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The eyes have it

Diplomatic negotiations don't deserve iron-clad secrecy. A process less opaque and wobbly will help keep unauthorised leaks at bay. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

india Updated: Sep 10, 2011 19:47 IST

I have known of this story for years. It could be wrong in detail, not in spirit. It's certainly not the fictional work of a creative mind. Veteran diplomats, knowing of it more reliably than I, could tweak it into its true form. But as I have gathered it, the account goes like this.

The time is the early 1950s. The scene, our embassy in Cairo. Our ambassador sends a cable, in cipher, of course, to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who is then minister for external affairs as well, saying that a staffer in the Pakistani embassy there has 'offered' to sell his embassy's cipher code to India with promise of regular supplies of their despatches. This, our ambassador explains, can enable us to access secret despatches from Pakistan's embassy in Cairo to the government of Pakistan. The ambassador seeks Pandit Nehru's instructions in the matter. The reply is as fast as it's terse: "Reject Offer. Tell Person Be Loyal To His Government".

Sixty years is a long time in diplomatic history. Even 50 years, for that matter. No one is living in the era of Nehru.

A decade ago, I heard of a curious episode in a country where I was serving. An embassy, while collecting its diplomatic bag was, by mistake, also given the diplomatic bag of another country quite inimical to its own. "So, how was it sent back?" I asked. "Sent back? Oh no sir, it was not sent back. It was promptly sent to its own headquarters for being prised open and its contents digested with glee."

Heads of diplomatic missions and of foreign offices now wear security neck-and-wrist bands, not angel wings. 'Offers' like the one that was made to our embassy in Cairo would not, today, be so easily rebuffed. 'Mistakes' like the later one described would be embraced. Only, the wise would entertain them now with caution, for a person making an 'offer' or generating a 'mistake' may well be handing over pure chaff and holding his sides in laughter as the procurer pores laboriously over its encoded garbage.

We can be sure that after this runnel of leaks has run its course, other rivers will follow. A genre has been created, a new journalistic form, a riparian system with tributaries and distributaries, taking its rise in the catchments of perfidy and betrayal. The flood plains below are athirst for the muddied waters. And when that is the case why will the media not slake it? Of course they will, and provide it in sachets and in 'pet' bottles. If a readers' poll was taken on 'Should WikiLeaks be kept out of news?', there would be an overwhelming demand for the continuance of the seepage. In fact, there would be a demand for the leak to turn into a flow and then to surge into a torrent. Only those few of the 'old schools' of ethics in reportage and of tight-lippedness in the corridors of foreign offices would oppose the new treat.

The problem is that a market in siphoned goods can pass off the fake as an antique, the dupe as an original and the wholly false as '100% genuine'.

We may assume that a new street of ink has been inaugurated and, whether one likes it or not, travel on it will be inevitable (unless we turn the page of newspapers whenever we sense or see the 'leak'). Rather than fret over the loosening of journalistic don'ts or of foreign office 'Simply Not Done's, one has to see WikiLeaks as a marker in diplomatic method. In a sense, what our Right To Information Act has done honourably, openly and 'right royally' to bring official transactions into the public access system, WikiLeaks has done under the cloak, hood and mask of 'source withheld'. This may make the story more delectable for some, but it debases the process of public inclusion.

What is the best remedy for smuggling and unauthorised vending? A time-honoured one is decontrol. What is the equivalent of decontrol in the matter of diplomatic privilege? Not the doing away with of the confidentiality of diplomatic negotiations, for that will be the end of negotiations. But doing away with three related things: First, ending opacity in diplomatic intention. A nation's diplomatic conversations, open or behind closed doors, must reflect a democratically mandated foreign policy, leaving nothing to double-guessing improvisation. Second, ending diplomatic wobble.

A nation's external dialogues must be conducted by designated personae acting on clear briefs, not by a low and thinly spread tide of floaters who happen to hold diplomatic passports. Third, and most significant, ending diplomatic cello-tapings. 'For Your Eyes Only', 'Top Secret', 'Secret' and 'Confidential' gradings are designed by that very nomenclatura to attract the prying eye, the prising scissor, and the predating hacker. In our seditiously techno-smart times, what is to be under wraps is best carried, conveyed and contained in the true old methods of direct communication by the ambassador, the foreign minister or the prime minister. The French diplomat Jules Cambon, who shaped France's attitude to Germany before the World War 1, has said memorably "…the best instrument at the disposal of a government wishing to persuade another government will always remain the spoken words of a decent man (la parole d'un honnete home)".

Negotiation is the stuff of diplomacy and confidentiality the soul of negotiation. This systemic reserve is not to be conflated with iron-clad secrecy, which, in any case, is inimical to negotiation. Confidentiality in diplomatic negotiation is to be likened, in human affairs, to privacy which is a fundamental right and its recognition a sign of good taste.

In his 'Chichele Lecture' of 1953, English diplomat, author and Labour politician Harold Nicholson has said something of eternal value to the diplomatic method: "Every negotiation consists of stages and a result. If the stages become a matter of public controversy before the result is achieved, the negotiation will almost certainly flounder." To prevent that from happening to our foreign policy as a result of unauthorised divulgings to the media, the three correctives I have listed above could help with, of course, one pre-eminent imperative: honest protectors of our external interests may have confidences to keep during negotiations and demarches, but no secrets as to where those are headed.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi was high commissioner to South Africa and Sri Lanka and ambassador to Norway

The views expressed by the author are personal