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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.

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