In Thornton Wilder’s classic drama Our Town—called “possibly the great American play” by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies—stark truths about a small community are exposed in a ruthless dissection of human existence that stays with you long after you’ve left the theater. “So—people a thousand years from now—this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the 20th century,” the play famously sums it up. “This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”
The vast WikiLeaks cable dump of the past couple of weeks achieved an effect somehow redolent of Wilder’s art—but about the way life really is in the global village, rather than in little Grover’s Corners. So “this” is the way we are at the beginning of the 21st century, the collective wisdom of the State Department seemed to say. Laid bare were the underlying relationships, the sharp ironies, and the hard realities that are usually obscured by the superficial politesse of diplomacy. There was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, as she would never dare to do in public, asking the Australian prime minister the most fundamental question one can pose about the critical U.S.-China relationship: “How do you deal toughly with your banker?” There were the rulers of the Arab world, from Saudi’s autocratic King Abdullah to Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, exposed in all their complacent hypocrisy, given leave by the rest of us to lie regularly—because we need their oil or their intelligence assistance—to their own people and to the world about their true views of Iran, Israel, and al-Qaida.
The cables reaffirmed that we are all part of an international community.
On and on the debunking went: the slightly silly but mystifying relationship between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, or “Batman” and “Robin,” as the diplomatic cable writer wittily put it; the raw insecurities of Pakistan’s deeply unpopular president, Asif Ali Zardari; the thin-skinned impetuosity of the “summit-prone” French president, Nicolas Sarkozy; the “feckless, vain, and ineffective” tenure of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Some of it was sickening to read, some of it heartening (at least as perceptive observation by our oft-maligned diplomats), some just funny. Yet, as in Thornton Wilder’s play, the ultimate effect was to expand our overall understanding of the world we live in.
Who would have thought it, but the State Department is, collectively, a brilliant ironist.
Setting aside whether the document exposure was good or bad for U.S. diplomacy, is it not better to know, in a largely democratic world, that our elected and appointed representatives are on top of things?
Contrary to Julian Assange’s apparent intentions, the leaked cables reaffirmed that we are all part of an international community, however dysfunctional it might seem. The international community is a concept that has never been adequately defined or understood but that is still the most important truth about our modern world. Yes, even the Arabs and the Chinese and the other two-faced governments that seem at once to support and undermine the international community, such as the Pakistanis and Russians, know that they must somehow figure out a way to stay part of this global system.
Why? Because no one country, not even rogues like Iran, has found a way around the iron law of this system: To be influential or powerful, a nation must be prosperous; to be prosperous, a nation must be an effective economic player within the international community (as opposed to conquering territory, now an outdated law of international relations); and to be an effective player, even countries with dramatically different political and social systems, such as the United States and China, must act according to a set of norms governing trade and conflict (if not yet, sadly, human rights). There is no other choice.
And here’s the key point: The same U.S. diplomatic corps that is seen plying the interstices of this global community—sometimes effectively, sometimes not—played the largest part in creating the current system. Indeed, perhaps the biggest irony of all is that many Americans still doubt the international community exists. For a century now we have built a global order without quite comprehending what we were doing, bit by bit, era by era, all the while listing homeward, like a guest at a party who’s yearning for an excuse to leave politely. But it is our party.
Embedded in Clinton’s point about China was a larger truth. Our main worry about China today is that it is our financier, not our military rival or enemy. Although the “G-2” relationship may be full of conflict, it is a relationship. For better or for worse, the U.S. and Chinese economies are so married that to divorce at this point would mean a kind of “mutually assured destruction.” That, however, is a far better MAD than the potentially world-ending one we endured during the Cold War.
The international community is not perfect—much like life in Grover’s Corners—but it’s still better than the alternative. And as in Our Town, we are better off knowing now what we didn’t know before, although the knowledge is sometimes painful.
This article appears in the December 12, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.