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Wikileaks: a banquet of secrets

It is the historian's dream. It is the diplomat's nightmare. Here, for all to see, are the confidences of friends, allies and rivals, garnished with American diplomats' frank, excoriating assessments of them.

india Updated: Nov 29, 2010 22:04 IST

It is the historian's dream. It is the diplomat's nightmare. Here, for all to see, are the confidences of friends, allies and rivals, garnished with American diplomats' frank, excoriating assessments of them. The historian usually has to wait 20 or 30 years to find such treasures. Here, the most recent dispatches are little more than 30 weeks old.

Most of this material is medium-and high-level political reporting from around the world, plus instructions from Washington. Small wonder the state department is crying blue murder. Yet, from what I have seen, the professional members of the US foreign service have very little to be ashamed of. Yes, there are echoes of skulduggery at the margins, especially in relation to the conduct of "the war on terror" in the Bush years. Specific questions must be asked and answered. For the most part, however, what we see here is diplomats doing their proper job: finding out what is happening in the places to which they are posted, working to advance their nation's interests and their government's policies.

As readers will discover, the man who is now America's top-ranking professional diplomat, William Burns, contributed from Russia a highly entertaining account — almost worthy of Evelyn Waugh — of a wild Dagestani wedding attended by the gangsterish president of Chechnya, who danced clumsily "with his gold-plated automatic stuck down the back of his jeans".

Burns's analyses of Russian politics are astute. So are his colleagues' reports from Berlin, Paris and London. In a 2008 dispatch from Berlin, the then grand coalition government of Christian and Social democrats in Germany is compared to "the proverbial couple that hated each other but stay together for the sake of the children". From Paris, there is a hilarious pen portrait of the antics of Nicolas (and Carla) Sarkozy. And we the British would do well to take a look at our neurotic obsession with our so-called "special relationship" with Washington, as it appears in the unsentimental mirror of confidential dispatches from the US embassy in London.

More broadly, what you see in this diplomatic traffic is how security and counter-terrorism concerns have pervaded every aspect of American foreign policy. But you also see how serious the threats are, and how little the west is in control of them. There is devastating stuff here about the Iranian nuclear programme and the extent not merely of Israeli but Arab fears of it ("cut off the head of the snake", a Saudi ambassador reports his king urging the Americans); the vulnerability of Pakistan's nuclear stockpile to rogue Islamists; anarchy and corruption on a massive scale in Afghanistan; al-Qaida in Yemen; and tales of the power of the Russian mafia gangs, that make John le Carré's latest novel look almost understated.

There is a genuine public interest in knowing these things. Yet one question remains. How can diplomacy be conducted under these conditions? A state department spokesman is surely right to say that the revelations are "going to create tension in relationships between our diplomats and our friends around the world".

There is a public interest in understanding how the world works and what is done in our name. There is a public interest in the confidential conduct of foreign policy. The two public interests conflict.

One thing I'd bet on, though: the US government must surely be ruing, and urgently reviewing, its weird decision to place a whole library of recent diplomatic correspondence on to a computer system so brilliantly secure that a 22-year-old could download it on to a Lady Gaga CD. Gaga, or what?