In 2010-2011, Wikileaks was going to change everything: diplomacy, journalism, politics, etc. Since then, we have had some time to evaluate the effect and nature of Julian Assange’s operation. This recent article in Foreign Policy, by Joshua Keating, reminds us of the website’s current situation, and also that Wikileaks’ main problem might have been Assange himself, his agenda and personnality (thank you Frédéric).
First of all, as a diplomatic Historian I have to confess immediate, instinctive interest in the diplomatic files Assange leaked to the public domain. This is the raw excitement you feel in front of new material, the physical, addictive, fetishist “taste of the archive” Arlette Farge and Marc Trachtenberg have described, and Carolyn Steedman has (gently) criticized. Confronted with something like Wikileaks’ diplomatic files, this reflex kicked in: what are we going to find here? And, to be sure, there were interesting nuggets to be found. But most of the files were about the routine of diplomatic contacts, what is going on between representatives, envoys, and any given society on a daily basis. Boring, routine stuff nobody cares about, but that forms the fabric of diplomatic contacts.
I checked especially everything related to Finland, and found some bits and pieces: who mets whom, the characterization by Americans of Finnish foreign policy (declarative on the outside, profoundly pragmatic at its core), a few portraits of politicians, etc.
But this is routine, and mostly American routine; interesting in itself but limited by the nature of the files released. If I checked right, the documents leaked were mostly low-confidentiality: no For Eyes Only or Top Secret here. They also came mostly from diplomats: the intelligence or information briefs given daily to the President did not appear. Routine reports and syntheses, the background noise that clutters series of archival documents. The kind of documents that makes you wish the bloody Russians would actually attack so that you could read something else than casual conversations with second-rate civil servants.
These are not useless, far from it. In my own work on Franco-Nordic relations, I read lots of these routine files in order to reconstruct networks of relations around Nordic diplomats, get a feel of French representations, French society, and the background to decision-making. This is, for the most part, the level these Wikileaks diplomatic files work at. Of course, there are local differences: cables from the Nordic countries, for example, are pretty routine stuff, while cables from more troubled zones, in Africa for instance, are more dramatic. But the decision-making is not in these documents.
Concerning the effect these releases had on diplomatic practices, I seriously doubt the existence of the long-lasting, radical effect Assange described in his various manifestos. When diplomats are asked to comment, they of course emphasize that Wikileaks made their work more complicated; they said the same with the introduction of telegraph communication. But diplomacy is still in many ways an archaic activity: secrecy is part of it, not because diplomats are anti-democratic conspirators, but because there is a need for trust between partners that develops only in a relatively confidential atmosphere. It is only healthy that the foreign policy of Western democracies would support a degree of scrutiny and transparency. But will diplomatic practices radically change on account of Wikileaks? Or will the secrecy just take other forms, recede to other corners, and remain a necessary part of diplomatic work?
Finally, one of the most interesting standpoint to look at Wikileaks would be the way it influenced domestic debates about foreign policy. Assange’s announcement that the release of diplomatic documents would have an effect on discussions seemed to work on a false premise: that domestic audiences would actually be interested in the minutia of foreign policy, and that revealing “diplomatic secrets” would push governments to the brink. Cablegate documents contained things susceptible to be commented on, but is foreign policy really an issue in domestic debates? Any serious discussion on foreign policy themes, for example, was conspicuously absent from the 2012 French presidential campaign. What have the Wikileaks files changed in the French or the American vision of their countries as international actors and their position in the world? Anything? Assange’s premise was also that the traditional media did not do its work, but who didn’t know in 2010 that American forces were mistreating civilians in Iraq? I wouldn’t say there was no effect of these releases, but Assange’s speeches about Wikileaks’ society-shattering implication just seem as over-the-top today as they seemed a few years ago.
The Wikileaks files have been organized and classified by a few websites. My favorite would be OWNI.
PS. Since someone asked (no? never mind…), I am in Tartu, Estonia, for a conference at the Baltic Defense College. Nice small University town. Part of the city is a maze of wooden houses and small streets. Some Jugend, but not as much as you would think, and the architectural monsters of the Soviet era are blessfully absent from the city center. Not to say there are no architectural monsters in the center…
Amongst the city’s many monuments I would like to emphasize Jaan Tönisson’s statue. Apart from its artistic merits, the statue reminds us of Tönisson’s life, his political and social positions, and his dramatic end. Last time I was here I saw the monument under a meter of snow, in a cold Nordic night; the statue seemed to come out of a mist, walking on thin air, head bare and hat in hand, with its eyes on the horizon.