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Published: The Canberra Times

The leaking of documents classified as Secret is threatening to most people. It challenges their notion of established order and, for most, order is better than disorder no matter if that order is flawed. Change is challenging and often accompanied by upheaval and for many a sense of loss.

Western democracies are, by their nature, wedded to gradual change. The democratic system of government requires change through due process, consensus and consultation. Julian Assange is lobbing hand grenades amongst us, well perhaps stun grenades, because I suspect the greatest damage will occur from the panic they cause, particularly in Washington, rather than from shrapnel wounds.

The WikiLeaks are providing a balance to the virtual world created by classifying information of a gossipy, bitchy and salacious nature as Secret. With these leaks we have seen exposed the cowardice of the diplomacy, where reputations are trashed away from the openness of public discourse and without the countervailing balance of alternative views, opinions and facts. And to illustrate this we need to look no further than the manufactured but secret ‘intelligence’ relating to weapons of mass destruction.
Diplomats are wont to claim a legacy on talent and intelligence, they work hard to create a mystique about their profession, they claim and are given elite status and now we see many exposed as less than admirable and less than talented. This denouement is as far reaching as the reduction in stature of the British corps of staff officers at the end of WW1.

Pomposity, deviousness and deception have long been the hall mark of many professional practitioners of the diplomatic arts. WikiLeaks might lead to positive change but don’t hold your breath, it is more likely to cause a diminution of the diplomatic service and a reliance on other forms of gathering information and methods of intergovernmental communication.

Panic and over-reaction of the 9/11 variety has marked the US response to being caught with its pants down. But this reaction is all rather sad or rather it is sad to see a country which has so much going for it react so badly. Swirling not too far behind the newsprint and online stories is black humour of a strength and complexity that Joseph Heller would relate to.

A self administered diminution of US power coupled with the shrinking of the US economy, is fuel for conspiracy theorists, but in my opinion these events are not linked, except perhaps through the collapse of qualities that used to be associated with US leadership, particularly the perception of US leadership as tough minded, balanced and able to distinguish between moral and physical courage.

This perception may never have been real. It might have been a creation of Hollywood. US leadership of the ‘Free World ‘may have begun a long slow decline after Vietnam or maybe the collapse of European Communism rendered previous models of US leadership obsolete. Whatever the reality, Bush the Younger, had none of the qualities romantics like to associate with US presidents and to top it off he was singularly devoid of steadfastness and mental agility. Sadly, in my opinion, Australian leadership has followed suit. Why is political, public service and business life, in this country, so devoid of leadership? For instance, who is controlling decision making at Qantas? Isn’t Australia’s greatest living General on the Board?

We have heard the mantra, spin over substance, put forward as a reason, as an excuse, until I for one have become sick of hearing it. It really comes down to a lack of courage, seen under the Rudd government and now the Gillard government, deriving some of its current momentum from children overboard, when senior defence personnel and senior public servants failed to find the courage to stand up for the truth in the face of a manipulative and dishonest government and the opposition failed to question and probe what many in Australia saw as a lie on a par with weapons of mass destruction.

Under Bush, America went into a space that it had never publicly occupied before. It rendered military and political prisoners; it resorted to torture and publicly defended torture. Many people believe in the inherent capacity of the US to be a force for good. Maybe WikiLeaks, under the direction of Julian Assange, is seeking to put the US back on that path. I heard him described by some suited US official as an anarchist, more likely he is an idealist. He is certainly seeking to challenge the system as we know it. Not a bad thing when that system appears lost and leaderless and to be taking many with it.

The US over-reaction has had the effect of giving credibility to information in the leaks. The status of the cables has been elevated, when in the event much of the gossip would likely have been buried on file.

In the often arch world of diplomacy information is influence and can be traded for other information and to achieve outcomes. Faced with a situation where an Australian nurse was sentenced to 90 lashes for having been picked up with alcohol in a car in which she was a passenger on New Year’s Eve in Saudi Arabia, armed with the unpublished information that the son of the Saudi Ambassador had been picked up for drunken driving on Northbourne Avenue, I was able to secure the release of the nurse without her being physically punished by threatening to have the lads misdemeanours made public.

Not all diplomacy is catty and carefree. It can be a career for positive good when deployed on behalf of the dispossessed, oppressed and persecuted. However a US determination does not necessarily accord with the assessment of others, Hamid Khazi being a case in point.

The cables highlight a lack of erudition and poor use of the English language. Analysis is sloppy. Take for example a British description of Pakistan President, Assif Zadari. He is described as a nutter. That tells us very little of use. From my own experience of him Zadari lacks self confidence. He has limited intellectual capacity; he is lazy and greedy with an undeveloped moral compass. He is easily led and influenced. He likes the perks of office but not the responsibility. His wife, Benazir Bhutto, was a far stronger personality and very much more intelligent and courageous. We don’t see that type of analysis in the leaked cables.

These leaks will change the way we look at the process of diplomacy and once again at the way the US exercises its power; but we have seen that before and in that sense there is little that is new in the leaked cables.

The leaks are not the start of the revolution, great and sudden change will not occur, what the leaks will do is to feed into the process of change and altering perceptions of power and influence, already underway, between the major power blocks.
WikiLeaks is apparently protecting conversations with dissidents and information which might cause actual physical harm.

The US should aim to protect Julian Assange, whether he be in Britain, Somalia or Sweden. For if harm should befall him, rightly or wrongly, they will be blamed and the fallout from that will be greater than the leaks.