Voice

What the Obama administration and Emily Litella have in common

As much as I didn't enjoy John Mearsheimer's cover essay in The National Interest, that's how much I've been enjoying his latest book, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics. Mearsheimer basic argument is that governments lie to each other far less frequently that one would expect, but they more commonly lie to their own citizenry. On the whole, however, they do this less for venal but for strategic reasons.

Mearsheimer's book went to press before Wikileaks blew up. As Stuart Reid points out at Slate, however, it's a wonderful testing opportunity for some aspiring dissertation-writer out there. Indeed, it now turns out that the Obama administration exaggerated juuuuust a wee bit about the damage caused by Wikileaks:

Internal U.S. government reviews have determined that a mass leak of diplomatic cables caused only limited damage to U.S. interests abroad, despite the Obama administration's public statements to the contrary.

A congressional official briefed on the reviews said the administration felt compelled to say publicly that the revelations had seriously damaged American interests in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers.

"I think they just want to present the toughest front they can muster," the official said.

But State Department officials have privately told Congress they expect overall damage to U.S. foreign policy to be containable, said the official, one of two congressional aides familiar with the briefings who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

"We were told (the impact of WikiLeaks revelations) was embarrassing but not damaging," said the official, who attended a briefing given in late 2010 by State Department officials.

Hmmm.... this sounds familiar. Very familiar.

What's interesting is how one reacts to this kind of news. For example, I'm shocked, shocked that Glenn Greenwald has jumped all over this as yet another data point revealing official American perfidy:

And this, of course, has been the point all along: the WikiLeaks disclosures are significant precisely because they expose government deceit, wrongdoing and brutality, but the damage to innocent people has been deliberately and wildly exaggerated -- fabricated -- by the very people whose misconduct has been revealed. There is harm from the WikiLeaks documents, but it's to wrongdoers in power, which is why they are so desperate to malign and then destroy the group.

Contrast this with Kevin Drum:

For the most part, the leaked cables were interesting and in some cases embarrassing, but as a lot of people pointed out in real time, not really all that revelatory. In fact, they mostly showed U.S. diplomacy in a pretty good light. Obviously American diplomats would prefer that private conversations remain private -- and that's perfectly reasonable -- but in the end the WikiLeaks releases didn't cause nearly as much damage as government officials claimed.

It will shock, shock you to know that I agree with Drum more than Greenwald. This is not because of world-weary cynicism -- indeed, there's a very strong argument to be made in favor of a "broken windows" theory of government lying. Do it for small things, and it becomes easier to do it for big things.

The thing is, government honesty and transparency inevitably becomes a comparative exercise, and compared to other governments, the United States does pretty well. Looking at the various lists of Wikileaks revelations, the bulk of the truly embarrassing and/or damaging material affects other governments far more [But what about U.N. spying?--ed. Look up desuetude and get back to me].

My take on Wikileaks really hasn't changed much since my first post on the matter -- the revelations do less to harm U.S. interests than the official overreaction to those revelations.

If the U.S. government stopped exaggerating the threat to U.S. interests and then going all Emily Litlella later, that would be peachy.

Daniel W. Drezner

They write inflammatory copy. You decide.

I'm at the point in my life when there are only three occasions that prompt the watching of cable news:

1) An election night;

2) A real-time breaking news event in which video has a comparative advantage over the web;

3) Being on the treadmill on a slow sports day with nothing good on basic cable.

So yesterday was no. 3, and I caught a report on Fox News about "pre-summit brinkmanship" on the part Hu Jintao. The headline was accurate: "China's President Hu Jintao: Dollar-Based System 'Thing of the Past.'" And I should stress that Fox News was hardly the only news outlet to jump on this turn of phrase.

That said, some perspective might be in order. The statement came from a series of answers that a committee of propaganda writers with the stylistic panache of Andrei Gromyko Hu provided to the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.

Let's reprint the question and answer in full, shall we?

Q: What do you think will be the US dollar's future role in the world? How do you see the issue of making the RMB an international currency? Some think that RMB appreciation may curb China's inflation, what's your view on that?

HU: The current international currency system is the product of the past. As a major reserve currency, the US dollar is used in considerable amount of global trade in commodities as well as in most of the investment and financial transactions. The monetary policy of the United States has a major impact on global liquidity and capital flows and therefore, the liquidity of the US dollar should be kept at a reasonable and stable level.

It takes a long time for a country's currency to be widely accepted in the world. China has made important contribution to the world economy in terms of total economic output and trade, and the RMB has played a role in the world economic development. But making the RMB an international currency will be a fairly long process. The on-going pilot programs for RMB settlement of cross-border trade and investment transactions are a concrete step that China has taken to respond to the international financial crisis, with the purpose of promoting trade and investment facilitation. They fit in well with market demand as evidenced by the rapidly expanding scale of these transactions.

China has adopted a package plan to curb inflation, including interest rate adjustment. We have adopted a managed floating exchange rate regime based on market supply and demand with reference to a basket of currencies. Changes in exchange rate are a result of multiple factors, including the balance of international payment and market supply and demand. In this sense, inflation can hardly be the main factor in determining the exchange rate policy (emphases added).

Meh. First of all, Hu isn't saying anything here that hasn't been said by other Chinese officials since early 2009.

Second of all, Hu didn't say that the RMB was going to be supplanting the dollar anytime soon. In fact, he pretty much said the opposite of that. China wants a multiple-reserve currency regime, and they're moving veeeerrrrrry slowly to bring their currency into the conversation. And minus the RMB, as I've said before, there ain't much in the way of viable alternatives right now.

If you read the rest of the answers, there's a lot of CCP boilerplate "stiffly worded answers" mixed in with "a positive note on bilateral ties," as Richard MacGregor of the Financial Times notes. What I don't see is any brinkmanship.

Substantively, however, what about the future? Will a multiple currency reserve system work? It's a vision shared by Barry Eichengreen, Nicolas Sarkozy, and.... well, I'm not sure who else. I have my doubts, but I can't quite convey them in a single blog post.

What do you think?