Jan 24 2011

An Emperor Without Clothes: Wikileaks and the Limits of American Power

By Felix Berenskoetter

Two months into the public disclosure of US diplomatic cables by Wikileaks, what has been their impact? Although at this point only about 10% of over 250,000 leaked cables are available to the public, the widespread reporting on their content in the media, in particular by those outlets with access to the cables in advance, allows spending some thoughts on this question. Specifically, we should like to ask how much remains from the initial claim that these leaks would cause damage to the US.

My (at this stage admittedly cautious) answer is ‘not much’; at least not in the sense suggested by headlines in the days following the release of the documents. Their dominant claim was that the publication of the cables would expose what the US government ‘really’ thinks and how it ‘really’ goes about its business. In the words of the Wikileaks website (migrating through cyberspace) the cables would “show the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors”. It was suggested that they would enable us to access that parallel, secret world of great power politics and show the extent of US influence on events and political dynamics across the globe. The cables would give us the emperor without clothes and reveal its not-so benign face. Such expectations were fostered by the desire of media outlets to sell revelations (with Wikileaks setting the tone by providing the label ‘Cablegate’, suggesting an affinity to ‘Watergate’); yet they also fit the recent debate among academics over the nature and reality of an American empire.

There is no doubt that the cables confirm an impressive US presence in the world. Yet the overall picture that emerges offers little food for one-dimensional conspiracy theories. Instead, the picture we get is more complex and more interesting, with rather counterintuitive consequences.

Of course, unless we actually sift through these cables ourselves, most of what we read is filtered by media analysts and editors. And their reporting occurs from a particular place within a particular political context, which affects the selection and evaluation of cables as well as how stories are constructed out of them. Even so, up until now, the leaked documents have not generated many, if any, surprises, at least not to serious observers of US foreign policy and/or the countries the cables deal with. The majority of the documents are unclassified (accessible by millions working in US government institutions) and contain what one might call common knowledge. That is, they contain information and evaluations gained in private conversations, perhaps, but not going beyond what local journalists or taxi drivers know or suspect (after all, locals tend to be the source of information). This makes for interesting reading of how US officials assess individuals, situations, and dynamics within a particular society, which improves our understanding of how they see ‘the world’ or, rather, a fragment thereof. What the documents do not tell us, however, is a tale of US omnipotence.

Because many of the cables are reports back to Washington and deal with the politics of the respective host country, their content is potentially more embarrassing and consequential for the host government than the White House. Again, this is not so much because the cables contain surprising revelations. Yet they can become an authoritative source substantiating suspicions and explicating known yet unspoken facts, in particular in countries which lack transparency and investigative journalism. In such cases, political elites would have reason to be concerned because the leaks reveal activities they would rather hide from their constituency. And rather than unmasking an hitherto invisible American web of control the cables often show the opposite. Whether it concerns the 2008 Georgia-Russia war or the dynamics in Iraq or Afghanistan following Western military intervention, the cables indicate a lack of American control and, instead, highlight agency and, thus, responsibility of local actors. In other words, it makes apparent that others are not merely objects but subjects of history. From the US perspective this is damaging only to the extent that it pokes holes in the notion of an American empire, fostered by Hollywood images and overly self-confident attitudes of American officials, often happily exploited by actors elsewhere looking for a convenient scapegoat. Thus, ‘Cablegate’ may not only render it more difficult for the US to take credit or blame for the order of things, it may also fuel resistance against local rulers by an unhappy people, as appears to have been the case in Tunisia.

Still, it has been noted that Wikileaks would cause damage to the relations America holds with others because it suggests that the US bureaucracy has difficulty with keeping secrets, prompting contacts to be more hesitant about sharing information with US officials. This is a valid concern, as many informants rely on anonymity for fear of retribution, even if many of the documents hardly contain secrets in a meaningful sense. However, the measures now put in place within US government bureaucracies to prevent such leaks in the future will probably alleviate such concerns. And even if we ignore the rather crude remarks by prominent (Republican) politicians of hunting down and executing those responsible for leaking the documents, it is safe to assume that US agencies are involved in the aggressive campaign trying to take Wikileaks offline.

Yet it is precisely here, in the American reaction to Wikileaks, where we see the potential for great damage to the US. In all fairness, the attempt of the Obama administration to stop the publication of internal documents and prevent further leaks is understandable. Any government in the world facing a similar situation would feel compelled to do the same; indeed most people would object to having strangers read private conversations. The irony is that this attempt to stop the flow of information comes from what is arguably still the most open society on this planet. Despite the secrecies and deceptive manoeuvrings of the Bush administration, as any researcher knows the amount of information about US government business formally available to the public (and not just the American public) is unparalleled. What is more, the Obama administration promised to re-establish transparency and civil liberties curbed by its predecessor, symbolised in the move of declaring the White House ‘the people’s house’. This promise, part of the broader agenda of improving America’s global image, sits uneasily with internet censorship. Thus, the Obama administration faces an interesting dilemma: if it succeeds in shutting down Wikileaks it will damage America’s identity as the ‘land of the free’, and if it fails to stop the leaks it might provide us with further evidence of the limits of American power.

Felix Berenskoetter is a Lecturer in International Relations at SOAS and an Associate of the LSE IDEAS Transatlantic Relations Programme.

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3 Responses to An Emperor Without Clothes: Wikileaks and the Limits of American Power

  1. Miles says:

    >Typo, fifth paragraph:"Because many of the cables are reports back to Washington … their content it potentially more embarrassing."

  2. ~ says:

    From Felix Berenskoetter
    “Interesting comment. Here two brief replies:

    (1) It would be interesting to know on what basis you think posting/reading the documents can be declared a crime (in particular if this takes place outside US territory).

    (2) My point about the potential damage to the US refers to America’s identity (‘the land of the free’) as a social construct. The damage is done if a significant number of people (inside or outside the US) cease to accept this image”.

    1. The basis of this idea resides in the fact that reading classified governmental documents can only be read legally by those who have been determined eligible to read this information through security processing. There are specific guidelines for those who are allowed to read classified material, and individuals who have not been determined eligible to read these documents are in violation of these laws- weather or not the information was accessible or not. It is a crime that occurs, which cannot be enforced- but the law applies even if it is an unenforceable act.

    Currently, we don’t know the extent of damage that the reading of this material causes to an individual who accesses it. The implications of reading it depends mostly on how the individual chooses to react to it, by the reposting of the information on news websites, or distributing the information through Facebook. We do know that an individual who has illegally accessed classified material will admittedly not be offered a government position if they seek one.

    Just with reading classified material, the reposting of this material is considered a crime because the individual is acting as liaison between what should be private, and making it available to a wider audience. Despite this, US citizens were only warned not to read or repost the information. News agencies rely on sources within the government to verify what classified information could be posted with the least harm to individuals and vulnerable populations. The majority of the time, some classified information is “of no consequence” and can be released with permissions. The decision to publish classified material once accessed is made by the editors and publishers who would be blamed for the release of information if it were not done in the proper way, so as not to jeopardize individuals on the frontlines of national security.

    Outside the US, the reading classified US documents is not vary enforceable. During the Wikileaks events, many governments raced to read the information and found out certainties that they already speculated. While, classified documents read by foreign nationals is looked down upon by the US, if the US were to pursue those who accessed this material, it would obviously have more disastrous foreign policy consequences than the release of the information itself.

    There is a distinction between classified governmental documents and it’s effect on national security, and the classified documents of corporations. Classified documents of corporations are not under federal laws, and so the release of this information is warranted to whoever can get their hands on it- however; the clear difference is that corporations in the US can sue the person(s) involved in leaking the information. For example, if a corporation won a suit, it could take all an individuals assets, but cannot put that person in jail.

    2. This is an interesting idea that I did not address during the initial reading of your article.

    The Wikileaks documents may have revealed information on the US government; however, the government response was not one that took advantage of a Carte Blanche law. In retrospect, the government did not issue more than a strong warning to civil servants and to those who read and re-posted the documents. Because for example, it did not shut down the news agencies that relented the information, it did not persecute individuals active in blogs; it contributed to the American notion of the “land of the free”. The combined reaction of news agencies, government and individuals to the release of classified information last year could not have been experienced in many in other countries so peacefully.

    This combined reaction could be a lesson to governments that act with violence or disdain to their exposure or compromise (as in Kenya, during John Githongo’s release of information on the government). From this perspective, the reaction within the US last year contributed more so to the notion of an open society. Additionally, there was an abundant release of classified documents, but the reactions to the information in the documents this did not seem to expose any truths at severely affected diplomatic relations. Just as you said, despite the crackdown on Wikileaks documents, the US comparatively still has one of the most open societies on earth, and continues in this tradition.

    While it may be true that the American identity will be damaged if enough people outside the US cease to accept the image, the identity that America carries outside the US is not the same identity as the American identity carried by it’s citizens. This idea of America as “the land of the free” is deeply rooted in American culture, regardless of religion or political stance. It is a unifying concept that has persevered through many adaptations in laws and additions to the US constitution. It is a concept that will endure as long as Americans feel like they have a way to protect this notion, whatever it may mean to them.

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