Historical PrecedentGiven the historical nature of the public mind, few people will recall that as the United States prepared to enter World War I, American citizens were quite exercised over the issue of “open diplomacy.” Indeed, at the time, President Woodrow Wilson made it the number one issue of his fourteen points–the points that constituted U.S. war aims, and so the ones for which some 320,518 American soldiers were killed or wounded in the subsequent year. Here is how the president put it while addressing Congress on 8 January 1918. “The program of the world’s peace…is our program” and among the fourteen prerequisites to peace is “1. 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.”
Why did Wilson make this number one on his list of war aims? Because those Americans who paid attention to such issues did not trust the European style of international relations. They thought it was corrupt and tainted by narrow interest that seemed always to lead to conflict. This was one of the beliefs that encouraged American isolationism. However, Wilson was not an isolationist. He wanted the United States to engage in the world and take a leadership position. He imagined that America was a morally superior nation and its involvement in international affairs would make the world better. “Diplomacy proceeding frankly and in the public view” was his first move in the effort to assert that idealistic American leadership. So what would Woodrow Wilson, or for that matter the educated and aware American citizen supporting him in 1918, say about Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and other U.S. officials and “pundits” running about and insisting on the absolute need for secret diplomacy, while calling those who defy that standard criminals? What indeed?!
The truth is that there has always been a gap between the interests of the general citizenry and interests as they take shape at the level of state policy. It is within that gap that secret diplomacy thrives. One can see this most clearly in the case of dictatorships. For instance, if you travel about the Middle East, say to Jordan or Egypt, everyone takes it for granted that there is no connection between the business of the people and the business of the state. The state is run by narrow elites who make policy according to their own needs and the public plays no role and is given little consideration. Its fate is to be lied to and manipulated. So, of course, those elites are going to operate from back rooms and behind censored media. The person on the street knows this to be so and accepts it because, if he or she protests, the “security” services will come after them. They will be charged with endangering the state or framed for some other crime. And their lives will be ruined.
But what about democracies? Well, the truth is that they too are run by political and economic elites whose interests are rarely the same as the general public. That is why, when the government uses the term “national interest,” one should always be suspicious. When it comes to foreign policy this can be most clearly seen in the policies long adopted toward places like Cuba and Israel. A very good argument can be made that the policies pursued for decades by the US government toward these two nations is no more than product of special interest manipulation with no reference to actual national interest or well being. Indeed, in the former case it led to an illegal invasion of Cuba by US backed forces in 1961 and no doubt encouraged the Cubans to allow Soviet missiles on their territory in 1962. The latter has contributed to numerous disastrous actions on the part of the US in the Middle East out of which came the attack on September 11, 2001. None of this is in the interest of anyone other than the elites whose semi-secret machinations lead to the policies pursued.
The difference between dictatorships and democracies are ones of style and, in a democracy, the option to shift emphasis in terms of elite interests served, each time there is an election. Democratic elites have learned that they do not need to rely on the brute force characteristic of dictatorships as long as they can sufficiently control the public information environment. You restrict meaningful free speech to the fringes of the media, to the “outliers” along the information bell curve. You rely on the sociological fact that the vast majority of citizens will either pay no attention to that which they find irrelevant to their immediate lives, or they will believe the official story line about places and happenings of which they are otherwise ignorant. Once you have identified the official story line with the official policy being pursued, loyalty to the policy comes to equate to patriotism. It is a shockingly simple formula and it usually works. Given this scenario, Woodrow Wilson and his notion of open diplomacy represents an historical anomaly. When, in 1919, he arrived at Versailles for the peace conference the representatives of Britain, France and Italy thought him a hopeless idealist. And perhaps he really was.
Incompatibility with Democracy
Whether Wilson was or was not an idealist cannot affect the fact that secret diplomacy almost never represents the public interest. It cannot affect the fact that an honest assessment of secret diplomacy, an honest look at what most of the time it has historically wrought, leads to the conclusion that it is harmful. It often leads to unnecessary conflict and it undermines the democratic process because it denies the public’s right to know what is being done in its name. And, in a democracy, it cannot be sustained without the help of massive state lying and propaganda.
So, what does that say about those American leaders railing against Wikileaks and crying for Julian Assange’s head? Does it mean, to use Noam Chomsky’s characterization, that they have a “deep hatred for democracy”? I doubt they have thought it out that far. Some of them, such as Sarah Palin, who wants Assange hunted down like Osama bin Laden (which means, I guess, hunted down ineffectively), Newt Gingrich, who likens Assange to an “enemy combatant,” and Bill Kristol who wants the government to kidnap and then “whack” Assange, are personalities of the extreme right who essentially advocate the policies of dictators. It is not hard to identify these folks with a particular ideology and elite interest group. Others, like Senator Joseph Lieberman, have done their utmost to shut down Wikileaks through pressuring on-line operators such as Amazon who, until recently, have cooperated with the whistle blowing website. Lieberman has taken it upon himself to use his political clout to determine what the entire American population can and cannot know. Is Joe Lieberman doing all this for the public good? It is unlikely. He does declare, with a lot of righteous indignation, that the information Wikileaks has made public is “stolen.” Yet, as Daniel Ellsberg has suggested, Julian Assange and Wikileaks are “serving our [American] democracy and serving our rule of law precisely by challenging the secrecy regulations, which are not laws in most cases, in this country.” In other words, Lieberman is on shaky legal grounds when he throws around a word like “stolen.” But, I suspect he cares little about this and his real motivation is probably special interest driven. Given Liberman’s history as an obsessive devotee of Israel, would he be so fixated on Wikileaks if the Zionist state was not embarrassingly involved in recent revelations?
Woodrow Wilson had it wrong about America. The United States is not a morally superior nation and its elites have always been just as corruptible and obsessed with secrecy as any in Europe. His plea for open diplomacy never had a chance on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. If Wilson’s idealism was seriously wounded at Versailles, it was killed outright by the Republican majority in the Senate which refused to ratify the peace treaty he brought home. Why? Largely because of the desire to frustrate and ruin a Democratic president. Sound familiar?
Can one imagine circumstances in which diplomatic interaction necessities secrecy? I am sure one can. However, those circumstances should be exceptional. They should not constitute the norm. And, there should be clear criteria as to what constitutes such circumstances. Arriving at those criteria should be part of a widespread public debate over a seminal right– the right to know what your government is doing in your name. At this point you might ask, what widespread public debate? Well, the one that supporters of Julian Assange and Wikileaks are trying desperately to begin.
* Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University. He is the author of numerous books, including Islamic Fundamentalism and America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood.