Like everyday relationships between people, diplomatic relations between nations amount to a tissue of white lies, a matter of faking your delight at greeting an interlocutor you actually despise, or disguising your true disdain for the capabilities of a friend. Think of that famous scene in the movie Annie Hall, when Woody Allen and Diane Keaton have a dull, awkward conversation, which the filmmaker then annotates with subtitles revealing what they are actually thinking. (“I hope he doesn’t turn out to be a jerk.”) That’s diplomacy.
At first blush, the release Sunday of thousands of confidential State Department documents by whistleblower WikiLeaks, as revealed in the New York Times, appear to do little more than offer a vivid annotation—occasionally a comical one—to years of often ineffective diplomatic relations between the United States and the rest of the world. In many cases, the exposed cables mainly seem to add clarifying detail to issues and diplomatic positions that have long been known.
That’s not to say the latest Wiki-leakage isn’t serious, especially since there are reportedly many more documents to come. And it may well be that some individuals are harmed or injured—or worse—by the release. One U.S. diplomatic cable exposed by WikiLeaks, for example, reveals that a “Chinese contact” told the U.S. embassy in Beijing that “China’s Politburo directed the intrusion into Google’s computer systems in that country.” Life will not be pleasant for that “contact” if his or her identity is discovered. Other covert assets may well be compromised and indiscreet diplomats may well lose their jobs, especially since the document dump appeared to reveal a program of informal espionage under which U.S. diplomats were ordered to gather intelligence on their counterparts.
But despite initial dire warnings from the U.S. government—the release could jeopardize “the lives of countless innocent individuals” as well as “ongoing military operations,” the State Department warned Saturday—many of the uncovered documents could be seen as a bracing gust of honesty in a world of often stagnant diplomatic progress. What the documents are unlikely to do, if this first unloading is any indication, is to fundamentally disrupt U.S. relationships around the world. Very few senior officials in any capital will be surprised to learn, for example, that some U.S. diplomats think Afghan President Hamid Karzai is "driven by paranoia," or that German Chancellor Angela Merkel "avoids risk.”
On the contrary, some of these fresh details could even increase respect for American diplomatic savvy at a time when it is in short supply. Perhaps that's why, in another statement issued Sunday just as the Times published its account, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs sounded somewhat less alarmist than U.S. officials have in recent days, warning mainly that "these cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders."
Indeed, perhaps it’s somewhat apt that on a Thanksgiving holiday weekend, U.S. diplomats around the world are seen talking turkey. Consider:
- U.S. and South Korean officials “gamed” out an eventual collapse of North Korea, the Times reports. No surprise there: U.S. officials have been doing that for a long time, only to find that the reports of the imminent death of the regime were greatly exaggerated. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her first trip to Asia in 2009, suggested that the regime of a clearly ailing Kim Jong Il might not be around forever; in the previous administration, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz also spoke openly of a North Korean economic collapse. Similarly, it has long been known that neighboring China, the North’s No. 1 ally, fears the blowback from regime collapse. According to the WikiLeaks documents cited by the Times, South Korea considered offering commercial inducements to China in North Korea to help assuage its concerns, according to the American ambassador to Seoul. Not a bad idea—and it can hardly worsen the already dangerous crisis under way between Pyongyang and the South.
- U.S. and foreign officials exchanged numerous messages about how to pressure Iran over its nuclear program, and the Israelis warned their patience was running out. As the Times reports, in May 2009 U.S. ambassador to Israel James Cunningham said in a secret cable to Washington that then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak had warned the world had six to 18 months “in which stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might still be viable.” After that, Mr. Barak said, “any military solution would result in unacceptable collateral damage.” It sounds dramatic, but this amounts to the latest in a series of often public Israeli warnings about “red lines” that the Israeli government has since let slide. The cables also show how key Arab states found themselves in common cause with Israel over stopping an Iranian bomb—also a well-reported shift—while adding some ominous fresh detail (King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is said to urge Washington at one point to “cut off the head of the snake” while there was still time). And the documents mainly confirm the already-settled belief—much hinted at by the Obama administration—that its diplomatic outreach to Tehran was largely an effort to gain more support for tougher sanctions and economic isolation policies. The Americans also hatched a plan to get the Saudis to offer China a steady oil supply “to wean it from energy dependence on Iran. The Saudis agreed, and insisted on ironclad commitments from Beijing to join in sanctions against Tehran,” the Times reports. The Saudis are unlikely to admit to this—but if true, it's a pretty clever bit of diplomatic pressure.
- U.S. officials detailed allegations of corruption in the Afghan government related to a visit by Afghanistan’s vice president to the United Arab Emirates last year; local authorities working with the Drug Enforcement Administration found he was carrying $52 million in cash. This adds to an already voluminous brief of charges made by U.S. officials—and used on an ongoing basis to pressure the often balky Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.
- A U.S. diplomat added more bizarre details to the already strange life and adventures of Libyan leader Moammar Qadhafi. According to one cable, “Qadhafi relies heavily on his long-time Ukrainian nurse, Galyna Kolotnytska, who has been described as a ‘voluptuous blonde.’ … He also appears to have an intense dislike or fear of staying on upper floors, reportedly prefers not to fly over water, and seems to enjoy horse racing and flamenco dancing.” It’s nice to know that Qadhafi, a one-time terrorist outlaw who was welcomed, gingerly, back into the community of nations after he dismantled his nuclear program, has so many varied interests and phobias. But there’s not much new here: Even his allies in the Islamic world have long dismissed the quirky Libyan as odd. After the Arab League summit in March 2003, when Qadhafi shouted that Saudi Arabia was "making a deal with the Devil" by relying on American protection, the Al-Riyadh newspaper wrote that he "needs to be treated by psychiatrists."
- An intrepid U.S. official probed the power structure in the Russian republic of Dagestan at the wedding of the son of a rich Duma member, Dagestan Oil Company chief Gadzhi Makhachev. “The cooks seemed to keep whole sheep and whole cows boiling in a cauldron somewhere day and night, dumping disjointed fragments of the carcass on the tables whenever someone entered the room,” the diplomat wrote. “Gadzhi's two chefs kept a wide variety of unusual dishes in circulation (in addition to the omnipresent boiled meat and fatty bouillon). The alcohol consumption before, during and after this Muslim wedding was stupendous. Amidst an alcohol shortage, Gadzhi had flown in from the Urals thousands of bottles of Beluga Export vodka (‘Best consumed with caviar’). There was also entertainment, beginning even that day, with the big-name performers appearing both at the wedding hall and at Gadzhi's summer house. Gadzhi's main act, a Syrian-born singer named Avraam Russo, could not make it because he was shot a few days before the wedding, but there was a ’gypsy’ troupe from St. Petersburg, a couple of Azeri pop stars, and from Moscow, Benya the Accordion King with his family of singers.”
Hmm, that one could even be used as a recruiting pitch for future young American diplomats.