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Wikileaks: Damage or democratic opportunity?

This is the unedited version of a piece published on The Lowy Institute for International Policy’s Lowy Interpreter blog.

“Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable givens… it is by no means an idle game if we become practiced in analysing long-held commonplace concepts and showing the circumstances on which their justification and usefulness depend, and how they have grown up, individually, out of the givens of experience. Thus their excessive authority will be broken.” — Albert Einstein

Yesterday’s piece by Rory Medcalf at Lowy Interpreter took a look at what he saw as consequences of the WikiLeaks exposure of US diplomatic traffic. His views are interesting and they represent a certain viewpoint, but their validity seems to rely on a particular assumption; that we choose to let the way we’ve always done things remain the way we do them into the future.

There is, after all, an alternative. We can adopt a new worldview where we allow acts such as Cablegate become the catalyst for change and we renew diplomacy, change journalism and open up government. After all, last week saw the first anniversary of the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive and our own Prime Minister made similar statements about openness of her administration after this year’s Federal election, following on from the Declaration of Open Government earlier in the year. Let’s walk the talk.

So, to look at a number of Rory’s conclusions.

Bad for diplomacy and international cooperation: What if statecraft was changed? What if public diplomacy became the norm? Certainly, behind closed doors conversations need to take place at times in order for diplomacy to be effective. But what if this exposure of the inner workings of international diplomacy was an opportunity to remake statecraft where deception and misdirection were anathema?

Bad for cohesion in the democratic world: Rory conflates the illegal and, frankly, idiotic actions of a few script kiddies with the more sensible supporters of the kind of openness WikiLeaks and Julian Assange argue for. The First Cyber War as some have declared it is problematic, but it will go away as the juveniles become bored. I struggle to see how Rory’s declaration about cohesion and the argument he makes are related.

Bad for freedom of information: A real issue. There is a culture of over-classification amongst many Western governments, including our own. Yet, the wholesale changes wrought on our FoI system, the introduction of the Information Commissioner and the powerful push for open licensing of public sector information will make unnecessary classification progressively more difficult. No doubt, there will be abuses, but if those seeking information and those administering it play fair, we will end up in a measurably better position than we were before. With more a more open view of the way government works, citizen satisfaction with how informed they are could act as a deterrent to unwanted information exposures.

Bad for peacemakers: Current Western practice in peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations, which has largely consisted of dropping in pre-packaged democratic models tied up with a bow has been a disaster. More than one internationally recognised authority including people such as David Kilcullen and the Folke Bernadotte Academy in Sweden are progressively more critical of this approach, preferring activity that more closely aligns with direct local population needs and rebuilds extant models of governance in locality through more open collaborations. This is a major change in outlook, and one which is yet to see broad adoption, but is realising real successes. Open peacebuilding can and does work, though there’s no question that it’s difficult and still requires a level of confidentiality.

Bad for journalism: Absolutely not. The mainstream media, with a few notable exceptions, enjoys its proximity to power and is often overwhelmed by it. In a world where a new journalism exists — one where truth can be told and separated from the ugly symbiosis between politics and journalism — we will be in a far better place; one where the Fourth Estate reasserts its place as a limiting factor on disingenuousness and deception by otherwise democratic governments.

More than this, we may finally see the end of the interminable arguments over just what constitutes a journalist and journalism in our hyperconnected world. Perhaps the old media guard will realise they are simply a part of the picture and that fine journalism is being done by people with subject expertise everywhere, but whose work sees them outside the traditional media environment.

Bad for Obama: Short term pain, I think. Yes, the administration is far more internationalist than recent others, and yes, they have a black eye over this. But why? More than anything it’s because the man who preached “Change” and “Yes we can” has largely proven to be more or less more of the same. The cable leaks are more opportunity than cost; an opportunity to shake up Washington as promised and remake US politics.

Bad for the Gillard government: Certainly for the PM, who is yet to withdraw her foolish declaration of illegality against Assange and Wikileaks. With a growing number of voices in Australian politics and society lining up to support the rule of law in Mr Assange’s case, there is hope that he will get fair treatment in any court that chooses to charge him with respect to these leaks — notably something that is yet to happen in spite of speculation that a Grand Jury has been empanelled in Virginia to do just such a thing.

Like Rory, my thoughts are speculative. I hope he is wrong and I am right. I hope that the matters WikiLeaks has brought to light in 2010 are a catalyst for change and not a trigger for a lockdown.

“When the doctrine of allegiance to party can utterly up-end a man’s moral constitution and make a temporary fool of him besides, what excuse are you going to offer for preaching it, teaching it, extending it, perpetuating it? Shall you say, the best good of the country demands allegiance to party? Shall you also say it demands that a man kick his truth and his conscience into the gutter, and become a mouthing lunatic, besides?” – Mark Twain

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