What should scholars and foreign policy wonks do with WikiLeaks?

There's going to be a lot of scholars, policy analysts and enthused amateurs who are going to drink up the Wikileaks documents as a great new empirical resource. So they should -- they did nothing to cause their release, and these are documents that ordinarily would have taken 25 years minimum to be declassified.

That said, there's going to be a natural inclination to think that any Wikileaks document will endow it with the totemic value of Absolute Truth. "If it was secret, then it must be true," goes this logic. That's a more serious problem. For Exhibit A, let's go to Simon Tisdall of The Guardian's interpreting what the Wikileaks documents reveal about how China views North Korea:

China has signaled its readiness to accept Korean reunification and is privately distancing itself from the North Korean regime, according to leaked US embassy cables that reveal senior Beijing figures regard their official ally as a "spoiled child"....

The leaked North Korea dispatches detail how:

      • South Korea's vice-foreign minister said he was told by two named senior Chinese officials that they believed Korea should be reunified under Seoul's control, and that this view was gaining ground with the leadership in Beijing.
      • China's vice-foreign minister told US officials that Pyongyang was behaving like a "spoiled child" to get Washington's attention in April 2009 by carrying out missile tests.
      • A Chinese ambassador warned that North Korean nuclear activity was "a threat to the whole world's security".
      • Chinese officials assessed that it could cope with an influx of 300,000 North Koreans in the event of serious instability, according to a representative of an international agency, but might need to use the military to seal the border.

In highly sensitive discussions in February this year, the-then South Korean vice-foreign minister, Chun Yung-woo, told a US ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that younger generation Chinese Communist party leaders no longer regarded North Korea as a useful or reliable ally and would not risk renewed armed conflict on the peninsula, according to a secret cable to Washington.

Ah, OK, this explains why China has slowly distanced itself from North Korea's recent actions. Oh, wait, I'm sorry, China has done nothing of the sort.

I don't doubt that Chinese officials said everything reported in the documents. I do doubt that those statements mean that China is willing to walk away from North Korea. It means that Chinese diplomats are... er.... diplomatic. They will tell U.S. and South Korean officials some of what they want to hear. I'm sure that they will say somewhat different things to their North Korean counterparts.

The key is to determine whether China's actions reflect their words. And over the past six months, China has not acted in a manner consistent with Tisdall's claims.

This is not to imply that China is acting in a particularly perfidious or underhanded manner, by the way. They're acting like any great power would -- stall for time while trying to figure out the best way to handle a troublesome ally. The point is, just because someone says something in a Wikileaks memo doesn't make it so.

Daniel W. Drezner

The utopianism of Julian Assange

With the latest WikiLeaks dump, Julian Assange clearly thinks he's blown the doors off of American hypocrisy:

The cables show the extent of US spying on its allies and the UN; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in "client states"; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for US corporations; and the measures US diplomats take to advance those who have access to them.

This document release reveals the contradictions between the US's public persona and what it says behind closed doors -- and shows that if citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what's going on behind the scenes.

Every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington "the country's first President" could not tell a lie. If the administrations of his successors lived up to the same principle, today's document flood would be a mere embarrassment. Instead, the US Government has been warning governments -- even the most corrupt -- around the world about the coming leaks and is bracing itself for the exposures.

Um... a few things:

1) I don't know about other Americans, but I was taught that the "not telling a lie" story was apocryphal.

2) You know, polite people tell their friends and neighbors about embarrassments that could affect them as well as Big Lies.

3) There are no Big Lies. Indeed, Blake Hounshell's original tweet holds: "the U.S. is remarkably consistent in what it says publicly and privately." Assange -- and his source for all of this, Bradley Manning -- seem to think that these documents will expose American perfidy. Based on the initial round of reactions, they're in for a world of disappointment. Oh, sure, there are small lies and lies of omission -- Bob Gates probably didn't mention to Dmitri Medvedev or Vladimir Putin that "Russian democracy has disappeared." Still, I'm not entirely sure how either world politics or American interests would be improved if Gates had been that blunt in Moscow.

If this kind of official hypocrisy is really the good stuff, then there is no really good stuff. U.S. officials don't always perfectly advocate for human rights? Not even the most naive human rights activist would believe otherwise. American diplomats are advancing U.S. commercial interests? American officials have been doing that since the beginning of the Republic. American diplomats help out their friends? Yeah, that's called being human. I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, but it strikes me that these leaks show other governments engaged in far more hypocritical behavior.

In the first season of Mad Men, there's a great scene when ad man Don Draper encounters some beatniks. After one of them rips into Don working for The Man and his square ways, he responds as follows:

I hate to break it to you, but there is no Big Lie.

There is no System.

The universe is indifferent.

That's pretty much my reaction to the utopian absurdities of the WikiLeaks manifesto.

It is worth thinking through the long-term implications of this data dump, however. Rob Farley observes:

I'm also pretty skeptical that this release will incline the United States government to make more information publicly available in the future. Bureaucracies don't seem to react to attacks in that manner; I suspect that the State Department will rather act to radically reduce access to such material in order to prevent future leaks.

Rob is correct, which means that the chances of an intelligence failure just shot up. As the Guardian explains here (and in further detail here):

Asked why such sensitive material was posted on a network accessible to thousands of government employees, the state department spokesman told the Guardian: "The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath revealed gaps in intra-governmental information sharing. Since the attacks of 9/11, the US government has taken significant steps to facilitate information sharing. These efforts were focused on giving diplomatic, military, law enforcement and intelligence specialists quicker and easier access to more data to more effectively do their jobs."

Well, I think it's safe to say that compartmentalization will be back in vogue real soon -- which means, in the long run, both less transparency and less effective policy coordination. It's not the job of WikiLeaks to care about the second problem, but they should care about the first.

Am I missing anything?