As much as I admire Hillary Clinton and have supported her through numerous controversies over the years , she is dead wrong when it comes to WikiLeaks. As the U.S. Secretary of State, very predictably she has condemned the latest revelations from WikiLeaks as “an attack on the international community.”
In a democracy, transparency is not an option. It is a prerequisite for serving the citizens who elect or pay the salaries of those who represent us. As citizens we need to know that our public servants are doing our work, not their own or that of some other entity, whether it is a multinational business, another country, or their own personal interests. When decisions are hidden from view, when words and deeds are in conflict, it is not just a single policy or goal that is in jeopardy, it is our way of life, our confidence in our world leaders.
Hillary and others in the world community need to understand how greatly social media has changed expectations about openness and transparency in government. In days long gone, the same behind-the-scenes commentary that is now being revealed by WikiLeaks, would still have become public, but years later in history books and articles. There’s a different standard today. People who freely and candidly discuss the most personal events and issues in their lives on places like Facebook and MySpace, have no tolerance for the old, privileged notion that there are two kinds of discourse in the world by our diplomats: one for public consumption, the other for private cables and conversations. Today everything is grist for the mill. There are no secrets, and we should not have them in our international discourse as well.
Are you saying, Rake, that there should be no secret conversations among diplomats? How could the world survive such transparency?
Of course, I am not saying that there should never be “off-the-record” conversations among governments and diplomats. But I am saying three things:
1) Diplomats and their governments must assume that whatever they write will sooner or later — though likely sooner — appear in the public domain. If they have been paying attention at all to the invasive and liberating nature of the Internet and social media, how can they be surprised that their “private” words are now appearing in public?
2) Diplomats and elected leaders should not be saying one thing in private and something else in public. There should be no surprises. There are enough words in the English language to make an honest and fair assessment of world leaders and situations so that no one is offended or surprised.
3) It is irrelevant whether or not we think Italy’s leader is a “vain party animal” or that Russia’s leaders are like Batman and Robin. Is our diplomatic corps really wasting time on such adolescent characterizations? And, ultimately, who cares? If Hillary or Barack or some State Department flunky wants to gossip or take high-schoolish pot-shots at world leaders, let them do so in private, perhaps whispering their silly comments into their ears of colleagues or friends. That way, no one gets offended and WikiLeaks has nothing to publish.
There should be limited, reasonable exceptions to these general principles. For example, people who are reporting political corruption or human rights violations should be able to expect confidentiality. WikiLeaks also has a responsibility to protect the privacy of these conversations and those who are directly involved.
The diplomatic community needs to wake up and realize that a revolution has already taken place about what we “common citizens” consider private and public. It is ALL PUBLIC, whether they want to accept that or not. WikiLeaks might not have the purest of objectives in mind when they throw everyone’s dirty linen into the street, but ultimately they are a force for good. Perhaps inadvertently they serve the interests of democracy and those of us who believe that lies and secrets are the weapons that dictators and tyrants use to subvert the interests of the many in favor of the few and privileged.
Sorry, Hillary, but a blanket condemnation of WikiLeaks puts you on the wrong side of this issue. And I think you know it.