Julian Assange, WikiLeaks and the Evolution of American Diplomacy

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks and the Evolution of American Diplomacy

Julian Assange – founder of the whilestleblowing website WikiLeaks – is once again in the media spotlight as he seeks political asylum at London’s Ecuadorian embassy. Wanted by the Swedish police for questioning in connection with accusations of sexual assault and rape, Assange fears that once in Stockholm, he would eventually be extradited to the US and face charges of espionage, punishable by death under US law. Indeed, it would even appear that WikiLeaks has uncovered emails which would indicate that Assange has indeed already been indicted.

While his future remains uncertain, Assange’s run-in with Washington is certainly far from over, regardless of the outcome of this current diplomatic standoff. It is interesting to note, therefore, that by broadly publishing secret diplomatic telegrams from the State Department, WikiLeaks could rightfully claim to be following in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers of American diplomacy.

With his new diplomatic maneuverings to avoid extradition, Julian Assange has proven that the WikiLeaks scandal and his personal legal troubles with Washington are far from over. Aurélien Colson gives us his point of view on the scandal, its far-reaching effects on international negotiation and reminds us that diplomatic transparency is engrained in American history.

Diplomatic transparency: the Founding Fathers’ fading dream?

The concept of secrecy in international negotiation was something that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, George Mason and many other prominent republicans largely rejected in the years between the Declaration of Independence and the signing of the Constitution. Their rejections were part of a larger American desire to reinvent the European diplomatic customs of the time, the foundations of which had been established as far back as the Italian Renaissance and the invention of the Ambassador in Residence. A paradigm had effectively taken shape in which European foreign affairs were the exclusive domain of the Prince, under the cloak of reasons of State.

For American revolutionaries, European diplomacy had come to signify hidden dealings and secret treaties signed in the name of monarchs accountable to no one. In their eyes, this system contributed to absolutism, allowed for base acts between nations and was ultimately to blame for the warmongering that was tearing the Old World apart.

After winning its independence, America therefore put a new form of diplomacy into action and brought to fruition a dream of the Enlightenment: As summarized by Gabriel Bonnot de Mably in the introduction to his Droit public de l'Europe (1757), this new diplomacy " would be worthy of the wisdom of peoples whose government brooks no secret commitments, to prohibit their undertaking in all of Europe."

This ideal was upheld by early American diplomats in their dealings. For example, when asked during his tenure as United States Ambassador to France (1776-1785) to negotiate a treaty of friendship and trade against a common enemy – England – Benjamin Franklin cemented his position as a pioneer of this new American diplomacy by responding: "I have long observ'd one Rule .... It is simply this, to be concerned in no Affairs that I should blush to have made public". American republicans confirmed this position during the 1787 constitutional debates.

In his book L'Evolution de la diplomatie, idéologie, moeurs et techniques (1938), Corneliu S. Blaga accurately observed that: "Unlike European diplomatic texts, those of the Americans were written with a view to the broadest possible publication. Dispatches were drafted with the intention and the conviction that circumstances would one day bring them into the public eye in the United States and around the world."

However, the decline of diplomatic transparency became evident in 20th century politics. On January 8, 1918, US President Woodrow Wilson delivered his famous Fourteen Points speech to Congress and called for a ban on diplomatic secrecy. Yet, just a few months later, this same president secretly negotiated the Treaty of Versailles with French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and (as a matter of form) the Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando. Negotiations for this treaty took place behind closed doors and apart from all other delegations, even their own entourages.

Evidence became more blatant in the second half of the 20th century. Negotiations surrounding the Oslo Accords (1993) for example, which sought to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, were the triumph of diplomatic secrecy. This accord was reached after several rounds of secret negotiations in 1993 – so secret than only a handful of Israel’s cabinet ministers were aware. At that time combat had resumed in southern Lebanon but neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis – separated from the situation on the ground – were compelled to break off negotiations. Imagine attempting to continue official, open negotiations in such a situation!

The modern-day dilemma: Diplomatic secrecy at odds with a public demand for transparency

Washington’s outcry against WikiLeaks and its apparent desire to extradite and prosecute Assange, would indicate that the conviction held by so many Founding Fathers has fallen out of favour.

Why? Many argue that in diplomatic negations on sensitive issues, concessions are more easily made behind closed doors. Anything that could be perceived as an admission of weakness or as a betrayal – but necessary to moving negotiations forward – are more easily considered in private. Indeed, behind closed doors, an adversary might be persuaded to acknowledge the validity of one's arguments, while under the spotlight he would be more likely to refuse for fear of losing face. Quite often trust – the key ingredient of any negotiation – is built in a context of confidentiality.

Similarly, secrecy protects negotiations from these "audience effects", well known to practitioners and analyzed by researchers, where excessively hardline positions are taken by both sides as a means to bolster public opinion. This phenomenon tends to fan the flames of conflict to the point where they can become uncontrollable by channels of negotiation.

Media exposure can also encourage the use of hardline rhetoric and induce situation like the "lock-ins" where one negotiator becomes publicly – often irreversibly – entrenched in one stance in order to force the other negotiator to submit. This attitude often results in a costly impasse for all.

By reducing the perceived positive effects of posturing and extreme hardlining, secrecy therefore allows negotiators to extricate themselves, at least temporarily, from this public pressure and from the drastic polarization imposed by the latter. For these reasons, when a site of negotiation is exposed to outside observation, the real negotiation work is moved, taking place either before or after, and most certainly elsewhere. The site in question becomes a theatre where the performance is defined behind the scenes.

If the ideal of diplomatic transparency has fallen from favour in Washington, this evolution has been mirrored by a marked increase in public demand for said transparency. This phenomenon has been encouraged by the rise of modern communication technologies which make information more readily available and easier to spread while increasing the potentially negative impact on public opinion of any breach of secrecy. This breach of secrecy will most likely not be the last.

In this sense, the sensationalism of the Julian Assange affair and the WikiLeaks scandal is an important illustration of this larger phenomenon. And even now, the scandal and its subsequent failure to drop from media radar could ultimately encourage diplomatic chanceries to seek a better balance in their multilateral negotiations between the persisting usefulness of secrecy and the needed legitimacy gained through transparency.

Given, this search for balance is not a new challenge: it was already made evident in 1995 during the failed Multilateral Agreement on Investment. It again became clear in 1999 during the failed World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations in Seattle, when civil society decried the legitimacy of negotiations held behind closed doors in the secrecy of "green rooms".

There is however a new challenge presented by the WikiLeaks scandal: through the magnitude of this scandal, have Assange’s intentions backfired? Has transparency been thoughtlessly stigmatized? We now lament the "dictatorship of transparency" whereas it is in fact a requisite aspect of democratic society when applied to political power.

Transparency provides an antidote to the abuses allowed by official secrets, such as conflicts of interest, arbitrary appointments and sanctions, hijacking of the collective interest by special interests, corruption and misappropriation of public funds, all of which prosper under situations of secrecy, but wither away when mechanisms for transparency expose them to the light of day. George Washington knew this and made informing his compatriots the central theme of his farewell address.

To know more and negotiation, secrecy and transparency:

Colson Aurélien (2009), « La négociation diplomatique au risque de la transparence : rôles et figures du secret envers des tiers », Négociations, 2009/1, pp. 31-41.
Colson Aurélien (2008), « The Ambassador Between Light and Shade: The Emergence of Secrecy as the Norm for International Negotiation », Journal of International Negotiation, 13 (2008), pp. 179-195.

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