Dec 10

Wikileaks and the cables: what changes, what doesn’t

The release of a quarter of a million American diplomatic cables has generated some fascinating discussions about diplomacy, government, truth and journalism. The ones about journalism have been some of the least important.

That’s because the three Wikileaks releases of huge document caches (Afghanistan and Iraqi warlogs and diplomatic cables) are essentially about a new form of contest between computer hackers and government, in this case the American government. News media are bystanders to the main event. That’s by way of explaining that the questions, anwers and links below here are only partly about journalism.

1. Do the cables change geopolitics? It’s hard to see that any international configuration or balance of power is significantly altered by what has been revealed. Or likely to be.

2. Do they change anything? Definitely. American diplomacy on the ground gets harder, at least for a few months. (See this delightful post on the “Tobermory Effect” from the fine Crooked Timber blog). I drew attention the other day to Marc Lynch’s insight on the longer-term political effect of this in the less democratic regimes of the Middle East. The pendulum effect will now be visible in information-sharing policy inside the US government. The fiascos of failures to share intelligence information in advance of 9/11 probably contributed to more data being available lower down in the system. That might well now reverse (£). If the Wikileaks release pushes the US and other governments to reconsider how they classify documents, that would be a good outcome. The biggest beneficiaries of all are historians, who gain most from being able to use a written record to check against competing versions of the truth.

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