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Whatever you think of WikiLeaks’ effects on U.S., diplomatic cables do present a learning opportunity for the public

I’ll admit it — I’m hooked on WikiLeaks.

Like many folks, I’ve been reading all I can of the recently leaked diplomatic cables. You’d expect them to be complicated, dry and boring, but they’re not — the writing is punchy and even witty at times. In reading them, you can learn about important events from an angle you’ve never seen before.

A lot of the blogs and opinion pieces about WikiLeaks that I’ve read — in the New York Times, specifically — share a contrary sentiment to mine. Many blogs even say that if Chinese or Russian cables were to have been leaked, whoever would have been responsible would find himself disappeared pretty quickly. “The U.S. should find and kill Julian Assange” is (usually) only implied.

From what I’ve read, there’s a general opinion that diplomacy can’t happen without everyone lying or not telling the whole truth and that the people at WikiLeaks are doing serious damage to U.S. diplomacy in making some cables public. Those who hold that view may be right; that’s hard to assess. I don’t have the background to consider all the ramifications; I’m not a diplomat or a policymaker, and I probably never will be. I’m just a college student who reads the newspaper over breakfast. (Breakfast can take hours.) And my opinion of the WikiLeaks cables is still that I’m glad they’re out there for me to read.

What about consequences for the public?
Almost every blog I’ve read talks about the consequences of foreign diplomats/officials reading the cables and changing their opinions of the United States, but has anyone given thought to the fact that the public has access to the cables? I’m glad I got the opportunity to read them. There were an awful lot of things I was glad to find out.

For instance, many of the cables that caught my eye had to do with who was building missiles, who already had them, and who could be building them. To be honest, it makes me feel more comfortable to know as much as I possibly can about who has what missiles, and who might fire them at us (or at someone else). Other people might feel otherwise. It is some scary stuff.

Another example: Before I started reading the WikiLeaks cables I was always confused about U.S. policies toward North Korea — something about them didn’t seem to make sense. It seemed to me that everybody was just waiting for Kim Jong-il to die, assuming the country would collapse as soon as that happened. Now, in reading the cables, I learn that U.S. policy toward North Korea is just that! It may not be the best strategy, but it just may … well, I’ve no way of knowing. However, I’m glad I know what American diplomats are thinking.

The cables put U.S. foreign policy into a much fuller context for me, and I really appreciate that. (I look forward to reading future articles about dealings with Afghanistan and sighing to myself, “Oh that kooky Karzai.”) I’ve learned a great deal about how diplomacy works, and I think the online cables provide a fantastic opportunity for anyone to do that. Before reading them, I had no idea what kind of information such cables would contain or how it would be presented.

Many of the cables focus on opinions: neighboring countries’ opinions on Iraq; Canada’s opinion of the United States; the U.S. opinion of Mexico. All about trust and distrust. It underscored for me just how much countries’ regard for each other matters.

There’s not much that can be done about the cables now, except for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others’ efforts to repair the relationships that have been strained. People can argue about the cables’ effect on diplomacy, but they’re here to stay as far as I can see (although WikiLeaks is sure to have continuing problems keeping its site(s) up and running.) As far as I’m concerned, the cables present a great learning opportunity — one that people shouldn’t pass up.

Oliver St. John, a student at Macalester College, is a Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs (HECUA) intern at MinnPost.

Related: Minnesotans with foreign service experience analyze WikiLeaks’ revelations

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 12/08/2010 - 07:30 am.

    The writer, Oliver St John, has probably perused them all… but either way, check out ‘Information Clearing House’ site for a cornucopia of info from Juan Cole to Julian Assange himself in his own defense…plus a list of Wiki-leaks alternative sites.

    Then too… take another sip of java and read this morning’s take at ‘Asia Times online’…the “Roving Reporter”, Pepe Escobar, poet/philosopher and investigative wordsmith with his own unique perspective “Naked emperor hails sex by surprise” opening with a quote from Secretary of State Hilary C. from January 21,2010…

    “Information has never been so free. Even in authoritarian countries information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.” H. Clinton

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/08/2010 - 08:09 am.

    For some of us, inspired by old movies like “Sneakers,” and “Johnny Mnemonic,” the work of WikiLeaks to end the rampant, dishonest, far-too-convenient practice of keeping secrets in order to do what you want while, at the same time, giving everyone else the impression that you’re doing something else entirely, is a dream come true.

    Although it is jarring to the leaders of nations and to the international diplomatic community and will render dealing with psychologically dysfunctional leaders and nations a bit more complicated since those types of people don’t like hearing anything that they don’t want to hear, actually telling the truth about our motivations and about what we know (or suspect) to be true, at least ensures that the variables in all of our diplomatic equations are based on real-world facts and that no one can massively manipulate the other nations of the world through bluffing, or successfully hide an ace in the hole to be pulled out in order to frighten everyone into compliance with their wishes in times of crisis.

    I remain convinced, however, that Mr. Assange could have released diplomatic cables until the end of time without being arrested. What has gotten him in trouble is his upcoming release of massive numbers of inside emails from a large American Financial Institution.

    Clearly the US Financiers will not tolerate the public discovering how freely and how often they collude with each other to fleece those whose money they are supposed to be wisely investing, such collusion being for the purposes of covering their own and each others’ tracks as they extract unprecedented levels of income for themselves and each other by stealing from those invested funds, paying themselves billions while they pay returns to their investors which are mere pennies by comparison.

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 12/08/2010 - 10:24 am.

    With the exception of “puting” secret agents (and putting them at risk); almost all the the leaks are ho-hum. Saying bad or embarassing things about other leaders? So what — done throughout history. Have secret agendas? Probably not — all are options and merely “talk” until or unless acted on.

    Having the leaks is not exactly happy or desired news — but assessing their impact should not be overstated or of much concern. This too shall pass, and life, diplomacy, and internaional game plsying will go on as before.

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