The results are in: Some 34% of readers voted the latest WikiLeaks releases as the biggest international story of 2010. In second place was the rescue of the Chilean miners, with almost 21% of the vote.
For diplomats, politicians, pundits or just plain news-junkies, the WikiLeaks cables are addictive.
The classified US diplomatic cables that Julian Assange somehow secured and in an unauthorized fashion is releasing in bite-sized chunks are kind of like corn nuts: You eat one, then another, then another until your mouth is uncomfortably salty, but - even then - you can't put them down.
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But unlike other addictions - or even activities like watching television - that suck you in and leave you feeling empty afterward for wasting your time and energy, you actually learn something through the WikiLeaks addiction. These cables, originating in Madrid, or Beijing, or Tel Aviv provide a fascinating glimpse of the world. Read these cables, and you gain a valuable perspective on current events.
Diplomatic cable writing is a unique literary genre. The job of diplomats is, of course, to represent their governments abroad, to go to state functions, hold meetings, and lobby those who matter.
But it is also to gather information, and to relay that information back home. In this regard, diplomats act very much like reporters. Their audience is smaller, albeit more influential, and generally (especially in the case of American diplomats) they have better and more intimate access to the leadership elite than the regular beat reporter.
Diplomats, like reporters, hold meetings, summarize the views of their interlocutors, write up their impressions and – on occasion – pen in-depth analyses of the goings-on where they are posted. While the reporter frequently has a ring-side ticket to events, the diplomats are often actually inside the ring. And, as such, they have a closer perspective.
Truth be told, nothing necessarily earth shattering has yet emerged from the WikiLeaks cables - no great, dark secret uncovered. What the cables do is bring much of what we already know to life; put meat on the bones.
We all know, for instance, that the Arab world is petrified of Iran. But when you hear Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah implore the US to "cut off the head of the snake
," or Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak call the Iranians "big, fat liars," it takes on a different dimension.
It's one thing to know instinctively that New Zealand overacted in 2004 when it recalled its ambassador and put relations with Israel into deep freeze after the arrest of two Israelis for fraudulently trying to secure a New Zealand passport. But when you read a US diplomat in Wellington
say the overreaction was partly because New Zealand was trying to court favor with the Arabs and open up the lucrative market in the Arab world to New Zealand lamb, then it gives a different take on what motivates interactions between countries, especially when it comes to Israel.
And it's one thing to know that Israel has trouble getting its narrative accepted in western Europe, and quite another to have a US diplomat in Oslo spell out
that Israel's problems in Norway have to do with 20,000 Norwegian soldiers who served in UNIFIL and came back home with negative opinions of Israel, to local anti-Semitism, and to a rapidly growing Muslim population.Time Magazine
this year gave its annual Person of the Year
designation to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and not – as many expected – to Assange. There were those who criticized the choice, saying Assange was more worthy, that he had the most impact on events in 2010.
I think not. Facebook, like Google, has fundamentally changed the way people communicate, it has altered (some would say enhanced; others, harmed) the way people interact.
WikiLeaks, for all its drama and the justified interest it has produced, has not spawned anything close to that type of revolutionary change. It has piqued interest, it has given a context to understand events, and it has proven a gold mine for historians who in the future will write about our present.
But it has not fundamentally changed anything, not even diplomacy.
Diplomacy was, and will continue to be, based on communications - on
meeting people, on sending impressions and thoughts and assessments back
home to those formulating policy, and the diplomatic cable is the prime
vehicle, the cell, of that interaction.
It may very well be that the way the cables are sent, and how they are
stored and protected, will change as a result of the WikiLeaks site. It
may also be that in the short term people will be more hesitant about
speaking openly to diplomats, especially American ones, than in the
But the unauthorized leak of the records of tens of thousands of
meetings will not put an end to the meetings themselves, or the
evaluations those meetings generate, because those meetings, those
analysis, are the building blocks of diplomacy - a crucial element in
how nations interact.
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