I am delighted that my humble blog post speculating on the consequences of cablegate has prompted a full-blown debate on The Interpreter, covering everything from the ethics of WikiLeaks to whether there can or should be such total transparency in international relations.

I am less thrilled that some of my original ruminations might have been so misunderstood or misinterpreted. In particular, some contributors seem to have become confused between my speculative analysis of what might occur and some perceived notion of what I think ought to occur. 

It seems that simply offering the assessment that governments are likely to react in ways inimical to transparency makes the assessor's democratic credentials suspect. (Admittedly, my choice of words — libertarian righteousness — may have been a tad undiplomatic, even though, technically, each of those words could be applied to many who applaud Wikileaks, and neither is exactly an epithet; surely being righteous is part of any self-respecting crusader's ethos?)

By the same token, there seems to be a large dose of wishful thinking mixed into the critiques offered by correspondents such as Scott Burchill and Stephen Collins, and this leaves the reader a little confused as to where their analysis ends and their 'wouldn't it be nice' musings begin.

Yes, my initial interest was more in charting consequences than inspiring hopes for change. In the untidy realm of international politics, I find proclamations of truth without a hint of self-doubt troubling. I wanted to encourage the libertarian (and other) fans of the WikiLeaks phenomenon to put themselves into the shoes of responsible policymakers — people whose chosen vocation it is to make, or make the best of, unenviable decisions — and to think twice about the counterproductive and perhaps unintended impacts of classified information dumps like cablegate.

Laying claim to good intentions, good character and noble rhetoric is hardly enough to guarantee good outcomes for human welfare. What matters at least as much is a grown-up ethic of responsibility: the calculus of determining a deed's worth, not by its declared or even actual intentions, but by an unvarnished appraisal of its impact.

Such a commendable, real-world principle informs the unglamorous daily labours of many of the world's best officials and diplomats, America's included. Sometimes in the crooked reality of world politics, right brings about wrong, whereas seemingly amoral methods achieve good, or at least a minimisation of harm. Unfortunately, this seemingly obvious point about politics and diplomacy has been neglected in much of the effusion of transparency, outrage and glee surrounding cablegate.

Still, I have learned a lot from the ensuing exchange on The Interpreter, as well as parallel debates on Twitter and in the old-fashioned media.

In particular, I underestimated how little many Australians seem to trust or know about their federal government, especially the work of its foreign policy and security agencies. The assumption seems to be that government secrecy is primarily about avoiding public scrutiny rather than about thwarting external espionage and threats. This gulf of ignorance and mistrust has widened in the past decade, and government must bear a large measure of blame for this creeping alienation. 

Certainly, WikiLeaks could and should be a 'democratic opportunity' to seek to bridge that distance. But the clumsy way that parts of the media are exploiting cablegate (diplomatic interlocutors caricatured as sinister secret sources, selective quotes presented as sensational policy revelations, individual officials named needlessly and without context) is likely to push the government and its risk-averse servants deeper into their bunkers.

What can be done? The Australian foreign and security policy community absolutely should review its information policies, both to ensure that no indiscriminate cable spill can occur here (my professional opinion is that, for various technical and organisational reasons, it cannot) and to draw up options for leaders in increasing the transparency of diplomatic and security information.

Clearly there is a need for our diplomats to do more to explain their work to the public and the world, and this could be done in ways that do not compromise national security; my colleague Fergus Hanson's excellent recommendations on e-diplomacy offer one avenue. It is also high time we had a foreign policy white paper, and an annual statement to parliament about the purpose and nature of our diplomacy; both unfulfilled commitments of the Australian Government in recent years. Parliamentarians can and should do more to interrogate the thrust of foreign policy.

And it would make good sense if an exceptionally independent-minded, experienced and no-nonsense senior official — like current DFAT head Dennis Richardson — were to give a myth-puncturing public speech early in 2011 explaining the worth, methods and aspirations of Australia's contemporary diplomacy: what it is, why we need it, and how it is being improved.

As for good old cables, yes of course these diplomatic communications should be written against the possibility of their future release under Freedom of Information laws. As they are. And journalists and other citizens should pursue, assiduously, FOI requests on foreign policy issues that concern them. If the laws do not satisfy them, then they should lobby parliamentarians down a path of further FOI reform. Some sensitive cables and other official communications should always be tightly held, but chances are there is much that is over-classified.

Turning to address a few specific comments on my original post: both Scott and Stephen zeroed in on my concern that peace processes would suffer without diplomatic confidentiality. I do not believe that either of them substantially dented that point. It clouds the argument to mix up the essential early parleys of 'peacemaking' with the very different tasks of peacekeeping and (societal, reconciliation-based) peacebuilding. And while, there may be times when something vaguely called 'diplomacy' can be blamed for helping to perpetuate conflicts, it does seem a bit rich for beneficiaries of peaceful, prosperous democratic societies to announce that those who live in civil war zones should not have the benefit of discreet diplomacy to increase the chances of ending their daily grief. At the same time, transparent reporting of and accounting for atrocities is also essential to a just outcome (though cable dumps can hurt this too); secrecy and openness each has its place.

As for the assertion that diplomatic cables are owned by 'the people' and therefore do not merit protecting from public gaze, this raises the question: who consulted the American people before deciding to rip open thousands of their sealed diplomatic messages before the eyes of, among others, the foreign governments from whom those documents were meant to be screened?

Turning to Sam and Mark, is transparency in diplomatic and security information somehow like removing the barriers to trade in economic theory: a self-benefiting move even if nobody reciprocates? The analogy is too neat by half. In free trade, if you lose your artificial advantage in one economic activity you make up for it by exploiting your genuine knack for another. In the information competition between governments, the same happy theory does not apply.

Some secrets and lines of trusted diplomatic dialogue really are zero sum: their exclusive possession can advantage one nation over another, and exposure devalues them entirely. Moreover, not all information is of the same kind; while the widespread sharing of some data does indeed benefit everybody, the public dissemination of other kinds (say, lists of national vulnerabilities) might be of wildly disproportionate benefit to some foreign governments or less-than-friendly non-state entities. (Incidentally, I am not sure that friends of WikiLeaks are friends of free trade — for instance when it comes to Australia's restriction on parallel importation of books.)

In the end, I am not claiming that the existing systems of diplomacy are anywhere near perfect. Old-fashioned chanceries must engage with an information-saturated world and its anarchist discontents. But rejoicing in the indiscriminate leaking and dumping of the earnest superpower's classified communications is no solution. The onus should be on the proponents of revolutionary change to ensure and prove that their agenda of unsettling the existing system will do more good than harm. WikiLeaks, its 'everyone-wants-to-be-a-messiah' icon and its supporters remain a long way from meeting that fundamental test.

Photo by Flickr user SnaPsi.