At Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson, who was president of the university before he became president of the US, is never far away. His larger-than-life image looks out across the dining hall at Wilson College, where I am a fellow, and Prospect House, the dining facility for academic staff, which was his family home when he led the university.
So when the furor erupted over WikiLeaks’ recent release of about 250,000 diplomatic cables, I was reminded of Wilson’s 1918 speech in which he put forward “Fourteen Points” for a just peace to end World War I. The first of those 14 points reads: “Open covenants of peace must be arrived at, after which there will surely be no private international action or rulings of any kind, but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”
Is this an ideal that we should take seriously? Is WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange a true follower of Woodrow Wilson?
Wilson was unable to get the Treaty of Versailles to reflect his fourteen points fully, although it did include several of them, including the establishment of an association of states that proved to be the forerunner of today’s UN. But Wilson then failed to get the US Senate to ratify the treaty, which included the covenant of the League of Nations.
Writing in the New York Times earlier this month, Paul Schroeter, an emeritus professor of history, argued that open diplomacy is often “fatally flawed,” and gave as an example the need for secret negotiations to reach agreement on the Treaty of Versailles. Since the Treaty bears substantial responsibility for the resurrection of German nationalism that led to the rise of Hitler and World War II, it has a fair claim to being the most disastrous peace treaty in human history.
Moreover, it is hard to imagine that if Wilson’s proposals had formed the basis of the peace, and set the tone for all future negotiations, the history of Europe in the 20th century would have been worse than it actually was. That makes the Treaty of Versailles a poor example to use to demonstrate the desirability of secrecy in international negotiations.
Open government is, within limits, an ideal that we all share. US President Barack Obama endorsed it when he took office in January last year.
“Starting today,” he told his Cabinet secretaries and staff, “every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known.”
He then noted that there would have to be exceptions to this policy to protect privacy and national security.
Even US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has admitted, however, that while the recent leaks are embarrassing and awkward for the US, their consequences for its foreign policy are modest.
Some of the leaked cables are just opinion, and not much more than gossip about national leaders. But, because of the leak, we know, for example, that when the British government set up its supposedly open inquiry into the causes of the Iraq war, it also promised the US government that it would “put measures in place to protect your interests.” The British government appears to have been deceiving the public and its own parliament.
Similarly, the cables reveal that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh lied to his people and parliament about the source of US airstrikes against al-Qaeda in Yemen, telling them that Yemen’s military was the source of the bombs.