PRINCETON, New Jersey — When the furor erupted over WikiLeaks’ recent release of a quarter-million diplomatic cables, I was reminded of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s 1918 speech in which he put forward “Fourteen Points” for a just peace to end World War I.
The first of those 14 points reads: “Open covenants of peace must be arrived at, after which there will surely be no private international action or rulings of any kind, but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”
Is this an ideal that we should take seriously? Is WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange a true follower of Wilson?
Wilson was unable to get the Treaty of Versailles to reflect his 14 points fully, although it did include several of them, including the establishment of an association of states that proved to be the forerunner of today’s United Nations. But Wilson then failed to get the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty, which included the covenant of the League of Nations.
Writing in The New York Times earlier this month, Paul Schroeter, an emeritus professor of history, argued that open diplomacy is often “fatally flawed,” and gave as an example the need for secret negotiations to reach agreement on the Treaty of Versailles. Since the treaty bears substantial responsibility for the resurrection of German nationalism that led to the rise of Hitler and World War II, it has a fair claim to being the most disastrous peace treaty in human history.
Moreover, it is hard to imagine that if Wilson’s proposals had formed the basis of the peace, and set the tone for all future negotiations, the history of Europe in the 20th century would have been worse than it actually was. That makes the Treaty of Versailles a poor example to use to demonstrate the desirability of secrecy in international negotiations.
Open government is, within limits, an ideal that we all share. U.S. President Barack Obama endorsed it when he took office. “Starting today,” he told his Cabinet and staff, “every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known.” He then noted that there would have to be exceptions to this policy to protect privacy and national security.
Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has admitted, however, that while the recent leaks are embarrassing and awkward for the United States, their consequences for its foreign policy are modest. Some of the leaked cables are just opinion, and not much more than gossip about national leaders. But, because of the leak, we know, for example, that when the British government set up its supposedly open inquiry into the causes of the Iraq war, it also promised the U.S. government that it would “put measures in place to protect your interests.” The British government appears to have been deceiving the public and its own Parliament.
Similarly, the cables reveal that President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen lied to his people and Parliament about the source of U.S. airstrikes against al-Qaida in Yemen, telling them that Yemen’s military was the source of the bombs.
We have also learned more about the level of corruption in some of the regimes that the U.S. supports, like those in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in other countries with which the U.S. has friendly relations, notably Russia. We now know that the Saudi royal family has been urging the U.S. to undertake a military attack on Iran to prevent it from producing nuclear weapons. Here, perhaps, we learned something for which Washington deserves credit: It has resisted that suggestion.
Knowledge is generally considered a good thing; so, presumably, knowing more about how the U.S. thinks and operates around the world is also good. In a democracy, citizens pass judgment on their government, and if they are kept in the dark about what their government is doing, they cannot be in a position to make well-grounded decisions. Even in nondemocratic countries, people have a legitimate interest in knowing about actions taken by the government.
Nevertheless, openness isn’t always better than secrecy. Suppose that U.S. diplomats had discovered that democrats living under a brutal military dictatorship were negotiating with junior officers to stage a coup to restore democracy. I would hope that WikiLeaks would not publish a cable in which diplomats informed their superiors of the plot.
Openness is in this respect like pacifism: Just as we cannot embrace complete disarmament while others stand ready to use their weapons, so Wilson’s world of open diplomacy is a noble ideal that cannot be fully realized in the world in which we live.
We could, however, try to get closer to that ideal. If governments did not mislead their citizens so often, there would be less need for secrecy, and if leaders knew that they could not rely on keeping the public in the dark about what they are doing, they would have a powerful incentive to behave better.
It is therefore regrettable that the most likely outcome of the recent revelations will be greater restrictions to prevent further leaks. Let’s hope that in the new WikiLeaks age, that goal remains out of reach.
Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. © 2010 Project Syndicate