Diplomacy in Action
What the WikiLeaks documents tell us about the practice of foreign policy.
None of this has stopped Iran from pushing on with its uranium-enrichment project, at least not yet. (Nor do the WikiLeaks documents, none of which are stamped with any classification higher than "Secret," reveal anything about other possible attempts to derail Iran's nuclear program, such as—according to some, largely speculative recent news stories—sabotaging their centrifuges or possibly killing their atomic scientists.)
So U.S. and South Korean officials discussed the possibilities of a unified Korea in the event that North Korea's regime implodes, including business deals to "help salve" China's concerns about co-existing with such a state? Certainly it would make sense to plan for such a contingency.
So U.S. diplomats offered inducements to various countries—millions of dollars for the island nation of Kiribati, a personal meeting with Obama for the president of Slovenia, a suggestion of heightened diplomatic prominence for Belgium—if they resettled detainees from Guantanamo Bay? A bit crude, perhaps, but the brew of statecraft has always contained a dash of bribery.
So State Department cables instructed U.S. diplomats, overseas and at the United Nations, to gather intelligence (e.g., position titles, e-mail addresses, work schedules, frequent-flier account numbers) on their foreign counterparts? It would be more perplexing if they weren't instructed to do these things.
From the early days of his presidency, Obama has always stressed the centrality of interests in foreign policy. At his first international conferences, the Summit of the Americas and the London G-20 conference, both in April 2009, he defined the task of diplomacy as work on "issues of mutual interest."
This wasn't to diminish, much less to deny, the importance of such bedrock values as human rights and national independence. At his Nobel speech the following December, he dwelled at length on the intrinsic tensions between interests and values, tensions that have challenged statesmen for centuries (and American statesmen, explicitly, since the end of World War II). But at the summits and in that speech, he concluded that an absolute adherence to values must give way in pursuing vital matters of state and security—nuclear proliferation, counterterrorism, and regional conflicts—where cooperation would promote common interests.
In this sense, Obama's statements marked a resumption of diplomatic practice and principles, as they had been understood by all powers, great and small, for centuries. In this same sense, the WikiLeaks documents—some of them, anyway—show these principles in action.
Video: Julian Assange
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Julian Assange by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images.