Rethinking Diplomacy After WikiLeaks

Like a global version of the Chinese water torture, Wikileaks has been dripping revelations day after day that will render diplomacy painful and less useful for the common good.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange/Worldcrunch (Jose Mesa via Flickr)

Paris-The fact that international relations' specialists aren't learning anything new from these revelations is beside the point. What is at stake here isn't discovering new facts or even one man's judgment of another. What maters in this violation of the secrecy of diplomatic cables is the erosion of trust. Ethically, it is dangerous to mistake the legitimate search for transparency with the violation of a form of secrecy that remains necessary to effective diplomatic action.

In the aftermath of World War I, on the strength of Woodrow Wilson's doctrine, the United States strongly and properly condemned the diplomatic drift of secret alliance treaties that had led Europe to war. Diplomacy was too serious a matter to be left solely in the hands of diplomats. "Civil society" too had to be informed of international challenges.

But that is not what Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, has in mind. His goal is not to make the international system better by inserting a new form of transparency. He is an anarchist, if not a nihilist, and his ambition is to create as much chaos in the world as possible. He does not want to change the rules of the game -- he wants to destroy them in the name of chaos.

It is therefore important to return to basics and common sense and try not to be fascinated by this "Robin Hood of the web". The alternative to the lack of distinction between what is on the record and what is off the record is a universal "double speak." The Romans took care in separating the written and the spoken word: "verba volant, scripta manent." Words that are spoken fly away; written down, they remain. These were simpler times with no computers, no blogs, no twitter and… no hackers.

Today, constant technological progress forces us to radically rethink diplomatic practices. The deliberate and provocative violation of all forms of secrecy will most likely lead to less transparency. Trust between people, trust in diplomatic procedures and trust in the United States will have to be restored at all costs. What should we think of a power that is so bad at keeping its own secrets? Isn't there a huge rift between its place at the center of the world and its vulnerability when it comes to controlling its communications? Calling it a "diplomatic 9/11" like the Italian Foreign Affairs Minister did is probably an exaggeration, but it is not so absurd. Considerable damage has been done and it will have long-lasting effects on America's credibility abroad, especially in the Middle East.

Sunni monarchies in the Gulf never really understood why the US chose to weaken them by the de facto reinforcement of the Iranian regime that came when they toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. By reveling their obsession with a nuclear Iran, by proving how close their positions are to those of Israel and major western powers, Wikileaks is potentially weakening these regimes even more and consolidating any doubts they may have about their leading ally, the US.

Paradoxically, this "excess of transparency" can only lead back to a secretive diplomacy: a modern version of the "King's Secret", the quasi diplomatic secret service created by France's Louis XV to increase the country's influence in Eastern Europe. Information won't spread as freely and "special envoys', trusted by the "princes who govern us', will gradually replace traditional diplomatic missions. These envoys will travel the world to bear the final message. This will last until a better regulation of the web allows the return of practices in line with modernity and the conveniences of modern technology. Looking at matters of diplomacy today, and maybe finance tomorrow, we will definitely be able to point to pre and post-Wikileaks.

Read the original article in French

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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