Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The gossip of Les Ambassadeurs and its implications

One of the first reactions of many commentators to the WikiLeaks cablegate documents was that it is essentially nothing more then a collection of gossip. Partyer Berlusconi and Batman Putin are engaged in a bromance, handing each other lavish gifts. Prince Andrew makes bad jokes about France and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov shows up at a Dagestani mafia-marriage-party with a gold plated pistol and a five kilo lump of Gold as a gift for the bride. No value here, so goes the choir.

I disagree. Rather than gossip, I see the work of professionals, the continuation of the ancient art of diplomacy. Providing a first hand account of the culture and preferences of the people the diplomats are dealing with. This in turn serves the foreign affairs people at home in putting together their strategy to attain the desired end. Yes, states have interests which aren’t up for individuals to decide, but deals are made with people, not with abstract entities. Thus understanding these people is imperative.

I have put together a few examples of diplomatic correspondence of Spanish imperial ambassadors in 16th century Italy. Note the striking similarities in tone and content with the leaked cables:

Spanish Imperial Ambassador to Venice, Rodrigo Niño writing to Charles V, 1530:
The Turkish ambassador went to the Palace, they say accompanied from his residence by principle members of the College, and among them two of the most important on either side of him. The Doge descended his stairs and came halfway across the chamber to receive him, and three did him all the honors possible. He took him by the right hand and set him I the place reserved for the Papal Legate, or me in his absence. The Ambassador gave is letter of credential, written on paper, which they say was an arm and a half long […] it came rolled in a container of brocade, sealed with white wax, and the seal was covered in a layer of gold […] he gave it to the Doge who broke the seal and gave it to a secretary of the Turkish language who read it. He read that the ambassador proposed his embassy and in effect it was for no other purpose but to announce that the Turk would circumcise his sons on the 8th of July, for which he would have the greatest celebration ever seen in his lands.

Spanish Imperial Ambassador to the Holy See, Don Luis de Requeséns writing to Phillip II, 1565
Your Majesty commanded me to describe very particularly what I understood in Rome about the personalities of each of the competing Cardinals, and the strength and weakness of each as a possible pope […] I this matter Your Majesty must presuppose that nothing in the world is more difficult then to really know people, and there is nothing in which deceptions are more common. And if this is generally true of all people, then it is even more so of the clerics and cardinals of Rome. One need to look no further for an example of this ten the last two pontiffs to be elected, one of whom (Pius IV) who was Your Majesty’s servant and vassal and who was made with your help, but after being elected attended to Your Majesty’s need not at all […] and besides, there is no business in the world whose outcome is harder to predict then a papal election.

Spanish Imperial Ambassador to Venice, Diego Guzmán de Silva writing to Philippe II, 1580:
This morning I was advices that yesterday at nightfall there arrived two men in a ship which came from Ruvino, who did not want to present themselves before the ministers of the city, a is the custom for all foreigners, as they wished to go directly to the doge […] Having been given permission, they were taken from the ship in a covered gondola so they would not be seen. They went by a somewhat isolated canal to St. Mark’s, and afterwards they returned there, and according to what I was told they had been with the Doge. The more important of the two men came dressed in crimson damask, and the other in black, both in Levantine style […] The Papal Nuncio was in the College this morning. I went to his house to ask if he knew anything about these events. He told me [the Venetians] has told him nothing […] But the [Holy Roman] emperor’s ambassador had sent to him ti say that the son of the Bailo [the Venetian ambassador to Constantinople] had arrived, and had brought with him a signed peace treaty with the Turks. I went to look for the [imperial] ambassador and met him on the street that leads to the nuncio’s house and from there to my residence. I asked him what he knew, and he told me a highly placed source had told him the Bailo’s son had come with a signed peace treaty. I asked him if he knew anything more specific, but he said no. I asked him to try to discover more, and I will do the same. 

The content of diplomatic dispatches have been remarkably consistent throughout the ages. The biographies of great diplomats, be it Talleyrand or Metternich or Kissinger or others, are full of stories how they studied carefully the people and the prevailing conditions they had to deal with in their times. Thus, the content of the WikiLeaks cablegate documents was exactly what one had to expect, especially since they were release in a raw form absent of any editing.

The real issue on hand is of course something else. For diplomacy to work properly, confidence, discretion and trust are of vital importance. What happens behind the curtain and what is presented as the official picture is often entirely different. To quote one of the more offensive passages of The Prince, the infamous chapter XVIII:

[…] For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

Many embarrassing details continue to put America and the World in an awkward position by lifting the curtain. And here lies the true danger (or blessing) of WikiLeaks. The diplomatic gossip exposes institutions and people in office; legitimacy and authority vanish. As a result, the formal functioning of power is threatened. What seemed stable and established could suddenly crumble.

The concerns of the US Administration and its diplomatic corps must be thus seen mainly in this light, that with the formal functioning of power broken down and regimes loosing their grip on power, diplomacy could grind to a halt and chaos could fill its place.

At the time of this writing, such a process has already been set in motion. To be sure, WikiLeaks probably just played a minor role among other more important factors in the ongoing struggle in the Middle East. But nevertheless, there are many who have already pointed out, that the diplomatic gossip contributed its part to the revolution in Tunisia (and in turn in Egypt and the greater Middle East), by discrediting the ruling elites through detailed accounts of their lavish lifestyle and corruption. In combination with other factors, such as high food prices, economic hard ship and a repressive, arbitrary state apparatus, the socioeconomic condition were set for an explosion. The tragic self immolation of the young Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi proofed to be a watershed moment. Anger suddenly exploded in riots, mob violence and eventually revolution.

On what will follow (not just in Tunesia, but all over the Middle East) we can just speculate. It must be remembered, that the outcome of revolutions are always highly unpredictable. Those who unleash the beast are seldom the ones ridding it through the finish line. The revolution has just started; we are in for a long ride with an uncertain destination.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Trotsky, revolution, leaked secrets and new media

Early 1917. Eastern Front. The war was not going well for Imperial Russia. Russia had already suffered staggering casualties, more then any other of the Great Powers. The Russian front was pressed hard and was on the verge of collapse. The war effort could no longer be sustained and it was only a question of time when the Imperial Russia Army would completely break. Discontent was growing; at the front common soldiers lost complete trust in their leadership; at home, people suffered unbearable economic hardship, hunger and all the other horrors brought by war. The tsar had before, in one of his many foolish moves, made himself commander and chief in the war effort. Now the tsar was personally associated with the pains of war. As the Tsar of all Russians he was supposed to protect the people, as his dynasty had always claimed was its holy duty. He had utterly failed, he had lost complete credibility. The air of revolution was all over Russia.

Revolutionary activities had been around in Russia for a long time. Since the mysterious kidnapping attempt on Alexander I, by an unknown group of conspirators, all Russian tsars had to face the threat of assassination and violent revolution.

Alexander’s successor, Nicholas I tasted that reality almost immediately after he was made Tsar. On the same day of his coronation, on 14 December 1825, he faced a revolt by 3,000 young Imperial Army officers and other liberal-minded citizens. The Decembrist Revolt. Calling upon his loyal force, he crushed the rebellion and prevailed. But this experience cemented his autocratic character, he remained for the rest of his reign a committed reactionary, applying the remedy of suppression against any civil movement, within Russia and throughout Europe. This earned him the title the police man of Europe.

Thus it was Nicholas I who created in 1826 the Third Section of HIM Chancellery, which was in effect a secret police and enjoyed great extra constitutional powers. Like so many ideas put forward in history, it was believed that the Third Section would increase the wellbeing, security and stability of all of society. And in the beginning the Third Section was indeed positively received by the public, but it quickly became notorious, accused of abduction and torture. Its successor organization Okhrana, set up in 1880, was even more despotic, operating largely outside the constitution, infiltrating all kinds of civil organizations, abducting and killing people at will.

These crude measures were certainly successful for a long time in suppressing dissent and securing the tsars rule. But the price the regime had to pay was high; the seed for intensive hatred were planted. The inability of the Russian rulers to reform the country and to grant adequate civil rights to its people in time created the breading space for many revolutionary movements. The people wanted alternatives, new ideas. The second element that would steer Russia towards a revolution was put in place. All it took now was a moment of general agitation of the Russian people and a spark of outrage to unleash all the anger.

In February 1917 that moment arrived. The state of great despair of the general population brought about by the disastrous war effort, the spread of ideas offering an alternative to the status quo and the increasing difficulty of the Tsar to assert authority finally exploded into a full blown revolution. The tsar abdicated and a provisional government took power, terminating the centuries old rule of the Romanoff regime.

The new political leadership decided to stick to existing obligations with its western allies promising to continiue the war effort against the central powers to 'its glorious conclusion'. A bad decision as it would turn out. The Russian army had been in disarray and renewed offensives resulted in complete disaster, with the remnants of the Russian army completely demoralized. Russian soldiers deserted en masse. Many others warmed to communist ideas. In Moscow the new regime turned quickly unpopular and impressively it was perceived as a continuation of tsarist rule in another name, with the same people in command, the same institutions in place. After just a few months in power, the October Revolution took place, which propelled the Bolsheviks into power.

The Bolsheviks knew that their hold on power was weak, that they had powerful enemies and thus they had to consolidate their hold on power. In order to do this, they decided that they had to end Russian participation in the Great War, and to concentrate their forces at home.

Talks with the Germans ensued almost immediately. The location for the talks was Brest-Litovsk. It was a strange setting, with the Germans, dressed in their glamorous suits and uniforms, holding up the protocol of the past, offering vast banquettes and insisting on spending time together. After all, It has always been done like this for many centuries. On the other side, the representatives of the Russian proletariat, self declared enemies of aristocracy and all the upper classes.

The Russian chief negotiator was Leon Trotsky. Early into the negotiations it was clear that no deal could be made. Trotsky outright refused German demands and walks out with his famous words "No War, No Peace. He" believed that Europe was rife for a general revolution. Now that he and the Bolsheviks were in power, they would accelerate this process and he knew what had to be done:  He proclaimed, that he would just have to blow open the doors of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Petersburg and publish all the secret treaties the tsarist and liberal regime had signed with the other great powers since the days of Metternich. He was sure, that this action would produce such an outrage among the common people of Europe, that the people would storm the streets and overthrow their respective governments, all over Europe. General Revolution. Trotsky wrote:

"In publishing the secret diplomatic documents from the foreign policy archives of Tsarism and of the bourgeois coalition Governments of the first seven months of the revolution, we are carrying out the undertaking which we made when our party was in opposition. Secret diplomacy is a necessary tool for a propertied minority which is compelled to deceive the majority in order to subject it to its interests. Imperialism, with its dark plans of conquest and its robber alliances and deals, developed the system of secret diplomacy to the highest level. The struggle against the imperialism which is exhausting and destroying the peoples of Europe is at the same time a struggle against capitalist diplomacy, which has cause enough to fear the light of day. The Russian people, and the peoples of Europe and the whole world, should learn the documentary truth about the plans forged in secret by the financiers and industrialists together with their parliamentary and diplomatic agents. The peoples of Europe have paid for the right to this truth with countless sacrifices and universal economic desolation.

The abolition of secret diplomacy is the primary condition for an honest, popular, truly democratic foreign policy. The Soviet Government regards it as its duty to carry out such a policy in practice. That is precisely why, while openly proposing an immediate armistice to all the belligerent peoples and their Governments, we are at the same time publishing these treaties and agreements, winch have lost all binding force for the Russian workers, soldiers, and peasants who have taken power into their own hands.

The bourgeois politicians and journalists of Germany and AustriaHungary may try to make use of the documents published in order to present the diplomacy of the Central Empires in a more advantageous light. But any such attempt would be doomed to pitiful failure, and that for two reasons. In the first place, we intend quickly to place before the tribunal of public opinion secret documents which treat sufficiently clearly of the diplomacy of the Central Empires. Secondly, and more important, the methods of secret diplomacy are as universal as imperialist robbery. When the German proletariat enters the revolutionary path leading to the secrets of their chancelleries, they will extract documents no whit inferior to those which we are about to publish. It only remains to hope that this will take place quickly.

The workers' and peasants' Government abolishes secret diplomacy and its intrigues, codes, and lies. We have nothing to hide. Our programme, expresses the ardent wishes of millions of workers, soldiers, and peasants. We want the rule of capital to be overthrown as possible. In exposing to the entire world the work of the ruling classes, as expressed in the secret diplomatic documents, we address the workers with the call which forms the unchangeable foundation of our foreign policy: 'Proletarians of all countries, unite.'"

Trotsky's WikiLeaks plan of course failed. The German Imperial Army simply continued their offensive against the newly established revolutionary government and made huge territorial gains. until the Bolsheviks accepted Germanys crushing demands and finally dropped out of the war. Russia itself was kept in turmoil through an ongoing civil war which ended only in 1920. No one outside an exclusive circle had ever heard of the tsarist secret treaties. No other state would follow the revolution and the Soviets would end up completely isolated.  It was the start of the cold war, in which ironically Soviet Russia should become the most secretive, despotic actor.

We can certainly identify in our own times many similarities to that period in history. Especially in the Middle East, but also in many other parts of the world. The symptoms are the same as in the past: Restless and resentful populations, Repressive and arbitrary regimes, agitated people through economic hardship and a weakened, questioned Leviathan. But there is of course one big difference. Trotsky didn’t have the Internet and Twitter. The advance of the Internet and with it revolutionary communication platforms like Twitter and Facebook could indeed completely change the rules of the game. With awe we witness the current events in the Middle East and we know that this decade will have more in stock. Much more.

Second chance

For some time now I wanted to revive this blog, but other priorities usually trumped.
Now, that I find myself with some more time on my hands and inspired by the many major events taking place recently, I think it’s a good moment to come up with some thoughts. Cheers

Friday, July 25, 2008

One Party Democracy?

Zimbabwe is a mess. Mugabe is ruthlessly purging the country from everybody he doesn’t like while the people struggle with world-record high levels of Inflation and unemployment. (Watch this revealing video from the guardian.) In the wake of these facts, most of the world agrees, that something must be done. But what that is, is not so clear at all. While some call for intervention, for a forceful removal of Mugabe, others would like to see the “Kenyan solution”. In Kenya violence broke out at the end of 2007 after the two main political competitors couldn’t accept the election outcome and accused each other of fraud (though observers largely pointed the finger at President Kibaki).
An all out ethnic war was only defused after long negotiations involving Kofi Anan and a Geneva based NGO (Read this most interesting article for further details). Both parties agreed to share power under a government of national unity.

Recently, South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki has been involved in an attempt to reproduce such a result in Zimbabwe where he has been mediating talks between Mugabes ZanuPF and Tvangirais MDC. Though the outcome is unsure (Tsvangirai and the MDC accuse Mbeki of bias towards Mugabe and repeatedly asked for an other mediator), a government of national unity in Zimbabwe is what many in the southern African cone hope for.

This wish has echoed largely through the international media, and I haven’t heard much criticism of such a potential outcome throughout the news outlets. Also after the two parties in Kenya came to a deal, most media organizations portrayed it as a victory for peace and the people. Now there lie my doubts.

In a democracy the opposition has a clear role. It is supposed to check the governing party, in order to minimize corruption, abuse of power and waste of public money. If there is no opposition, there is a one party state, and nobody to hold the government accountable.

And that is exactly what we have today in Kenya, and that is what so many commentators and politicians hope for in Zimbabwe. Not only are the people of these countries the losers, those who were responsible for atrocities are allowed to stay unharmed in power and live their easy lives. These deals become especially a foul taste, when one considers the commitments made to international accountability and justice in other parts of the world.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

About this Blog

The author of this blog studies presently International Relations at an university in Rio de Janeiro Brazil, far away from his home in Europe. This blog is not in sync with any political movement or viewpoint whatsoever. Ideas across the board will be reflect in its posts.

Comments are welcomed.

acloselook "at" gmail dot com