Why WikiLeaks? Or, why these leaked documents and not other ones, and why these documents now? The answers may seem obvious. Because we can. Because they’re there. Because we want to. Because it is in the public interest, or at least of interest to the public, even though that’s not the same thing.
All these are parts of the larger answer, but they aren’t the full explanation. To say these leaks can only be understood in the context of technology that enables such masses of material to be passed around the world on a memory stick is of course true. To say they are a product of an online culture in which openness and transparency are articles of faith (though not in China) and that it intersects with an older media culture which believes that what can be published should be published (though not in China) is true too. But this is about politics and history too.
Unjust wars always beget a fervor among opponents for disclosure. Older people in the US make the comparison with the battle between former US president Richard Nixon and the New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam war. However, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delved back much further this week.
“How can a government go on, publishing all of their negotiations with foreign nations, I know not,” he quoted. “To me it appears as dangerous and pernicious as it is novel.”
Thus spoke then-US president John Adams more than 200 years ago.
However, the long contest between secrecy and openness is not unique to the US. The UK also has a rich history of argument on the subject. Britain boasts a long tradition of mainly left-wing radicals (though some right-wing ones too) who believe British foreign policy is a conspiracy against the public interest and mainly conservative defenders of the status quo (and a few radicals) who insist that it is the very opposite.
Few people nowadays recall much about David Urquhart, the 19th-century member of parliament (MP) who became convinced the British governing class in general, and the long serving foreign secretary Lord Palmerston, in particular, were in the pay of Russia. Urquhart was not merely opposed to what British diplomats did. He also believed their betrayals could be found and exposed in the messages and documents they wrote to one another. He believed “the basis of diplomacy is secrecy.” His solution to diplomacy was openness. In the 1840s, he launched the Association for the Study of National and International Affairs, which he subtitled Committee for the Investigation of Diplomatic Documents. Urquhart would have been in hog heaven today.
By far the most important upsurge of anxiety about the making of foreign policy and in favor of greater openness came around just after World War I. E.D. Morel is as little known today as Urquhart, but Morel’s Union of Democratic Control (UDC) picked up where Urquhart had left off and became far more influential. Its great enemy was the “secret diplomacy” that it believed had caused the catastrophic war. It wanted all treaties and foreign policy undertakings to require parliamentary sanctions. It called for a council of nations whose dealings would all take place in public. It enthusiastically supported former US president Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the first of which demanded “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.”
Like Urquhart, the UDC was convinced that proof of the treachery and crimes of secret diplomacy would be found in the official documents, of which vast volumes were published at this time, though without revealing the killer proof of which the UDC dreamed.
Britain was one of several nations in which World War I triggered a public reaction against secret diplomacy for causing the conflict and in favor of a new international order based on law, treaty, openness, democracy and, above all, peace. Under Munich’s short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic of 1919, for example, foreign policy was abolished, government documents of all kinds were published, government offices kept open doors to visitors and Cabinet meetings were conducted more or less in public.
Do these distant events have any connection with the flood of WikiLeaks revelations? It is tempting to say no, but the answer, at least in part, is definitely yes. The surge of support for open diplomacy, democratic controls over foreign policy and new systems of law a century ago were all umbilically linked to the experience of a politically controversial and shocking war whose outcome was far from the one which its advocates had predicted. Those who opposed the war regarded the whole thing as a conspiracy. Even those who fought in it were suspicious.
“We were deceived,” is how the British Labour politician Clement Attlee put it plainly in 1920.
The broad parallels with today are very strong. A war that was widely opposed, a traumatic generational experience, a collective belief that the people were deceived, a conviction that public inquiries and the opening up of documents would reveal the incriminating evidence and a desire to change the rules, above all by making them more democratically accountable, to avoid the same thing happening again. All these were present in the generation that lived through World War I. All are present today in the generation that has lived through the Iraq and Afghan conflicts.
That does not mean every aspect of the openness and accountability agenda is right or realistic, now or in the 1920s. Some things have to be secret. And openness can be a midwife of secrecy as well as its scourge. The years around the war generated official secrecy legislation, the formation of the British security and intelligence services MI5 and MI6 and a much stronger police force — as well as a movement for open diplomacy and the publication of documents. The openness of the Bavarian republic pushed Adolf Hitler into a political career. Today, the Wiki-Leaks document dump dominates a news agenda that also includes fresh curbs on arresting wanted war criminals and planned restrictions on court powers over security issues. Be careful what you wish for.
A.J.P. Taylor once wrote that if all secret cables were published each day in the papers, the world would still go on. That seems to be the sensible verdict on the WikiLeaks material, with a few exceptions. Yet government (and journalism — and life) involves keeping secrets as well as being open. There is virtue in both. What matters is whether the secrets are necessary and honorable. Why WikiLeaks? Partly because we can, but, now as in the past, it is about a needless war and the governments that chose to fight it.
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