It has been said that of the two oldest professions diplomacy is the one with the worse reputation. This perception is unlikely to change after the mother of all leaks will be gradually made public over the coming weeks and months. It will reaffirm the general suspicion that diplomats are originally decent people who are sent abroad to lie on behalf of their countries and that while cozying up to their hosts at dinners and receptions they send disparaging depictions of the same encounters to their superiors back home.
Well, what else is new? Reporting on one’s country of destination, including its leadership, is part and parcel of the job of any diplomat. Ideally it gives the government back home a more plastic picture of the country than could be ascertained from the media and prepares the ministers for personal encounters with their counterparts in dealing with important bilateral and international issues. This has been one the raisons d´être of diplomacy since time immemorial. It is also a natural, if regrettable, fact of life that in the enormous volume of traffic made possible by the electronic means of communication diplomats pepper their cables with spicy quotes and anecdotes to better win the attention of their head of state. George Kennan’s Long Telegram would be hard put to make it to the top of the pile today.
Although diplomacy and intelligence gathering go hand in hand, there is a fundamental difference between diplomacy and spying, which apparently eludes not only the uninformed public but also some politicians. True, like spies or journalists, diplomats cultivate their sources but they do so by building confidence and trust, and understand the information highway as a two-way street benefitting both sides. Unlike spies, and some journalists, they do not as a rule resort to extortion, blackmail, or bribes. They are in the legitimate, cooperative business of making friends rather than adversaries. And unlike journalists, they keep their more shocking discoveries to themselves and the narrow circle of people who need to know. Some of their communications also involve matters of life and death or of true importance to the security of a nation. These are kept secret for a good reason, and it is shameful and outright dangerous when they are made available for public amusement.
On the plus side, the whole affair is a boon to the beleaguered world of print media, which is now assured of some suitably juicy fodder for a long time to come. Most of the revelations made public so far are not exactly news to the initiated, all the protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. In the worst-case scenario, they educate the larger public about what the world really looks like, in Europe, the Middle East, or Far East Asia, and the question is whether cutting through the appearances and offering people a glimpse of some of the fundamentals of geopolitics is really the worst-case scenario.
What’s really shocking is not the revelations themselves but the volume of the leaks and how easy it apparently was to spirit them out. Never mind the hundreds of thousands of cables sent en clair (which few people ever read and fewer remember), but the thousands of classified documents for which people could well take umbrage or even lose their lives? There are no technical means by which to prevent a disloyal individual (or individuals) from making away with a classified cable, maybe even dozens of them. But thousands? In the days of 128-bit encryption and all the vetting, firewalls, and internal checks any sophisticated country is currently equipped with? It smacks of a lack of competence, or perhaps even worse — indifference to what consequences private musings of diplomats in faraway places may have in the real world we all live in.