War Stories

Diplomacy in Action

What the WikiLeaks documents tell us about the practice of foreign policy.

Julian Assange

The main thing about the latest trove of secret WikiLeaks documents is this: It exists, it’s out there for the world to see, and it would be regardless of whether the editors of the New York Times, Le Monde, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and El País chose to print the news (and much of this trove is newsworthy) or shut their eyes.

So let’s pretend for a moment that WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, was motivated not by a messianic, anti-American, cyberanarchistic glee (“I enjoy crushing bastards,” he once told an interviewer) but by a desire to show us how the world really works.

Beyond the questions surrounding the massive nature of their disclosure—right or wrong, catastrophic or merely embarrassing—what do these documents reveal about U.S. foreign policy and the nature of diplomacy?

Mainly they illustrate principles about the “great game” of power politics dating back to Thucydides—that nations behave according to their material interests and that a big part of diplomacy lies in appealing to, threatening, or manipulating those interests.

And they show that, within the narrowing realm in which the United States (or any country) can influence others in the post-Cold War world, the Obama administration has been playing the game fairly well.

Take the section of the new WikiLeaks documents dealing with President Barack Obama’s attempts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program (in many ways the most interesting section released so far).

Conservative critics have portrayed President Barack Obama as an international naif who relies excessively (or even exclusively) on accommodation and engagement. However, the documents show him, in his first few months in the White House, maneuvering to tighten and broaden the scope of economic sanctions.

George W. Bush had also tried to rally a worldwide sanctions campaign, but he faced roadblocks from Russia and China, whose participation was vital to any such effort’s success. Both countries had strong trade ties to Iran. (China imported nearly one-eighth of its oil from Iran.) So, the documents show, Obama set out to pry loose those ties or to offer rewards for untangling them.

In the case of China, Obama dispatched Dennis Ross, a White House adviser who had been the Middle East negotiator for Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush (but who had no post in his son’s administration), to persuade Saudi Arabia to guarantee that it would supply oil to the Chinese if Iran cut them off. As a result of that assurance, China signed up for sanctions.

In the case of the Russians, Obama placated their distress over Bush’s plan to install missile-defense systems on Eastern European soil by canceling the plan. As a result of that move, which triggered a whole “re-setting” of relations between Moscow and Washington, Russia joined the sanctions as well. (Obama didn’t abandon missile defenses; he only relocated the interceptors onto ships, which had the additional benefit of clarifying that they really were aimed to shoot down Iranian missiles, not Russian ones.)

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

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow Slate and the Slate Foreign Desk on Twitter.