Unvarnished reports offer insight into true diplomatic thinking


OPINION: The latest from WikiLeaks is high-grade gossip disclosed with an impressive sense of responsibility

IF THE definition of a diplomat is someone who thinks twice before saying nothing, then surely the definition of the undiplomatic is someone who speaks twice, frankly, before thinking about whether their words will ever go public.

The beauty of the latest huge haul of WikiLeaks is that it offers the sort of revelations that diplomats, officials and journalists could only hope to prise out carefully and painfully with great patience from tight-lipped others.

And what a haul.

We have devastating revelations about the US relationship with the contemporary global situation, especially the Arab world and Middle East. Then there are new insights into US official thinking about events that are now almost historic, such as the anti-apartheid struggle, the Ayatollah Khomeini and the 1985 race riots in the UK – the US ambassador thought Britain was “Dickensian” and “racist” and in need of major change.

For many of us, the earlier releases of WikiLeaks were a little too bogged down in detail and, quite frankly, lots of cryptic cables which showed edgy US army squads constantly looking for permission to “terminate” suspected enemy vehicles: not much there we didn’t know. The military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were revealed to be no more, or less, ugly than we expected them to be. This is a country, after all, which endorses the use of torture and uses secret flights of “rendition” to ferry unspecified suspects across the globe to unknown locations.

But the latest WikiLeaks are from the diplomatic arena and therefore, for the rest of us, much more intelligible, human and interesting. They prove, for about the millionth time, that what officials and politicians really think is quite different to what they say.

Usually, we have to wait for the release of state papers to find out such truths but here we are getting it almost contemporaneously. And these are the unvarnished, verbatim reports, not the alleged revelations contained in memoirs, such as those of Tony Blair or Alastair Campbell, where we can never be sure that they weren’t written after the event, or as an exercise in point scoring or self aggrandisement.

The real juice here is the personal stuff about world leaders who are still very much serving and powerful. Vladimir Putin is described as an “alpha dog” with alleged links between the Russian government and organised crime. Playboy Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is simply described as “incapable”.

Given his recent dismissal of a group of journalists as paedophiles, we can hardly be surprised to see French president Nicolas Sarkozy described as “touchy” and “authoritarian”. Afghan president Hamid Karzai is “driven by paranoia”, while German chancellor Angela Merkel “avoids risks and is rarely creative” – not a verdict the Irish Government might share.

These are the kind of things people say out of the side of their mouths.

In essence, this is high-grade gossip, but deadly serious too. But it is hardly a surprise, however, that Saudi Arabia would want the US to take military action against Iran and specifically its growing nuclear facility. And is it really a surprise that the US considered spying on senior UN officials? I’d be surprised if they didn’t have a bugging device in the UN secretary general’s jacket.

Sometimes it’s as likely to be friendly countries spying on each other, as I saw at the UN General Assembly where the EU states always kept close tabs on each other. I was even asked to check that, at my humble and junior level, the French weren’t breaking the boycott of Iraq and scheming with them behind closed doors. In the 1980s, the British, our supposed friends, bugged our Embassy in London.

The WikiLeaks phenomenon does beg the question as to what is secret any more, and with the proliferation of technology and the internet, just what can be kept mum. But there is a sense of responsibility here and also of public service.

In releasing the files, it was ensured that the lives of individuals or sources were not put at risk, nor was material revealed which might compromise ongoing military operations. The US government was told in advance the areas covered, and “representations” were invited in return. Details of “redactions” were then shared with the media recipients of the material and sent to WikiLeaks itself to establish, albeit voluntarily, some common standard.

This shows an impressive sense of responsibility and proportion which, given the secrecy, disinformation and lack of accountability of the US’s counter-productive “war on terror”, is a service to be welcomed.

Eamon Delaney is a former diplomat and author of An Accidental Diplomat, a memoir of his time with the Department of Foreign Affairs (New Island, 2001)

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