December 2, 2010
There is a disproportionate preoccupation with US foreign policy. That comes with being the world’s number one. Your policies reverberate. Scrutiny is in order. But too often the fascination bleeds into cynicism and paranoia, a process of understanding in which rationality is suspended.
This malignant impulse looked set to extend its reach last week, with the website WikiLeaks threatening to publish more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables from the past three years.
Now the US and all its evils would be exposed to the world. The country’s benign outward glow would be revealed for what America’s enemies said it was all along — a veil for ruthless hypocritical self-interest.
US officials almost suggested as much in warning that the contents of the leak could breed mistrust and erode relations with key allies. “They are going to create tension in relationships between our diplomats and our friends around the world,” said US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
Only, it hasn’t played out that way. (So far anyway: hundreds of thousands of cables are reportedly yet unpublished.) In fact the early signs point to the resilience of the bonds between the US and its allies; no diplomatic salvos have resulted.
Many leaders have rationally sought to keep the revelations in perspective. As Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini put it, the leak is “an action aimed at discrediting [the US].”
The cables further reveal that US shares stronger support on burning issues than many realised. Much of the Arab world, for instance, shares Washington’s view that Iran harbors wicked intentions and must be confronted. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah asked the US to “cut off the head of the snake,” referring ostensibly to Iran’s nuclear programme. Leaders of Qatar, the UAE, Jordan and other Muslim countries articulated similar views.
We also find no evidence in these candid correspondences that the US is plotting a global conspiracy — against Muslims, against China, against the South, an accusation often levelled by America’s critics.
Many of the cables reveal a superpower operating prudently, and beyond narrow self-interest. Here is the US anticipating a collapse of North Korea and how to peacefully reunify the divided country, taking into account the prospect of an uncooperative China. What other country has considered a solution to this potentially calamitous prospect? Here is the US trying to stop lawless Pakistan from enriching uranium for fear of whose hands it might end up in. The cables reveal a US adroitly building consensus against Iran’s nuclear programme, contradicting the crude stereotype of a trigger-happy Uncle Sam squinting down the end of a barrel in search of a new “victim” to scorch. Even Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears willing to cede land in the West Bank not to mention in Israel itself.
Less than flattering comments are made of some world leaders. Angela Merkel is described as “risk averse and rarely creative.” Afghan President Hamid Karzai is paranoid. Nicholas Sarkozy is thin-skinned. Vladamir Putin is an “alpha dog.” Nothing here beyond what one might expect to be muttered behind closed doors after those plastic-smiled photo-ops.
Certainly worse things have been said by these leaders’ own citizens and perhaps even by their own cabinet members, which is to say nothing of what might be said once US officials left their presence.
It does appear that the Obama administration has attempted to collect personal data on foreign officials, and that’s hardly commendable.
But more often than not what the cables reveal is an America astutely keeping tabs on issues and people that matter in the complex web of global diplomacy; and striving to find a constructive way forward. That may do more to build trust than erode it. For diplomacy is a shadowy game of duplicity and hypocrisy that naturally breeds suspicion, and a not entirely unflattering glimpse into that opaque world has just been unearthed.
This is not to discount that America has committed atrocities in the past. Nor that the 250,000 cables to come may unveil some less flattering aspects of foreign policy, American or otherwise. Indeed many of the notes thus far released were unclassified.
But, for now at least, the window this malicious (if not illegal) attempt to undermine US interest is on the contrary challenging the toxic temptation to dismissively regard the dynamic nuances of American power in black and white terms.
* A version of this story ran on Malaysianinsider.com