Monday, March 28, 2011

The United States of Wikileaks

As everyone following the news these days knows, the vast uprisings spreading through the middle east by Arab populaces against their authoritarian governments is quite possibly the most important political event since the end of the Cold War. One can get too optimistic about the short-term prospects for any particular uprising to take hold and deliver genuine democracy and a just civil order to its people, but the long term reality seems to be highly positive. The balance of power in the region finally seems to be tipping in the direction of basic political rights for the people of each nation, and a political order that responds to their needs. I wouldn't expect this to produce miracles overnight, but over the next two or three decades I think we can at last expect to see some very positive changes in the region, with profound implications for the whole of our world political order.

The grievances behind these uprisings of course go back many decades, and are not limited to the current governments. Our own government, the United States of America, has of course been complicit in supporting the authoritarian rulers of some of these nations, often in the belief that stability in the region and the allegiance we thereby win from them is in our national interests. To that end, we have often tried to cover up the failings of these governments, their corruption, and our own misgivings about our relationship to them.

Enter Wikileaks. On Novermber 28, 2010, Wikileaks released a series of diplomatic cables it had gained access to, many of which were very embarrassing to our allies in the middle east. Some of them detailed our own diplomats' candid observations of the vast corruption in many middle eastern countries, and the trouble we had getting many things accomplished as a result. One of the most embarrassing cables detailed the corruption of the Tunisian leader President Ben Ali, his family, political cronies, and other government officials. This created a massive scandal in Tunisia, and helped set the stage for the protests which followed a few weeks later, sparked by the self-immolation of a Tunisian vegetable cart operator Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17. The initial street protests which followed were put down by the government with a heavy hand, but rather than dying out, this merely inflamed the protestors, and against all odds the protests brought down the government on February 28, only three months after the initial Wikileaks document release.

One cannot attribute the whole of these protests and the entire "Arab Spring" which has followed in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and other countries to Wikileaks, but one must see how important these embarrassing leaks were to their governments. The maintenance of authoritarian regimes requires a kind of silent assent between ruler, ruled, and all its outside relations, that one simply doesn't openly speak of the inner dynamic and corruption taking place at its core. Authoritarian regimes require a balance between diplomacy, terror, and theft, all contained by a mutual agreement of secrecy, in which all this is normalized and made the daily habit of society, without anyone upsetting the balance between these elements. When someone exposes this fraud for what it is, people do get upset, and order has to be regained. If the weight of order is pushed to a tipping point by such revelations, however, the whole order collapses, and a new order has to be brought into being. That is why an incident such as Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation could have such a profound effect. A tipping point had been reached, and the most seemingly minor of incidents is enough then to push it over the edge.

One has to credit Wikileaks therefore with helping push many Arab nations closer to that tipping point. One also has to recognize the importance of counter-normalizing information releases like this in bringing that tipping point about. It's important to recognize how ordinary exploitation, abuse, and corruption alone seldom have this effect, because of the normalizing factor of standard information systems, media enterprises, and government influence over the flow of information in society, which tends always to reinforce existing institutions rather than undermine them. The abuses of these Arab rulers have been going on for decades, even centuries, with little serious change resulting, in large part because of the seeming "normality" of it all. When "abnormal" information (what is commonly called "scandal") is released into the public sphere however, this disrupts the balance of information that holds these regimes in place, and disorder ensues. From that disorder, a new balance has to be quickly achieved, and regimes that cannot adjust quickly will fall and be replaced, regardless of their size or apparent power.

One of the primary justifications Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, gives for his policy of releasing government secrets such as these is that it undermines the ability of governments to conspire in secret against the interests of their own people. And we see with these diplomatic cables a persistent pattern by which even our own government was guilty of helping cover up the corruption of Arab regimes and hiding this information not only from the people of those nations, but from our own people. This is an odd consequence of a supposedly open democracy dealing with closed governments. Our own principles become compromised in the process, such that we can't even tell our own people that we are dealing with immensely corrupt regimes, because the global flow of information would immediately make that known to the people of these nations whose leaders we are trying to curry favor with. And so the whole world, even our own supposed democracy, is denied important information about our foreign policy because it might "damage" our relations with these authoritarian regimes.

The result is what Assange calls a conspiracy, not meaning by that that the United States is actively trying to support such regimes (though in some cases that has certainly been true), but that the whole of our relations with such regimes takes on all the characteristics of a conspiratorial enterprise, with secrecy being the primary component that keeps the conspiracy alive. To Assange, the primary need of all conspiracies is secrecy, without which they cannot survive for long, and so the purpose of Wikileaks is to undermine that secrecy, and thus to undermine conspiracy as the primary functional operation of government and its foreign relations.

And of course, for that good deed, Wikileaks and Assange have been labeled as terrorists and threats to our civilized order, and threatened with arrest and even assassination by prominent American politicians. One can understand the reaction to a degree, in that clearly US laws were broken (though not by Wikileaks), and diplomatic secrecy compromised. But as far as actual damage to the US goes, the case seems not merely minimal but quite the opposite. One thing the cables revealed is that many of our diplomats and analysts are actually very bright, perceptive, and not at all delusional. Their insider analysis of these nations seemed uncommonly accurate and timely. Making them public certainly betrayed the trust of some of these regimes, and left our own diplomats with the embarrassment of having their private thoughts exposed in public, but the thoughts in question were pretty good thoughts, overall.

We have to examine the actual effect of having intelligent thoughts made public, and see that it is not a bad effect. We also have to examine the effect of having corruption around the world made public, even by our own diplomats, whether intentionally or not. Again, it's not necessarily a bad effect. It sure looks, so far at least, like a good effect. Corruption was exposed, regimes fell, and the prospects for better American relations in the middle east actually looks pretty good. Not only that, but the general political situation in that part of the world looks a lot better. Seems like a win all the way around.

Shouldn't this cause us to question the value of diplomatic secrecy, especially when it involves our dealings with just these kinds of corrupt, authoritarian regimes? All right, you might say diplomacy requires some secrecy, and one can't argue with that. Everyone expects the common courtesy of a little confidentiality when speaking with others. But in cases like this, is secrecy really to our benefit? All too often government secrecy is used to hide malfeasance, and to perpetuate it therefore. Is that what we want perpetuated in the world? Some might cynically say yes, of course, and they would have a point about some sectors of the ruling classes, even in our own country, but I think the balance of the argument in a democracy has to come out on the side of less secrecy.

More than bringing into doubt the whole question of secrecy, this raises the question of what our own diplomatic mission should be. Is it really in the national interests of the United States to be covering up the malfeasance and corruption of authoritarian regimes around the world? Or even of democratic nations around the world? I would suggest not. I'd like to suggest that the opposite is the case, that the United States, what with all its immense intelligence gathering and diplomatic abilities, is actually uniquely position to turn about this entire equation, and taking the lead from Wikileaks, to actively begin exposing corruption, malfeasance, and exploitation around the world. Even if this has the short-term effect of damaging our relations with some corrupt governments, it has the long term effect of putting the United States in the position of being the clear advocate and leader of open and free democratic societies, an image (and a reality) more than a little tarnished of late.

So, why not a United States of Wikileaks? Rather than just having our diplomatic cables released by rogue activists, such as Bradley Manning, who is being locked away under tortured conditions as a public warning to any other potential leakers that they will face the harshest possible consequences, why not have our own diplomats and intelligence officials make full and voluntary releases of the information we have about corrupt authoritarian regimes the world over, and let their own people decide for themselves what to do about it? I imagine it won't come out terribly well for the authoritarians. Would this really be against American national interests, or would it instead be very much in our national interests? I think the answer is fairly obvious on balance. There are pluses and minuses to any policy, but I see the outcome much more beneficial to us than the current order of things, which normalizes the status quo and freezes it in place, rather than opening it up to natural transformation and change.

I'm not naive, of course, about the immediate prospects for a massive change in American policy on this sort of issue. But shouldn't this at least be discussed openly as a plausible way of going about our affairs? And shouldn't it be employed as a normal course of our foreign policy, even through back channels and the sort of leaks that are already employed by our government? It must be said however, that while getting information out through back channels is useful, the real power of the Wikileaks cable release was that it was clearly our own best diplomats and analysts whose work was being exposed, and that lent it a high degree of credibility. It's one thing for a journalist to run a piece on Tunisian corruption, it's another thing entirely for US diplomats to describe it in detail. And so there's a remarkable power our government has that it isn't using to its advantage. That's a shame.


  1. I would say...

    That the nature of the way in which this information has been released is what gave it such credibility. The corruption of governments is implicit within a system that willingly complies with that corruption - so while these cables were deemed secret, this is what makes them sound true once they are leaked.

    I have doubts that a more transparent intention will have half such an impact. A system which hides information from those outside 'diplomatic' circles does so for an apparent self interest: that self interest won't necessarily go away if the rules change, and so a transparent communication is undoubtedly going to be subject to credibility checks: who is saying this, and what have they got to gain by saying it?

  2. You are correct under the current state of affairs, in which people automatically assume that governments are lying openly, and hiding the truth in secret. In which case, people only trust exposed secrets, and not openly spoken matters. But I am suggesting a different order, in which governments recognize that truth-telling actually has greater power than keeping the truth secret. If governments like ours used the power of truth-telling, that would be recognized and prove more effective than secrecy and propaganda.

    There is of course a transitional period in which people might have a hard time telling which is which, but I it shouldn't be that hard to figure out. Even now, of course, governments put out disinformation that only seems to be the result of "secrets" being ferreted out. So either way, governments can manipulate the situation. It would be better if they realized that there is more power and the potential to act in our national interests through non-manipulation, so that people learn to trust governments because they are actually trustworthy, rather than because they are so skilled at lying that they get away with it in the short run. The result of the old ways of doing things is cynicism, which only serves the interests of those who wish to keep people disinterested in politics. The actual interests of the country is served by a lack of cynicism, which can only be cultivated by consistent truth-telling.

  3. Lying, truth telling, the question really is, what is most often the motivation behind communication in general? On the Net, on the radio, on the street corner? The attempt to persuade.

    When the doctor asks us to open wide and stick out our tongue, sure there is a simply practical request being made, still his tone may be demanding that we hurry up because he has many more customers waiting.

    In many of these instances the powers that be control the entire conglomeration. Or at least the same basic guy behind a different mask does. Watch eight hours of television a day, as it is said the average American does -- from the commercials, to the dramas, to the comedies, etc. within only the slimmest margin of difference, say the equivalent between your average Republican and Democrat, are we not only seeing the same angsting of the populace in order to improve the paying customers urge to pay?

    As long as capitalism, or better stated -- personal self-interest, rule the day amongst those that look to control the purse strings, just as soon as a new form of freeing information is designed, a counter measure will be funded to either block it or co-opt it. That is why Fox News for example, is an unprecedented evolution, but an evolution none the less of what came before. Needs created in order to be fed.

    Are we really witnessing anything like a personal/moral renaissance occurring here, however we may attribute its cause?

    Do you really think there is a higher power active, independent of the vagaries of human sideways evolution doing its thing?

    A higher power utilizing "the new new" to do more or less the same old, same old?

    Perhaps. If so, is this a spirit you believe descends now and again, say as in The Renaissance? Does it have its equal and opposite that swoops down to create dark ages? This is a theory that makes me curious.

    If indeed you stand by it, what is your sense of what is behind the forces that guide it? Are they polytheistic, monotheistic, hormonal, limbic,infinitely complex, other?

    I am waiting for you to let the cat out of the bag regarding the whys and wherefores of who is running the show.

  4. I like that scenario, I do live in hope.