception that America jumps recklessly into war. I believe it uses diplomacy to the extent it works. And while America did make a few mistakes (e.g. supporting the Shah of Iran when a genuine democratic movement was available), on balance it has supported liberty in US and across the world. Without the US we would be all a stooge of communist USSR or communist China.

    It was American diplomacy by the much reviled Richard Nixon that drew China into the mainstream in the 1970s, because of which the threat that China imposed on countries around it (such as India) has significantly reduced.

    The day the American nuclear umbrella is withdrawn, the world will enter into disastrous war. I do not need to remind you of the events of World War II. Without US the war would have been lost to the Hitler and Japan.

    I do NOT support mindless criticism of USA. It is the world’s GREATEST bastion of freedom. Let us support US in its defence of global freedoms, let’s not undermine it.

    Note again that I have no problems with release of ACTUAL corruption or crime – regardless of who did it. But to give a blanket approval to the undermining of diplomacy is EVIL. Mr Assange has no clue about world history or world politics or about human nature. He is an innocent who lives in a dream world. His recklessness must be curbed.

    Regards
    Sanjeev

     
  5. raj

    The U.S is one big paranoid nation. China was essentially a closed nation. Until Nixon reached out to China in 1970s, China was not a threat to the world. Vietnam was another disaster filled with lies. If the U.S really cares about freedom why is China its biggest trading partner? Today the U.S is reaching out to Vietnam too. No, the Soviet Union collapsed for various reasons- one was the invasion of Afghanistan(major reason) which created economic problems.
    Let's not forget the U.S sent nuclear submarines to bomb India in the Indo-Pak War.
    I am NOT mindlessly criticizing the U.S. The problem begins when a nation becomes the policeman of the world and to control such force you need some form of transparency.

     
  6. raj

    The U.S is one big paranoid nation. China was essentially a closed nation. Until Nixon reached out to China in 1970s, China was not a threat to the world. Vietnam was another disaster filled with lies. If the U.S really cares about freedom why is China its biggest trading partner? Today the U.S is reaching out to Vietnam too. No, the Soviet Union collapsed for various reasons- one was the invasion of Afghanistan(major reason) which created economic problems.
    Let's not forget the U.S sent nuclear submarines to bomb India in the Indo-Pak War.
    I am NOT mindlessly criticizing the U.S. The problem begins when a nation becomes the policeman of the world and to control such force you need some form of transparency.

     
  7. raj

    I want to add that the U.S did save the world in World War II. If not for its actions, we would probably be living under Nazi and Japanese rule. I appreciate that. However, after that it has been a disaster.

     
  8. raj

    I want to add that the U.S did save the world in World War II. If not for its actions, we would probably be living under Nazi and Japanese rule. I appreciate that. However, after that it has been a disaster.

     
  9. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Raj,

    I think you have seriously mis-read post-World War II history.

    USSR was a very severe threat to the world. That can’t be forgotten. It is facile to attribute its collapse to a few things. The strong opposition by US was critical to it collapse.

    China has been an almost equal threat. Its support for communist regimes in the past was almost on par with that of Russia. Its nuclear arms are not intended for peace alone. And its interference in India (1962), and with continuing border claims, as well as support for Naxalites, has been nothing but an unmitigated disaster for India. Its ongoing support for nuclear N. Korea (which it has provided with nuclear technology, almost without any doubt) and many crazy dictators across the world is a sign of its threat to world peace. It also locks up people who don’t agree with it. Tiananmen massacre is fresh in everyone’s mind. If not evil on par with Hitler’s regimes, it is pretty close. Not a free country by any yardstick, and indeed, an ENEMY of freedom. If any ‘axis of evil’ exists in the world today, it definitely includes China. To not recognise that would be a serious failure.

    And let’s not forget the Islamic terrorists who are constantly supported by the supply of Chinese arms. China supplies arms to the most deplorable enemies of freedom.

    Take a deep breath, read between the lines, and you’ll realise that without US you’d not be free to even debate things on the internet. The enemies of freedom are alive and kicking everywhere.

    Regards
    Sanjeev

     
  10. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Raj,

    I think you have seriously mis-read post-World War II history.

    USSR was a very severe threat to the world. That can’t be forgotten. It is facile to attribute its collapse to a few things. The strong opposition by US was critical to it collapse.

    China has been an almost equal threat. Its support for communist regimes in the past was almost on par with that of Russia. Its nuclear arms are not intended for peace alone. And its interference in India (1962), and with continuing border claims, as well as support for Naxalites, has been nothing but an unmitigated disaster for India. Its ongoing support for nuclear N. Korea (which it has provided with nuclear technology, almost without any doubt) and many crazy dictators across the world is a sign of its threat to world peace. It also locks up people who don’t agree with it. Tiananmen massacre is fresh in everyone’s mind. If not evil on par with Hitler’s regimes, it is pretty close. Not a free country by any yardstick, and indeed, an ENEMY of freedom. If any ‘axis of evil’ exists in the world today, it definitely includes China. To not recognise that would be a serious failure.

    And let’s not forget the Islamic terrorists who are constantly supported by the supply of Chinese arms. China supplies arms to the most deplorable enemies of freedom.

    Take a deep breath, read between the lines, and you’ll realise that without US you’d not be free to even debate things on the internet. The enemies of freedom are alive and kicking everywhere.

    Regards
    Sanjeev

     
  11. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Raj

    Do read this short article to understand China better: http://www.economist.com/node/17601499.

    EXTRACT BELOW

    For much of the past decade, barring the odd tiff, the wager worked. Before 2001 China and America fell out over Taiwan, the American bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade and a fatal mid-air collision between an American EP3 spy plane and a Chinese fighter. Many commentators back then thought that America and China were on a dangerous course, but Chinese and American leaders did not pursue it.

    This suited China, which concluded long ago that the best way to build its “comprehensive national power” was through economic growth. According to its analysis, articulated in a series of white papers and speeches in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the country needed a “New Security Concept”. Growth demanded stability, which in turn required that China’s neighbours did not feel threatened.

    To reassure them, China started to join the international organisations it had once shunned. As well as earning it credentials as a good citizen, this was also a safe way to counter American influence. China led the six-party talks designed to curb North Korea’s nuclear programme. The government signed the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty and by and large stopped proliferating weapons (though proliferation by rogue Chinese companies continued). It sent people on UN peacekeeping operations, supplying more of them than any other permanent member of the security council or any NATO country.

    Inevitably, there were still disputes and differences. But diplomats, policymakers and academics allowed themselves to believe that, in the nuclear age, China might just emerge peacefully as a new superpower. However, that confidence has recently softened. In the past few months China has fallen out with Japan over a fishing boat that rammed at least one if not two Japanese coastguard vessels off what the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands and the Chinese the Diaoyu Islands.

    Earlier, China failed to back South Korea over the sinking of a Korean navy corvette with the loss of 46 crew—even though an international panel had concluded that the Cheonan was attacked by a North Korean submarine. When America and South Korea reacted to the sinking by planning joint exercises in the Yellow Sea, China objected and got one of them moved eastward, to the Sea of Japan. And when North Korea shelled a South Korean island last month, China was characteristically reluctant to condemn it.

    China has also begun to include territorial claims over large parts of the South China Sea among its six “primary concerns”—new language that has alarmed diplomats. When members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) complained about this in a meeting in Hanoi in the summer, China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, worked himself into a rage: “All of you remember how much of your economic prosperity depends on us,” he reportedly spat back.

    Last year a vicious editorial in China’s People’s Daily attacked India after its prime minister, Manmohan Singh, visited disputed territory near Tibet; Barack Obama was shabbily treated, first on a visit to Beijing and later at the climate-change talks in Copenhagen, where a junior Chinese official wagged his finger at the leader of the free world; Chinese vessels have repeatedly harassed American and Japanese naval ships, including the USS John S. McCain and a survey vessel, the USNS Impeccable.

    Peering through this lens, China-watchers detect a shift. “The smiling diplomacy is over,” says Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state under George Bush. “China’s aspiration for power is very obvious,” says Yukio Okamoto, a Japanese security expert. Diplomats, talking on condition of anonymity, speak of underlying suspicions and anxiety in their dealings with China. Although day-to-day traffic between American and Chinese government departments flows smoothly, “the strategic mistrust between China and the US continues to deepen,” says Bonnie Glaser of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

     
  12. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Raj

    Do read this short article to understand China better: http://www.economist.com/node/17601499.

    EXTRACT BELOW

    For much of the past decade, barring the odd tiff, the wager worked. Before 2001 China and America fell out over Taiwan, the American bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade and a fatal mid-air collision between an American EP3 spy plane and a Chinese fighter. Many commentators back then thought that America and China were on a dangerous course, but Chinese and American leaders did not pursue it.

    This suited China, which concluded long ago that the best way to build its “comprehensive national power” was through economic growth. According to its analysis, articulated in a series of white papers and speeches in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the country needed a “New Security Concept”. Growth demanded stability, which in turn required that China’s neighbours did not feel threatened.

    To reassure them, China started to join the international organisations it had once shunned. As well as earning it credentials as a good citizen, this was also a safe way to counter American influence. China led the six-party talks designed to curb North Korea’s nuclear programme. The government signed the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty and by and large stopped proliferating weapons (though proliferation by rogue Chinese companies continued). It sent people on UN peacekeeping operations, supplying more of them than any other permanent member of the security council or any NATO country.

    Inevitably, there were still disputes and differences. But diplomats, policymakers and academics allowed themselves to believe that, in the nuclear age, China might just emerge peacefully as a new superpower. However, that confidence has recently softened. In the past few months China has fallen out with Japan over a fishing boat that rammed at least one if not two Japanese coastguard vessels off what the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands and the Chinese the Diaoyu Islands.

    Earlier, China failed to back South Korea over the sinking of a Korean navy corvette with the loss of 46 crew—even though an international panel had concluded that the Cheonan was attacked by a North Korean submarine. When America and South Korea reacted to the sinking by planning joint exercises in the Yellow Sea, China objected and got one of them moved eastward, to the Sea of Japan. And when North Korea shelled a South Korean island last month, China was characteristically reluctant to condemn it.

    China has also begun to include territorial claims over large parts of the South China Sea among its six “primary concerns”—new language that has alarmed diplomats. When members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) complained about this in a meeting in Hanoi in the summer, China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, worked himself into a rage: “All of you remember how much of your economic prosperity depends on us,” he reportedly spat back.

    Last year a vicious editorial in China’s People’s Daily attacked India after its prime minister, Manmohan Singh, visited disputed territory near Tibet; Barack Obama was shabbily treated, first on a visit to Beijing and later at the climate-change talks in Copenhagen, where a junior Chinese official wagged his finger at the leader of the free world; Chinese vessels have repeatedly harassed American and Japanese naval ships, including the USS John S. McCain and a survey vessel, the USNS Impeccable.

    Peering through this lens, China-watchers detect a shift. “The smiling diplomacy is over,” says Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state under George Bush. “China’s aspiration for power is very obvious,” says Yukio Okamoto, a Japanese security expert. Diplomats, talking on condition of anonymity, speak of underlying suspicions and anxiety in their dealings with China. Although day-to-day traffic between American and Chinese government departments flows smoothly, “the strategic mistrust between China and the US continues to deepen,” says Bonnie Glaser of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

     
  13. raj

    Well, it is true both USSR and China were evils. China is by no means a supporter of freedom. I agree with that. What I don't like is the fact that the U.S gives a MFN status every year. Should a nation that is founded on liberty be trading with Communist China?
    The world would have been much safer if China had not grown as a economic superpower and the United States with its power could have literally stopped China as it does to Cuba and North Korea.
    I think China in the 1970s was much a less powerful force than in 2010 and that's what I meant to say they were not a threat then.
    They literally control the fate of the United States today- all it takes it dump their dollar holdings and we would probably see the end of the U.S which would mean end of freedom.

     
  14. raj

    Well, it is true both USSR and China were evils. China is by no means a supporter of freedom. I agree with that. What I don't like is the fact that the U.S gives a MFN status every year. Should a nation that is founded on liberty be trading with Communist China?
    The world would have been much safer if China had not grown as a economic superpower and the United States with its power could have literally stopped China as it does to Cuba and North Korea.
    I think China in the 1970s was much a less powerful force than in 2010 and that's what I meant to say they were not a threat then.
    They literally control the fate of the United States today- all it takes it dump their dollar holdings and we would probably see the end of the U.S which would mean end of freedom.

     
  15. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Raj

    The issue is ultimately one of the right strategy. The best outcome for everyone is that China becomes a genuine democracy with economic freedom. The thinking in the US has been to engage with China (as it did try to engage with USSR) with the hope that internal pressures will build for liberal institutions.

    Indeed, some of these pressures have built up in China by now. The question is can the Chinese fighters for freedom succeed. They need all the help the can get. That’s where the steady pressure applied by the West on issues like Tibet and human rights, even as it opens up the Chinese economy and shows Chinese alternative ways of living, is the right way to go. This is the diplomatic solution to a bad problem that can only be made worse through war.

    China of the 1970s was weak economically but very powerful in the nuclear sense. It went nuclear in 1964 (with USSR help) and has remained highly armed ever since. The current position is less dangerous than would have been without the engagement with China undertaken by US. The current position is also highly promising.

    Note my prediction here. But this needs the entire force of diplomacy to be applied freely by the West (and India, etc.). We can’t have idiots like Assange confuse matters and expose the internal strategic thinking of the West. That will create distrust and set back the path of freedom.

    Regards
    Sanjeev

     
  16. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Raj

    The issue is ultimately one of the right strategy. The best outcome for everyone is that China becomes a genuine democracy with economic freedom. The thinking in the US has been to engage with China (as it did try to engage with USSR) with the hope that internal pressures will build for liberal institutions.

    Indeed, some of these pressures have built up in China by now. The question is can the Chinese fighters for freedom succeed. They need all the help the can get. That’s where the steady pressure applied by the West on issues like Tibet and human rights, even as it opens up the Chinese economy and shows Chinese alternative ways of living, is the right way to go. This is the diplomatic solution to a bad problem that can only be made worse through war.

    China of the 1970s was weak economically but very powerful in the nuclear sense. It went nuclear in 1964 (with USSR help) and has remained highly armed ever since. The current position is less dangerous than would have been without the engagement with China undertaken by US. The current position is also highly promising.

    Note my prediction here. But this needs the entire force of diplomacy to be applied freely by the West (and India, etc.). We can’t have idiots like Assange confuse matters and expose the internal strategic thinking of the West. That will create distrust and set back the path of freedom.

    Regards
    Sanjeev

     

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