Overreaction could do more damage than anything revealed
in the leaked diplomatic cables.

By Michael C. Horowitz | The recent leaking of what will amount to about 250,000 United States government documents by Julian Assange, the mastermind behind WikiLeaks, has probably not gone as he planned. Pursued by Interpol over criminal allegations, Assange was arrested in London on December 7. Meanwhile, WikiLeaks is finding it harder and harder to maintain a stable presence on the Web, though it will likely prove impossible to put Pandora back in the box and remove already-leaked documents from the public view.

In the very short-term, the release of these documents, which cover messages by US diplomats from around the world, has forced some embarrassing phone calls between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her counterparts abroad. What will be the consequences of these leaks for American foreign policy over time, however? Assange leaked these documents in part because he thought they revealed criminal behavior on the part of the United States. He believed that exposing this behavior would undermine American foreign policy, writing: “This document release reveals the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors.” So what has been the reaction in the United States and abroad?

Unfortunately for Assange, the leaks have not outraged the American public—or people around the world—about the behavior of the United States. As of the end of November, US citizens seemed more upset about the disclosure of secrets than angry about the particular secrets that were leaked. According to a Rasmussen poll conducted on November 29-30, 72 percent of likely voters viewed the publication of classified information as a threat to US national security, with only 14 percent supporting the document releases. About half of the public views these releases as treason against the United States (Assange is an Australian national, but those views are relevant for any Americans involved), while only 28 percent disagree. One reason for this reaction is that, rather than showing “contradictions,” the leaked cables reveal an American foreign policy that looks a lot like the one Americans read about every day in the newspapers. After all, keeping secrets is especially difficult for democratic governments—a challenge faced by American presidents dating all the way back to John Adams. President Adams, as recently quoted by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, once said, “How can a government go on, publishing all of their negotiations with foreign nations, I know not. To me, it appears as dangerous and pernicious as it is novel.” Democratic governments like the United States are therefore unlikely to have fundamentally secret foreign policies very often, if at all. That is just one reason these leaks contain very few “gotcha” moments, except perhaps for foreign governments. For example, is anyone shocked that American diplomats worry about reductions in freedom in Russia? Or work hard to assess Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and her beliefs about foreign and economic policy?

The leaks have not outraged many foreign governments either, thus far. In fact, if anyone has something to worry about from WikiLeaks, it appears to be the foreign leaders and governments discussed in the documents. Many of them apparently criticize the United States in public and then ask American diplomats in private to have the United States step up and play a leadership role in their regions. For example, Arab governments that publicly rail against American foreign policy worry about the Iranian nuclear program and the Iranian regime in private, and ask the United States for assistance. Additionally, whatever the Chinese government says in public, behind the scenes the leaks reveal a Chinese government that seems quite frustrated with North Korea’s erratic behavior and potentially even supportive of American leadership to deal with issues on the Korean peninsula. Now maybe that means these countries are trying to have it both ways and snooker the United States into doing their bidding. That is probably some of what we see. What is more likely, however, is that these documents reveal that the United States remains the most powerful nation in the world and an important actor that nearly all countries wish to engage. 

That is also one reason that foreign governments, while embarrassed a bit about these revelations, seem quite willing to let bygones be bygones and get back to doing business. WikiLeaks or no WikiLeaks, the United States is a rich and powerful country that other countries have to do business with. Moreover, these revelations show that American diplomats do what diplomats around the world are supposed to do—and foreign nations know that. As one foreign diplomat reportedly told Secretary Clinton, “Well, don’t worry about it; you should see what we say about you.” 

In fact, rather than embarrassing American diplomats, the documents show them being thoughtful, conscientious, and good at their jobs. In these leaked cables, American diplomats do exactly what they are supposed to do: advocate on behalf of the United States and provide intelligent feedback to the secretary of state concerning foreign leaders and American interests. A concern moving forward is that these diplomats will become less likely to write down their thoughts and provide unvarnished feedback because they fear exposure down the line. Yet it is more likely that, after the dust settles, we will see a return to business as usual, albeit with tighter security procedures to make sure only those who need access to information get it.

All that being said, there is also a potential downside to the WikiLeaks scandal as it relates to the US national security community. The American national security community has made great strides since the September 11, 2001 attacks at attempting to ensure that the various national security agencies do not shield too much information from each other. Such “stovepiping,” as it is called in the Beltway, can make it harder for intelligence analysts to discover when an attack on the United States might be imminent. As Defense Secretary Gates and others have stated, there is no reason for US troops on the ground in Afghanistan to have access to secret cables related to arms control negotiations with Russia or issues on the Korean Peninsula. If the State Department, Defense Department, and the intelligence community restrict access to information, however, it is crucial that they do so in a way that does not make it harder to detect terrorist plots against the United States. Such an outcome, in contrast to the so-called revelations in the documents, would be a real tragedy. 

Ironically, a decision by the US government to close in on itself would also represent a victory for Assange. He has publicly written that one of his goals is to force the US government to become even more secretive and insular, since he thinks this will then make the United States more likely to fail. Ensuring that Assange’s predicted outcome fails to materialize is one of the best ways to ensure that his “attack” on American foreign policy does not succeed.

Michael C. Horowitz is an assistant professor of political science and the author of The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics, from Princeton University Press.

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