For people who value freedom and truth, what's not to applaud about WikiLeaks? Certainly in Australia, the cablegate saga – and its local offshoot – has unlocked a tide of libertarian righteousness.
Throughout the media and much of civil society, there's a thrill of surprise at the unsaintly ways and words of diplomacy, a frisson of satisfaction at seeing the powerful humbled and exposed, and a current of outrage on behalf of Julian Assange.
All this is muddled with some less noble impulses, including the voyeuristic buzz of reading a lot of other people's mail. And if your business is to sell newspapers, there is also the rare joy of finding a new lease on relevance and profit. (The commercial motive for certain Australian newspapers' sensational treatment of the story would be less distasteful if they were also willing to follow the example of The Guardian and publish the quoted cables in full so that readers could draw their own conclusions, or to release them in large numbers rather than dribble them out over the notoriously slow summer news season. If the public really needs to know, then there's no time like the present and no reason we should not see the original documents.)
But beyond the melodrama and moralising, what matters are the consequences. Of course it would be grand if the result was some kind of hyper-catharsis of universal transparency, peace and justice. Yet what if the effects tend in the opposite direction? Any comprehensive analysis of the 2010 cablegate conspiracy will need to consider whether it will be:
Bad for diplomacy and international cooperation: More than ever, most of the world's problems demand cooperative responses. And until human nature changes or nations wither, this will need a combination of private frankness and public tact between governments. Sometimes secrecy is a condition for trust and honesty, not its enemy. It would be nice to imagine cablegate as the dawn of a new diplomacy which has no place for discretion or deception. It is more realistic to conclude that the old games of statecraft will resume in new ways, with the chessboard temporarily shaken up. Read More
Bad for the US and its allies, good for China and Russia: The leak of 250,000 US cables will do more harm to Washington and its democratic allies in Asia and Europe than to authoritarian-leaning powers. It will neither precipitate some miracle of complete openness by Western governments nor encourage China or Russia to move a millimetre in that direction. But it will weaken the US and its allies in their ability to coordinate with and trust one another while trying to manage the risks arising from a changing global balance of power. For instance, the leaking of a cable spelling out sensitive US-NATO nuclear discussions is really defensible only if equivalent Chinese and Russian secret memos are going online any time soon – and it is interesting that The Guardian has already had second thoughts, taking the nuclear cable off its website. Casual readers might find many of the leaked cables underwhelming, but collectively they are an intelligence gift to America's rivals, including for the gaps they reveal in Washington's intelligence collection.
Bad for cohesion in the democratic world: Complex global relationships of trust and transaction – spanning the private and public spheres – are being damaged as WikiLeaks' supporters and opponents wage the world's first prolonged cyber conflict, involving hackers, corporations and governments. This is a virtual struggle being waged almost exclusively within the Western world, a cyber civil war.
Bad for freedom of information: Officials will find it harder to access their own government's classified documents. Indeed, the more sensitive workings of policy and diplomacy in Western countries may regress to become the preserve of a small number of individuals, with increased reliance on personal channels like emails and phone conversations and less information recorded in formal documents. After the intelligence failures of 9/11, there was a push towards information-sharing between agencies and allies; this will now face fresh scrutiny and a probable rollback. (Mind you, a system in which a 23-year-old soldier can download a hoard of sensitive cables was a disaster waiting to happen.)
Restrictions on providing sensitive information to the media and the public could well be tightened. Australian diplomats already have a tough time accessing cables written by their colleagues. Right now American (and I suspect Australian) officials are ridiculously not even allowed to use their office computers to access the leaked trove, even though there is a strong national interest in their knowing precisely what is out there. This is a sign of the unfortunate information clampdown to come.
Bad for diplomats and good for spooks: In a complex and globalised world, flexible, well-resourced – and, yes, relatively transparent – diplomatic services are needed more than ever. Yet as diplomatic networks, trust and access to information dry up, foreign ministries could become even less effective and adaptive.
One entity that stands to benefit at their expense is clandestine intelligence agencies. Since 9/11, Western foreign services have lost resources and influence relative to their secret cousins. In Australia, the DFAT budget has declined while those of ASIS, ASIO and DSD have shot up. If diplomatic information channels become less trusted, governments may place even more emphasis on the truly hidden empire of covert intelligence-gathering, which is less leak-prone but worse value for money (and often less useful) than normal diplomatic reporting.
A new world of large-scale diplomatic leaks will also mean extra duties for counter-intelligence players, like the FBI and ASIO. This will help boost their budgets, but will also be a damaging diversion of their capabilities, since they already have plenty of threats to manage in an age of terrorism and great-power tensions.
Bad for peacemakers: Vicious conflicts are rarely resolved purely through open negotiation. Civil and communal wars, in particular, end only when leaders are willing to break with the violent extremists on their own side by holding talks with their enemies – and such talk must begin in secret if the leaders want to survive to round two. The successful Northern Ireland peace process of the 1990s, for example, would never have stood a chance in a cablegate world.
Bad for journalism: For some mainstream media organisations, cablegate seems better than a goldmine: every day a new nugget, no digging needed. Yet by being so closely co-opted in treating indiscriminate leaks as headline news, day after day, parts of the old media risk hastening their own marginalisation and further dulling their already-diminished investigative faculties.
Moreover, such organisations are wading into new ethical and legal grey areas, which may yet ensnare them. For a start, how do the laws of defamation (or copyright) apply to material from leaked diplomatic cables? It is also at the very least a double-standard not to remove the names of individual diplomats and their contacts from news stories based on leaked cables, when journalists themselves assert a right to protect off-record sources.
Bad for Obama and those who put faith in him: Wikileaks and its supporters are further damaging the most internationalist US Administration they will see in their lifetimes. This may turn out to be an own goal by part of the global liberal left. Wikileaks is fanning patriotic anger in America, and this will translate into political capital for the Republican right.
Bad for Australia's Gillard Government: The Labor minority government is fragile, and the localised cablegate game being played by Australia's centre-left Fairfax broadsheets will carve fresh rifts and reopen old ones, whether between the foreign minister and prime minister, Labor's left and right wings, and Labor and its Green/independent partners.
Of course, these are preliminary and highly speculative judgments, and on at least some of them I hope to be entirely wrong.