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The world after Wikileaks

The India cables — leaked diplomatic exchanges between our country and the US — suggest that the world’s sole superpower has less clout than we might have expected, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

world Updated: Mar 27, 2011 09:23 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

The funny thing about the Wikileaks cables of the US’s state department is that, five years from now, everyone will wonder what the fuss was about. Diplomacy has been stirred but not shaken.

International relations types are disappointed. “The Wikileaks confirmed what most of us who follow these matters had long suspected or surmised,” says Sumit Ganguly, Indian foreign policy expert at Indiana University.

No doubt everyone is going to be more chary about have coffee with their Man From the US Embassy. But this will pass. You can’t stop talking to the sole superpower, even a weakened one.

“Official diplomacy will be more cautious,” says Shen Dingli, strategic analyst at Fudan University in Shanghai. “For a while.”

An important part of being a diplomat is to exchange information, says a senior Indian diplomat based in Europe. “You don’t want to be quoted as saying that you think such and such a person is quite obnoxious. It may be embarrassing, but at the end of the day it won’t shut me up.”

Some of the wilder public reactions to the documents seem to reflect a misunderstanding of what a diplomat does.

Everyone knows they drink cocktails and negotiate treaties. One of their tasks is to help their governments better understand foreign countries.

Another is to communicate and peddle the views of their government to foreign capitals. Diplomacy was invented to prevent misunderstanding between countries because misunderstanding has so often led to conflict.

“There is nothing improper about advocacy [by diplomats],” write Teresita and Howard Schaffer, two ex-US diplomats, on their blog South Asia Hand.

How have the recent Wikileaked state department documents, and especially the New Delhi cables, affected the way of the world?

As mentioned, people are going to be more cautious about what they say to not only the US, but diplomats in general.

That a private conversation with a king of Saudi Arabia in which the latter urges an attack on Iran should have been made available to someone of the rank of a private first class is bizarre. That Bradley Manning, the soldier of this rank who gave the documents to Wikileaks, had access to 300,000 documents of classified documents in electronic form is widely seen as the source of the problem.

“Some of that stuff should never have even been put down on paper,” said an ex-US ambassador.

But there is a silver lining. What the cables revealed was that conspiracy theorists, and Robert Ludlum novels, are largely wrong. The US doesn’t have much of a secret agenda. What you see in public is what you get in private.

Daniel Markey, a former state department policy planner, says the cables show US diplomats as “rarely being as manipulative or scheming as critics would have liked to expose.” Wikileaks “rather decisively put to rest” various conspiracy theories about what America is up to in the world, argues Daniel Twining, analyst for the German Marshall Fund.

They also show Washington is not particularly more well-informed about the rest of the world than anyone else.

Definitely not about India. If anything, says ex-foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, “what surprises me is how US assessments indicate that they also grope in understanding India, that they have no privileged sources of information, no ring side view of developments in India.”

Far from showing the US having a great amount of clout in India, there were plenty of cases of India telling the US when and where to get off. Even on the vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the then US Ambassador David Mulford merely passed on what US Congressional leaders had publicly said: We can’t vote for the nuclear deal if you vote for Iran.

Since, as another cable showed, India’s “strategic partnership” with Iran is largely mythical, the cost-benefit calculation for New Delhi was quite easy. “We have to get out of this unsophisticated idea that démarches from foreign governments constitute pressure,” says Sibal.

India, after all, issues a fair number of démarches and does plenty of diplomatic lobbying itself. South Asia Hand notes that the manner in which Indian diplomats ensured the mandate of the late AfPak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke was sans Kashmir showed that Indian diplomats “can advocate, or arm-twist, if you prefer that term, with the best of them.”

Also, ambassadors are not above exaggerating their influence. “Diplomats sometimes add mirch masala to their long reports to impress their superiors at home, whether in Washington or New Delhi,” says retired ambassador, Arundhati Ghosh.

Indian policymakers may need to ask themselves whether they need to be more open about their own interactions with the world. The Wikileaks documents indicate India’s relations with Iran are actually pretty bad, that we do lecture Myanmar about its human rights abuses and we believe some pretty atrocious things have taken place against Tamils in Sri Lanka.

But the public stance on these and other issues is quite different. There might be some initial conniptions, in the long term it may be easier to conduct foreign policy if the gap between India’s public and private stances is narrower. This sort of schizophrenia, notes Twining, is a “well-known shortcoming” when it comes to India.

This policy dishonesty may also make India compensate when it is found out. Lisa Curtis, South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, speculates that “the Wikileaks fiasco could have contributed to the government’s stance against US military action in Libya.”

Foreign governments have been largely impressed with the quality of the US cables and are comparing it to the stuff written by their own diplomats. “The cables have a style that is certainly much freer and, in some sense, more frivolous than those of some governments including the Chinese,” says Shi Yinhong of the Centre on American Relations, Renmin University in Beijing.

Ghosh says Indian cables are often more general than the US ones. But, says one serving Indian diplomat, the greater degree of minutiae simply reflects the greater resources that the US has. “Where we can put one person on a job, they can put five.”

Some diplomats half-seriously say the real damage of Wikileaks is that it has robbed their profession of its mystique. “Diplomatic reporting is declining in importance,” says C Ashley Wills, a former charge d’affaires in New Delhi who is quoted in some cables, “mainly because of fast media and smart reporters and columnists.”

Markey points out that books like Bob Woodward’s Obama’s War “are more revealing, and likely more damaging, than anything from Wikileaks. It contained blow by blow accounts of the meetings of our most senior leaders, discussing some of the most sensitive issues, not just the scattered reporting of interactions with foreign leaders by our diplomats.”

(With inputs from Dipankar de Sarkar in London and Reshma Patil in Beijing)