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WikiLeaks and Diplomacy

December 7, 2010

There are many different ethical aspects to the recent release of diplomatic confidential information by WikiLeaks. The story has three different levels as well.

You first have the original person who leaked them. There is no doubt in my mind that he or she broke the law and committed a crime. The White House Press Secretary said: “Open and transparent government is something the President believes is truly important, but the stealing of classified information and its dissemination is a crime.”  I would be interested to know what was his or her motivation; Was it for money, fame or for some political and personal convictions?

You then have Mr. Assange who posted them on his website. The very purpose of WikiLeaks is to disseminate confidential information. Should WikiLeaks even be allowed to exist? The U.S. government would like to shut it down. The ethical dilemma here is how to resolve a conflict between the two legitimate values of transparency and confidentiality?

Finally there is mainstream media that published and continues to publish their contents giving the “cables” more exposure and to a larger public. I tend to believe that once they were posted on the WikiLeaks website, they became public. It is therefore, in my view, acceptable for mainstream media to publish them because it allows a public debate on both the values of transparency and confidentiality as well as on America’s diplomacy. As the New York Times commented on its November 30th editorial, “The documents are valuable because they illuminate American policy in a way that American and others deserve to see.” I however believe that the diplomatic cables will certainly have a chilling effect on the work of diplomats in the future. Professor Paul W. Schroeder, author of “The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848″ in his NYT December 3rd. Op-Ed says: “Secrecy is an essential part of any negotiations: no corporate merger, complicated legal settlements, amicable divorce could ever be reached without a level of confidentiality.”

What really interests me is the question of whether you can be a diplomat and also be ethical? Carl von Clausewitz once said that: “War is a continuation of diplomacy using other means.” Can you be ethical in war? The answer is yes because we have the Geneva International convention that rules the way we conduct or should conduct war. I do not believe we have an international convention that regulates the way we conduct diplomacy. What we may need are ethics guidelines for diplomats. Maybe the WikiLeaks episodes or fiasco, as some believe they are, will push our leaders to think seriously about creating such guidelines.

Daniele Vare, the Italian author once said:

Diplomacy is the art of letting someone have your way.

If only it was that simple!

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