Saturday, December 18, 2010

A scholar explains why he thinks WikiLeaks is bad news

The article is in the Dec. 17 issue of the Chronicle of Education.

Here's a brief excerpt to wet your appetite:

Scholars will need to exercise care in putting the WikiLeaks documents in proper perspective. Some researchers suffer from "document fetishism," the belief that if something appears in an official, classified document, then it must be true. Sophisticated observers are well aware, however, that these cables offer only a partial picture of foreign-policy decision-making. Remember, with Cablegate, WikiLeaks has published cables and memos only from the State Department. Last I checked, other bureaucracies—the National Security Council, the Defense Department—also shape U.S. foreign policy. The WikiLeaks cables are a source—they should not be the sole source for anything.

For example, some cables from 2009 and 2010 suggest that Chinese officials were growing weary of their North Korean allies and even envisioned a reunified Korea run by Seoul and allied with the United States. The Guardian, in Britain, hyped those cables as a signal that China would rein in North Korea's bellicose behavior. Those Chinese sentiments, however, usually came second or thirdhand, via South Korean diplomats. The Chinese officials, moreover, were talking primarily about the far future rather than the near term.

Most important, Chinese actions over the past six months do not match the views that appear in those cables. China's muted responses to the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, to North Korea's development of a light-water nuclear reactor, and to the latest exchange of artillery fire between North and South Korea hardly suggest that the leadership in Beijing will soon abandon its partners in Pyongyang.

As confused as the early analysis of the WikiLeaks cables has been, it is in the long term that their effect will be most negative for political scientists and diplomatic historians. In his public statements, the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, has evangelized for transparency. In July he said, "We are transparency activists who understand that transparent government tends to produce just government. And that is our sort of modus operandi behind our whole organization."

Assange's hypothesis may or may not be true, but his belief that WikiLeaks will lead to greater government transparency is blinkered in the extreme. Governments do not respond to security breaches by surrendering themselves to the fates. American foreign-policy bureaucracies have
and will continue to respond to WikiLeaks by clamping down on the dissemination of information.

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