A little over a month ago Wikileaks began to release U.S. State Department diplomatic cables and politicians cried. Previously, Wikileaks had released U.S. Army SIGACT reports, detailing nearly every engagement in Afghanistan since the invasion, and politicians cried. Before that Wikileaks had released the Iraq War logs, before that the Apache attack on Reuters journalists. And the politicians cried.
The conflict between Wikileaks and their supporters, and the governments of the world is not strictly about secrecy versus transparency, or the extent of first-amendment rights granted to the citizenry. Most of the media analysis has focused on the perceived conflict between secrecy and security, a simplistic dichotomy that fails to capture the complexity of security, leading to the acceptance of policies that do little to keep anyone safe, yet create agonizing situations for average citizens. On the right, calls for the murder of Julian Assange and his associates have been par for the course, while the left has blamed (not entirely without reason) the failure of the mainstream media to sufficiently counter government’s endless desire for secrecy. The argument goes something like, if media did its job and demanded accountability for government misdeeds, then such “extreme” leaks would be unnecessary.
The analysis that falls outside this rubric of conversation focuses largely on Assange as a larger than life character. Some of the more interesting writing discusses Assange’s political philosophy [1, 2, 3], found in his archived blog from the mid-00s . In his posts, Assange lays out a simple set of principles and a suggested course of action:
- Power structures which are unaccountable and authoritarian act in unjust ways.
- Authoritarian power structures use secrecy to protect their power.
- Their use of secrecy makes them a form of conspiracy.
- Conspiracies can not survive when their secrets are exposed.
- Therefore, to increase justice in the world, one must expose the secrets of conspiracies.
I’m skipping a lot of the details and nuance in this bullet point summary, but those are the basics. The use of the word “conspiracy” has caused some consternation in those analyzing Assange’s writing, but it can be removed without change to the main thesis: unaccountable power acts unjustly, and must be brought to account. Assange’s version is more radical than most, and he talks of his desire to “destroy this invisible government,” using a quote from Theodore Roosevelt [1, 5]. He clearly has an anarchist’s desire to push power down to the small, and his seeming disregard for the possible side effects of information exposure is concerning at points.
But his main thesis reduces, more or less, to the core statement of the republican revolutions of the last 300 years, and the heart of the democratic ideal: men should not have power over other men unless that power is justified and granted by the governed. It’s all there, in its radical beauty, both anarchic and democratic at once.
There has been little discussion about such ideals after the release of the diplomatic cables. Many of the older Wikleaks releases deal with known or suspected corrupt entities, both governments and companies, and were heralded by the Western media and (a few) politicians as a boon for democracy. Even when the U.S. Department of Defense tried to claim that battlefield tactics would be compromised by the release of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, some media figures responded that the information gleaned (torture, civilian killings, contractor abuse and waste, etc, etc) was far more valuable for the democratic process than the risk posed to troops.
The release of the diplomatic cables saw most of these defenders melt away, particularly in the U.S. Seen as a step too far, the public release of the cables threatened world stability and the security of the U.S., world peace, and risked immediate war in the Middle East and the Korean peninsula. These concerns were not entirely without merit, particularly in the case of North Korea, where the revelation that China would support a Korean peninsula unified under Seoul could have provoked additional belligerence from the unpredictable North.
But what of democratic ideals? Do they disappear whenever risk presents itself?
It would be naive not to admit to the real tension between the risk and democracy, but we are at risk of stumbling back into the false dichotomy between secrecy and security once more. Instead, this tension should be regarded as a natural outcome of democracy. The tendency in a healthy democracy would be toward the assumption of non-systemic risk, such as terrorism or an unprovoked attack, in return for increased democratic participation and decision making. After all, what is necessary for democracy to function? Is not information one core ingredient?
In the West it is accepted that democracy is impossible without a well informed citizenry. Yet this principle has never truly been applied to foreign affairs. The stalwarts of the of the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions saw foreign affairs in a most aristocratic light, to be conducted by and for the social elites. This view has never been rooted out of the Western psyche. While there have been instances of mass resistance to elitist foreign policy, such as the anti-Vietnam war movements, such challenges never included a majoritarian desire to see a democratization of foreign affairs in general.
In both domestic and foreign affairs, a large portion of the public is neither well informed nor well equipped, such that fruitful democratic discussion is often stymied. But at the level of principles, the two are treated completely differently. In domestic affairs almost all political actors and, more importantly, the citizenry either believe in, or pay lip service to, democratic participation. Often supposed democratic values are used as a cudgel, with accusing the opposition of acting undemocratically a time honored tradition of political fist fighting. Yet demands for more democratic participation, and information upon which to base that participation, are almost never made, certainly not by elites, when it comes to matters of foreign affairs. Those who make such calls are bullied and informed of their naiveté.
Instead, it is accepted that much of the information upon which foreign affairs is decided is to be kept secret. That such secrecy is at best a half truth does not seem to matter. Those who follow geopolitics are often able to surmise the actions, if not the desires, of major actors. This partly explains of the cries of “nothing new” at the release of the U.S. cables: the media commentators were already in the know. But the public is assured that they do not need to know, can not know, the details, the and certainly not the motives, least the security of the State be put in jeopardy.
Post drug war, post 9/11, this style of reasoning has bled over to domestic issues, particularly immigration and security, but the difference in how we conceptualize the role of democracy in foreign and domestic affairs remains strong. Wikileaks consciously and directly confronted this chasm with the release of the diplomatic cables. The target was not the diplomats themselves, or the diplomatic process, both of which do necessitate some level of immediate confidentiality, as all personal relations do. Rather, the target was the content of policy, the acts of U.S. foreign policy themselves, and the information upon which such acts are based. The cables are a means of exposure and confirmation.
Had the unjust applications of power exposed in the cables been aimed at domestic initiatives or individual U.S. states, outrage, even if one did not agree with it, would rightly be seen and defended as a democratic response. Many acts would likely be deemed corrupt or illegal. Yet we hear little but reproach of the publishers and supporters, with many of the most heinous applications of power going completely unreported and discussed within the U.S. mainstream.
Remember the outrage when it was exposed that the White House has met with representatives of the insurance, pharmaceutical, and hospital industries during the formulation of the last year’s health care reform? There are similar meetings recorded throughout the diplomatic cables, where business representatives express how the U.S. could best promote their company’s financial interests [6, 7, 8]. Yet the common opinion is that U.S. foreign policy should represent such interests (job creation!), not the will of the people.
There is the ideal of democracy and the reality, with the two looking very little alike. In domestic affairs the ideal still rules the hearts of citizenry, no matter how pitiful the reality may be. But the ideal has never been fully conceptualized with respect to foreign affairs. That is the challenge that Wikileaks has quietly presented the public: will you demand foreign affairs live up the same democratic standard as domestic policy?
There are certainly arguments against applying democratic ideals to foreign affairs, but only one seems, at first, to be unique: decisions in foreign affairs affect the citizens of more countries than just the one making a particular decision. Maybe guidelines, similar to those we call rights, would be necessary to democratize international relations (for example: no nation can kill citizens of another, except in self defense; no nation can impose sanctions on another without the agreement of a majority of other nations; etc.). Just as one can not vote away the rights of others (except, apparently, in California), governments could not violate the rights of other nations. Such ideas are not very far from much of the work the U.N. has already done, and do not seem to pose fundamental problems except in enforcement. Anyway, this objection ignores the reality that domestic decisions also often have serious foreign consequences; see the American war on drugs and the effects on Mexico for an appalling example.
In the end, it falls upon us, the citizens, to demand that the various mechanisms of democracy become entwined more thoroughly in foreign affairs. In the case of the U.S., this will require both a sea change in opinion, but also a possible constitutional amendment to strip the modern Executive of its near monopoly on foreign affairs. I’m not holding my breath. But Wikileaks has reminded us that the information necessary for wider democratic participation is out there, we just have to grab hold of it, understand it, and use it. To shy away from that task, in fear of an uninformed populace or poor decisions, is to allow an unaccountable elite to continue to hold the power.
 "Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; 'To destroy this invisible government,'" Aaron Bady. zunguzungu.
 "What is Julian Assange Up To?," Robert P. Baird. 3 Quarks Daily.
 "On The Wikileaks Manifesto," Charli Carpenter. Lawyers, Gun$ and Money.
 "State and Terrorist Conspiracies" and "Conspiracy as Governance" (collection), Julian Assange. IQ.org (republished at Cryptome.org).
 "Diplomats Help Push Sales of Jetliners on the Global Market," Eric Lipton, Nicola Clark, and Andrew W. Lehren. The New York Times.
 "WikiLeaks cables: McDonald's used US to put pressure on El Salvador," Sarah Boseley. The Guardian.
 "WikiLeaks cables: Shell's grip on Nigerian state revealed," David Smith. The Guardian.