March 24, 2011

HARDLY ANY WATER IN WIKILEAKS REVELATIONS

Professional diplomats will find little that is new or startling in the Wikileaks cables. For them the quality and content of reporting in the leaked cables is quite standard fare. Transmitting to Headquarters information gleaned from contacts, assessing its worth, engaging officials, politicians and others in the host countries, conveying to them the stand of home governments on bilateral, regional and international issues, both in the interest of clarity and search for convergence, calibrating firmness with interlocutors on issues in accordance with national stakes involved, and reporting on relevant local developments, is the ordinary business of diplomacy.

The range of reporting depends on the extent of interest that a country has in another, which then dictates the size of its Embassy. Global powers follow more closely developments in countries they consider important, deploying requisite human and financial resources for the purpose. Their local contacts are more extensive, covering influential political, economic and defence-related circles, and their interest in following or shaping policy changes to protect or advance their equities in diverse domains is understandably more energetically pursued. We should see US presence in India in this light.

For the media, or those unfamiliar with diplomatic communications, this unprecedented and unauthorized peep into confidential exchanges between the US State department and its diplomats abroad is understandably exciting. This is the first time that such exchanges involving the most powerful country in the world have become public, not because of opening of archival material relating to events that occurred decades earlier, with little bearing on contemporary policy making and involving actors who have disappeared or have been largely shelved. Here the disclosed material deals with current affairs and personalities, with the issues and persona still in public eye, and hence its newsworthiness. More so as secret communications not meant for public consumption have the potential to cause political embarrassment for the US and the countries from which the reports emanate by exposing the nature of contacts, discussions, calculations, enquiries, and the gap between public discourse and in camera thinking which is an inextricable part of diplomacy.

The India-related Wikileaks cables published so far are noteworthy in a few respects. For one, really serious reporting from the US Embassy on India, incorporating sensitive summit level conversations or strategic evaluations, has escaped exposure. What is striking is the lack of anything politically novel, unfamiliar or insightful in the material published so far. Some may wish for the gift to see ourselves as others see us, but in this case the US Embassy here seems to see us as we see ourselves, such is the similarity between the analysis we make in our own public and private discussions about issues and the conclusions the Americans reach.

All this only underlines how transparent our system is, and how open we are as a society. We talk without inhibitions to foreign diplomats, discuss our problems in public forums freely and offer information and analysis to facilitate understanding of issues of external and internal policies. This not only makes the task of reporting on Indian developments by well-plugged foreign Embassies easy, it also means that they take their cue from the sum total of our own perceptions of situations we face.

This can be helpful as foreign diplomats can have a clearer understanding of currents at play, of obstacles and opportunities, and can then deploy their energy to achieve realistic goals, rather than groping for information and trying to decipher abstruse signals. On the other hand, in a soft, porous environment, vulnerable to influence peddling and favours, the subversion of the system by foreign interests is not an absent danger, more so with a structurally weakening political system as in India’s case.

We carry our openness too far though, as the Wikileaks show. Why should real power brokers within the system, some holding important party positions, be so accessible to middle level foreign diplomats and discuss highly sensitive matters of internal politics with them? The line between internal affairs of a country and its external affairs should not be so complaisantly transgressed. Is there nobody to advise these politicians on matters of diplomatic propriety, even if their own common sense fails to guide them? Irrespective of political party spats on the specific disclosure made, what do concerned people hope to achieve in briefing a foreign diplomat of undistinguished rank about efforts being deployed- some in gross breach of democratic norms- to prevent the government’s defeat on the the floor of the parliament? What quid pro quo is expected?

The willingness of an unnamed US Embassy employee to be a witness to such stratagems, knowing this amounts to interference in our internal political affairs, is highly objectionable. There is nothing wrong with an Embassy employee obtaining such information on the diplomatic circuit, but direct interaction with purported actors and verifying hoards of cash meant for internal political deals runs the risk of being seen as complicity, if later this fact gets exposed. Therefore, normally, a prudent Ambassador would not allow his mainline diplomats to get entangled in such situations.

Other than this, concern that the Wikileaks uncover an interfering America would be misplaced. That the Secretary of State sends a lengthy questionnaire to the Embassy to report why so and so was made Finance Minister and not another, what the equation between the two contenders and other economic and financial decision makers is, what the views of the new Finance Minister are on economic issues of priority for the US etc, is legitimate tasking. We should not see such internal professional assignment as “interference”. What would have been of greater interest, and more revealing of American capacity for “interference”, is the quality of the response sent, as any adequate feedback to such detailed enquiry would have required enormous field work, tapping a deep network of contacts within the system and massive human intelligence.

It should be a matter of public satisfaction that our diplomats emerge from the cables as professionally capable and sound. They are able to articulate their positions with confidence and skill, and stand their ground on issues on which their US interlocutors have pressed them. We should discount reference in the cables to taking the Indian Foreign Secretary “to task” etc on Iran, as such embellishment of language is resorted to by Ambassadors to report back to Headquarters that the forceful representation they were instructed to make was accomplished. No serious Ambassador will burn his boats with the head of the Indian Foreign Office by being overbearing.

Our relationship with the US has greatly improved and therefore our confidence in the goodwill of the US towards us has grown. This should not, however, make our diplomats disposed to take their US interlocutors into confidence unnecessarily about their briefs from Headquarters as some seem to have done. This only limits their own margin of manoeuvre and opens them to pressure to adhere to their supposedly pro-US instructions when differences emerge, as would be highly likely in the UN context.

For professional diplomats the Wikileaks constitute run of the mill diplomatic reporting which, because it was not intended for public consumption, has naturally become fodder for media sensationalism and score-settling by politicians.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary(sibalkanwal@gmail.com)

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