Diplomacy after WikiLeaks

For some people, ethical diplomacy is an oxymoron, a self-contradicting idea. Foreign policy, of which diplomacy is but an instrument, is supposed to be driven by the self-interest of nations, not by any notion of what is good for the world or for humanity. Accordingly, no one should be surprised or find offense in the ruthless selfishness with which theUnited States pursues its interests, as shown by US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks.  It is just the way foreign relations are conducted by nations everywhere.

I would argue that the average individual would find this view too cynical. While one expects nations — like persons — to keep secrets, he would nonetheless expect them to pursue their interests with decency, in a way that is worthy of the respect and trust of those with whom they deal.

In many ways, this is the burden of diplomacy. Indeed, this will not be appreciated by countries that treat their diplomats as no more than glorified shopping guides for traveling politicians and their spouses.  But the work of diplomats, who are the public face of their people in the countries to which they are sent, is crucial to maintaining peace and harmony in the world.

I recently came across a lecture delivered by the British ambassador to the Vatican, Francis Campbell, before an audience in Newcastle, U.K., in which he reflects on what he claims is the often misunderstood art of diplomacy.  “When one mentions diplomacy many negative images can spring to mind. Perhaps none more so than Sir Henry Wotton’s description of an ambassador as ‘a man of virtue sent abroad to lie for his country’.”

This witty description of the diplomatic function seems so benign compared to what diplomats actually do, if one goes by the accounts that American ambassadors write and send toWashington.  It leaves out of the picture the equally important task of interpreting what’s happening in a country, and why its leaders and people are acting the way they do, from the particular vantage point of one’s own nation.  Such information is essential to any government that seeks to persuade another to act on the basis of mutual interests.

“At heart,” says Campbell, “diplomacy is about a relationship – it is about building, managing, deepening and maintaining a relationship.”  From the embassy cables released by the WikiLeaks website, one can conclude that a good number of America’s diplomats fulfill this function in a way that does credit to their jobs and their government. But, when these cables are read by the very people who are the topic, the consequences can be unpredictable.

These cables, sent from 274 US embassies and consulates all over the world, were written for very specific readers – mainly the heads of regional desks in the foreign office and other high government officials.  Most are cast in dry and tedious bureaucratese, while a few can actually pass for literary gems.  Some are artfully anthropological, others profoundly psychological.  One can imagine how the boredom of an ambassador in a hardship assignment may be greatly relieved by the writing of a report that mixes imaginative gossip with dry empirical facts, political analysis with cultural interpretation.  What has made these cables especially controversial however is the attitude they seem to embody — a condescending “orientalism” (in Edward Said’s sense of the word) that can only erode the trust that diplomats are supposed to build.

This is the effect that President Obama and State Secretary Hillary Clinton are now doing their best to neutralize.  When allies and leaders of friendly nations are depicted in disdainful and mocking language by US diplomats in their memos, not even a personal call from the American president may suffice to repair the injury that has been done.  Out of politeness, America’s allies will likely dismiss these incidents as insignificant.  No formal diplomatic protest will be lodged by anyone, except by politicians who like to perform before the peanut gallery at home. Still, the US would be greatly mistaken if it takes this to mean that all is well among friends.

This is one time when America’s diplomats may need to summon all their skills in cultural interpretation if they are to get past this crisis.  In many places in the non-Western world, as they may know, trust is everything.  Lacking the hard information they need to make rational choices, people in these societies tend to rely mainly on their instincts – that is to say, on the relationships of tacit trust they build with other people – to make decisions.  It is this kind of trust that has become the first casualty of WikiLeaks’ disclosures.

Perhaps it is just as well that small nations that have tended to conduct their foreign relations on a foundation of personal trust are getting a good education in modern diplomacy.  It is probably to them that WikiLeaks speaks when it claims that its work is inspired by this quote from James Madison: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

The WikiLeaks cables are supposed to span the period 1966 to February 2010.  That’s a long time. Many transitions happened in the Philippines during those years, and we know that more than any other nation, the US played a big role in those events.  We don’t know the full extent of that role. Information of this sort will not allow us to undo the past. But it may lead us to a better understanding of the persistent problems that have troubled our nation, and what we need to do to overcome them.