What a difference a few years makes.
When, in 2006, WikiLeaks set out to begin exposing official malfeasance from the shadowy recesses of cyberspace, it did so as a largely amorphous organisation and in relative obscurity. By the end of 2010 a string of high profile disclosures had changed much of that. The publication of war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, including the now infamous 'Collateral Murder' video, followed by a mass trove of US diplomatic cables, thrust WikiLeaks into public view and generated unparalleled notoriety for its key figures.
Yesterday, US Army Private Bradley Manning was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in a military prison for his role in the so-called 'Cablegate' affair, while Julian Assange remains in legal purgatory in Ecuador's London embassy.
In the meantime, the metamorphosis of WikiLeaks continues, this time from media insurgent to political party. The new focus is on legitimising the movement's ideology through participation in the processes of government, with the added hope that it might complicate the US pursuit of Assange.
Launched in March this year, the WikiLeaks Party is contesting seven Senate seats in Australia's upcoming federal election. The evolution has been a strange one. As Sam Roggeveen put to Assange himself in a recent video forum, rather than 'raging against the machine', WikiLeaks now finds itself eagerly trying to join it.
To that end, a new constitution and policy platform have been drawn up, and a user-friendly website has been launched that alludes to WikiLeaks' distinctively raw online aesthetic without fully embracing it.
The hacktivists, meanwhile, have retreated back into their darkened basements, replaced by candidates from an altogether different milieu. Beyond Assange, who remains the figurehead, these are older and less controversial figures: academics, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists. Each is steadfastly committed to the enhancement of accountability, transparency and justice, though presumably less by the freewheeling, anarchistic means traditionally associated with WikiLeaks than by the formal structures embodied in Australia's system of parliamentary oversight.
In terms of its electoral prospects, the WikiLeaks Party faces an enormous challenge. Even in Victoria , where Assange himself is at the top of the ticket, the Party's primary vote is unlikely to be high enough for him to be elected directly. The fate of the campaign will thus depend on the outcome of the Party's interlocking preference deals.
This was always going to be a tall order. After revelations this week that WikiLeaks has allocated preferences in NSW and WA to a slew of right-wing parties over the Greens, the job may have become even harder. Leslie Cannold, the second Victorian candidate and designated replacement for Assange, has already resigned. With the party now facing an existential crisis over claims of infighting and a lack of transparent and accountable decision making, more are expected to leave. In short, the WikiLeaks Party now needs a miracle.
Remote though the Party's prospects are, they are not completely dead. And if WikiLeaks can somehow snag a seat, it will confront the same challenge as other single-issue parties that have gone before it — namely, having to develop coherent policy responses to the full spectrum of issues that fall beyond its core interests in whistleblower protection, media freedoms and privacy laws. This includes, of course, foreign, defence and national security issues.
So what is the WikiLeaks Party's foreign policy, and how do the organisation's other ideological foundations — libertarianism, suspicion of large-scale organisation, rejection of secrecy etc — translate into its view of Australia's place in the world?
With its collective brainpower understandably devoted to other issues, the Party has not fully articulated its position on foreign affairs. A quick review of its policy platform and the public statements of its lead candidates, however, does reveal a certain level of coherence and, surprisingly, a worldview only lightly infused with the philosophy and conspiratorial mindset we associate with WikiLeaks. Indeed, the most striking thing about the Party's outlook on foreign policy is its overriding sense of moderation. There is throughout a conspicuous absence of radicalism and utopian ideology.
This is notable at least partly for the opportunity cost it entails.
With no ambition or hope of ever actually forming government, the party is at full liberty to espouse a view of the world which more perfectly accords with its broader ideology, however unrealistic it might be. Doing so might even have practical benefits, preserving the Party's credentials for uncompromising adherence to its ideals even from within the 'halls of power'.
This is not to suggest that the WikiLeaks Party's worldview is devoid of moral consideration.
Its platform extols the importance of a foreign policy 'based on human rights and international law', on resolving conflict before it escalates into violence, and on the need for Australia to play a role as a 'good international citizen'. But these are virtually axiomatic principles in Australian foreign policy, and they could just as easily be read out of the ALP handbook. Beyond this, the Party evinces no concrete attachment to any really big ideas — to isolationism, pacifism or international cosmopolitanism, or even to the more mainstream tenets of liberal institutionalism, which emphasise communication and transparency as a means of fostering peaceful relations among states.
Instead, the party's foreign policy views appear to have been formulated with a conventional, if realistic, model in mind: an international system of states, animated by mistrust and the ever-present risk of conflict. Unsurprisingly, then, the dominant concern seems to be about enhancing Australia's security and independence (in other words, its sovereignty).
In this vein, the WikiLeaks Party has no fundamental objection to the traditional instruments of national power, so long as their purpose and activities are more openly known and consistent with a higher standard of official transparency and individual privacy. 'Our regional security alliances are very important', noted Assange last week in Google Hangout. '[W]here the public is aware of it, we should have as many alliances as possible...and the US should be a factor in our alliances, so should Europe, so should the region.'
For Assange, the issue is not so much about divesting Australia of its alliance with the US as about redressing what he sees as problematic dynamics within it — namely, a lack of dignity and respect for Australia, a lack of reciprocity on the part of the US, and a situation in which the alliance operates in conflict with the individual freedoms and privacy of Australians to the point of constituting an abrogation of Australian sovereignty.
For Alison Broinowski, a WikiLeaks candidate in NSW and a career diplomat and academic, the concerns go even further. Echoing the Party's official admonition against blindly following allies into 'disastrous illegal wars', she is concerned that the US alliance will necessitate Australian participation in yet another conflict, possibly against Iran. At that point, she argues, 'we repeat the disasters of Iraq all over again, including the manipulation of information in the headlong rush to war, with serious consequences for Australia's moral standing and strategic position in the world.' While Assange and Broinowski would prefer a more circumscribed alliance, not least to disrupt what they see as a creeping, increasingly indiscriminate surveillance program that lies at its heart, neither calls for its wholesale dissolution.
Nor is there a general aversion to Australia's military forces and intelligence agencies. To the contrary, Assange has recently flagged increased defence spending as a potentially necessary means of mitigating the risks to Australia in an era of American decline. 'The Australian military has the most important task in Australia', notes Assange, 'and the Australian intelligence agencies are related to it, which is (to) ensure that Australian sovereignty isn't compromised'. Again, the concern appears not to be with the instruments of national security, but rather with ensuring more fulsome disclosure of the nature and extent of their activities, and with harnessing them more tightly in service of Australia's independent national interests.
Relative to the mainstream precepts of Australian foreign and defence policy, all of this might be seen as something of a departure. But relative to the imaginable possibilities of a WikiLeaks foreign policy, especially considering the almost revolutionary acts of defiance that have sustained and propelled the organisation from its inception, this is a very benign vision indeed.