Wikileaks: Batman or The Joker?

Wikileaks – the story of the moment.  The question is: Is it a story of heroes or villains?  There are plenty of commentaries in the press on both sides, lots of emotions running high, egos (and security systems) dented and avid anticipation of what is next.  Taking the emotion out, there are some points on both sides in my view, and Wikileaks probably needs to do its homework better.  However, what is probably most interesting in this story is how the power of information, even in individual hands, can have a significant impact on geopolitics, societies and businesses.  We are living in an age of transparency, for better or for worse – and that has implications for how we live and operate, including unintended consequences. 

Starting with the story itself, let me just clarify upfront my personal view that freedom of speech is a critical part of democracy, as is whistle-blowing for the right reasons, i.e. to address actions and behaviours that are wrong whether legally or morally according to prevailing values and norms.  In which case you would probably be right in assuming that I should support some of Wikileaks activities, especially since their goals are:

From “Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public.  The broader principles on which our work is based are the defence of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history.” From a wikileaks mirror site: “We help you safely get the truth out. We are of assistance to peoples of all countries who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and institutions. We aim for maximum political impact.”

So why do I have nagging doubts about the release of US diplomatic reports, the so-called “cablegate”?  First, the information contained in a number of the cables released so far has the feel of a nasty gossip column rather than reporting fundamental unethical behavior, for example descriptions of Nicolas Sarkozy as authoritarian and thin-skinned or the Batman and Robin jibe about Russia’s leaders.  Is this about unethical behavior or making an impact like a tabloid newspaper rather than the professed "political impact"? While you could say that it is unethical to share unflattering descriptions of diplomatic contacts with the team back home while trying to negotiate deals and build relationships, this is something that happens every day in all walks of life.  You don’t have to like or admire someone to deal with them professionally.  So if the Wikileaks “revelations” had stayed in this territory, my view would certainly have been that they were a sideshow and that Wikileaks had not stayed true to its objectives.

However, the leaks go beyond gossip to more important geopolitical matters, including China’s (alleged) views on North Korea and Arab States views on the Iranian nuclear threat. Which brings me to doubt number 2.  These are difficult geopolitical issues, with potentially dangerous consequences in terms of conflict and casualties, which the diplomatic community has been wrestling with for years.  It’s not a gameshow, like Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, where you “ask the audience,” and there is a nice, neat, black or white answer.  These are issues where you need people negotiating who have expertise – and patience. Think about a tricky negotiation you have faced, for example related to family or deciding where to live.  Would you like an opinionated audience, with a wide range of agendas, telling you how to run the negotiation and trying to participate?  North Korea has already shelled South Korea in the last week – with resulting deaths – and the regime is dangerously unstable as it transitions to a new leader.  With the revelation that one of the North’s key “allies” is allegedly not keen on continuing to support the regime, how might North Korea react? 

Again, these are issues where the only clear “unethical” behavior is that political leaders are saying one thing in public and another in private.  However, given these are ongoing negotiations of significant importance, is this wrong?  Or is it simply protecting delicate talks?  Another factor – doubt number 3 – is that some of the countries at the centre of the leaks, such as Saudi Arabia and China are not open, Westernized cultures that espouse the same views on free speech as we in the West do. How these cultures communicate, show respect and negotiate is very different to the experience of people in the West – who are the primary audience for Wikileaks.  Who are we to say our way is best – and yes I know many will, but at the end of the day in an interconnected world, we need to be able to bridge cultural divides, not widen them. One of the biggest dangers of these leaks is that the essential, ongoing conversations between key geopolitical players who will ultimately help to shape our future will dry up because of fears of future leaks and because these actions have damaged trust and increased divides.

So what do I think of “cablegate”?  More The Joker than Batman at this point – is Wikileaks giving whistle-blowing a bad name? I’m disappointed at best, worried about global security at worst.  Don’t get me wrong – there are a few things, such as US diplomats trying to obtain personal information on UN leaders, that I think were rightly exposed, but much of the information does not fall into that league.  What I would have preferred Wikileaks to do with these cables (and any other whistle-blowing process for that matter) is (a) be clear about its objectives, why it is making the information public; (b) do its homework to separate the sensational from the significant, i.e. identify what may be in the public interest to know and where public opinion can be usefully employed to make the world a better place; (c) think through the consequences and plan for these effectively, with others as needed, and (d) stand up for its beliefs and be proud to be held accountable, rather than running and hiding around the world. 

Looking more broadly, this type of whistle-blowing has huge implications for the world we live in.  When such a vast amount of information can be accessed, downloaded and distributed globally, it is clear we are living in a world of unprecedented transparency – for better or worse.  Some will embrace transparency, particularly the digital generations who are used to sharing information via social media.  Others may find it a burden, for example as information they did not wish to be shared, is shared one way or another.  Both camps need to find ways to live with each other and appropriate behaviours to govern information sharing.

A second huge implication is that information is increasingly a base of power – and that individuals can wield enormous influence as well as countries and companies.  These leaks have the potential to reshape the strategies and tactics of major political powers – the US has already started overhauling its security infrastructure to try to avoid future such leaks, while China has blocked the site – even though these nations have the benefit of much broader and deeper power bases economically, in terms of resource access, in terms of information and knowledge.

Finally, we have a clearer idea of the US role in the greater geopolitical landscape.  While many want the aid of the US, few are willing to acknowledge this desire publically.  The US seems more isolated than may at first appear – or be desirable. Moving beyond the role of the world’s policeman will be a critical part of its future.    

We are truly starting to see a world that is beyond military might, where the pen (or USB stick) may be mightier than the sword.  We need heroes to stand up and be counted, but we also need them to respect the sword and their “enemies.”