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.