Sat, Dec 18, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Can open diplomacy be less of an ideal and more of a reality?

By Peter Singer

We have also learned more about the level of corruption in some of the regimes that the US supports, like those in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in other countries with which the US has friendly relations, notably Russia. We now know that the Saudi royal family has been urging the US to undertake a military attack on Iran to prevent it from becoming capable of producing nuclear weapons. Here, perhaps, we learned something for which the US government deserves credit: It has resisted that suggestion.

Knowledge is generally considered a good thing; so, presumably, knowing more about how the US thinks and operates around the world is also good. In a democracy, citizens pass judgment on their government, and if they are kept in the dark about what their government is doing, they cannot be in a position to make well-grounded decisions. Even in non-democratic countries, people have a legitimate interest in knowing about actions taken by the government.

Nevertheless, it isn’t always the case that openness is better than secrecy. Suppose US diplomats had discovered that democrats living under a brutal military dictatorship were negotiating with junior officers to stage a coup to restore democracy and the rule of law. I would hope that Wiki-Leaks would not publish a cable in which diplomats informed their superiors of the plot.

Openness is in this respect like pacifism: Just as we cannot embrace complete disarmament while others stand ready to use their weapons, so Wilson’s world of open diplomacy is a noble ideal that cannot be fully realized in the world in which we live.

We could, however, try to get closer to that ideal. If governments did not mislead their citizens so often, there would be less need for secrecy, and if leaders knew that they could not rely on keeping the public in the dark about what they are doing, they would have a powerful incentive to behave better.

It is therefore regrettable that the most likely outcome of the recent revelations will be greater restrictions to prevent further leaks. Let’s hope that in the new WikiLeaks age, that goal remains out of reach

Peter Singer is an an author and a professor of bioethics at Prince-ton University.

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