Abstract: In an effort to explore the changing nature of international relations in the era of deterritorialized information and communication technology, this essay interrogates the responses of diplomats and other political elites to the “Cablegate” scandal, which resulted from WikiLeaks release of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables in late 2010. Following a brief historical background on the necessity of subterfuge in international diplomacy, I explore the demonization of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, as “high tech terrorists” bent on attacking the United States and its allies. Using critical international relations theory, I argue that this response was highly predictable, despite the minimal damage done to Washington’s capacity to conduct its foreign policy in either the short or longer term.
Keywords: critical international relations theory, diplomacy, Julian Assange, WikiLeaks
On 16 December 2010, the non-governmental organization GetUp! Action for Australia published a full-page advertisement in the New York Times entitled “WIKILEAKS ARE NOT TERRORISTS.” Addressed to “America,” President Barack Obama, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder from 92,897 Australians, the open letter condemned the “calls for violence, including assassination,” of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks and an Australian citizen, “or for him to be labeled a terrorist, enemy combatant, or treated outside the course of justice in any way.” GetUp!’s advertisement included a number of the more incendiary published remarks about Assange made in the wake of WikiLeaks’ November 2010 release of thousands of leaked confidential diplomatic cables from American embassies around the world. These included former U.S. vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s likening of Assange to an al Qaeda leader and syndicated political columnist Jonah Goldberg’s mordant query, “Why isn’t Julian Assange dead?” Near the end of the letter is the particularly pregnant passage: “We are writing as Australians to say what our government should have: all Australian citizens deserve to be free from persecution, threats of violence and detention with charge, especially from our friend and ally, the United States.”
In this instance, one sees just how complex international relations have become in the current era: a foreign grassroots organization bypasses their own government and uses the newspaper of record in the United States to speak to American elites hoping to tamp down the rhetoric over a web site that has allowed transparency into the often inscrutable world of diplomacy and foreign affairs. This challenge to existing forms of hegemony immediately provoked a virulent response from self-appointed guardians of the status quo. Diplomats and their proxies rallied to the defense of “traditional” diplomacy (warts and all) by attacking Assange and company not as interlopers, but villains on par with the most disruptive forces in the current post-Westphalian international system, namely al Qaeda and its affiliates.
In this essay, I will attempt to analyze the cultural ramifications of the recent WikiLeaks imbroglio through the lens of critical international relations theory. Critical international relations theory is best understood as a constellation of different methodological and interpretive approaches seeking to illuminate the question of emancipation in world politics. While all schools of IR theory possess heuristic fundaments, the ultimate goal of critical IR theory is also normative. In addition to its academic uses, critical IR theory, with its suspicion of dominance in power relations, aims to promote such emancipation by functioning as a tool of practical political action. My primary aim is to interrogate the crisis that WikiLeaks poses to traditional forms of diplomatic power in the international system, particularly those which are dependent on closed networks, reliable distinctions between public/private information, and established geopolitical narratives.
Secondarily, I will explore the discursive environment surrounding the release of the diplomatic cables in late 2010, with a particular focus on the demonization of WikiLeaks (generally) and Assange (in particular) as an agent of “high-tech terrorism.” My argument is that the recent WikiLeaks controversy belies the notion that the diplomatic system is a secret garden where only persons appointed by the world’s 192 sovereign states can act on behalf of their respective polities. In terms of the normative orientation of this essay, I aim to provide a contextual analysis that promotes the realization of the benefits of “opening” the recondite world of international diplomacy, thus providing further impetus for the chipping away at the intertwining and often invisible hierarchies of privilege that currently dominate world politics.
A natural outgrowth of the advent of secular and sovereign states, the contemporary post-Westphalian diplomatic system dates to the seventeenth century, though its roots lie in Byzantine Empire and the renaissance-era Italian city-states. It was during the early modern period when the first “professional” diplomats emerged as a “special kind of international person, protected and privileged for as long as his or her diplomatic status was accepted.” Following the spread of European imperialism to nearly every corner of the globe, the rules governing such actors have been clearly understood and generally recognized. Most important of these was, of course, the prohibition against killing the diplomatist no matter what message he or she delivered. To act as a diplomat for one’s country required highly specialized knowledge, the aplomb to act independently when necessary, respect for the mores of other cultures, and a certain level of obsequiousness. In addition to maintaining good relations and engaging in negotiation, it was also the job of the ambassadorial corps to obtain as much information as possible about the host country (however, in the current digital age, this set of responsibilities has been sharply lessened as a result of alternative forms of information gathering). Diplomats thus emerged as the vanguard of foreign policy, shaping discourse, managing perceptions, and making recommendations.
As a matter of course, diplomats have often been called upon to misrepresent information, as the oft-repeated maxim attests: “A diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for the interest of his country.” By the late nineteenth century, the profession of diplomacy had become highly formalized in many countries, for example, the German foreign ministry established a specialized school where neophytes would study history, rules of protocol, international law, and economics for years prior to entering diplomatic service. Speaking of that era, Frederic Austin Ogg asserts, “Diplomacy was the business of the chosen few, a game of wits played in a narrow circle. The diplomat’s was the most exclusive of professions…. International intercourse was heavily incrusted with tradition of intrigue, deception, and secrecy.” Nearly a century after this trenchant critique little has changed in the realm of professional diplomats. While much of the pomp and circumstance may have been mitigated by near absolute victory of republics over monarchies, the old mores remain entrenched in the diplomatic community, particularly the penchant for mendacity.
One substantive change has occurred, however; whereas in the past, the diplomats tended to solely inveigle their fellow diplomats, today, they also seek to hoodwink their respective publics. In the postmodern era of nation brands, celebrity politicians, and globalized public diplomacy, diplomats are now compelled to “protect” the masses (as well as vulnerable friends and allies) from actual content of what Parag Khanna calls the “back rooms and smoky chambers of diplomacy.” Instead of unpolished truths, the public is fed a surfeit of clichés, aphorisms, and euphemisms. This serves the last of the diplomatist’s charges: “minimize friction through the conventions he observes in dealing with foreign officials.” The most vital of these conventions is that of language: in the words of Hedley Bull, a diplomat must “refrain from calling a spade a spade.” It is this orientation and its various outcomes that WikiLeaks seeks to undermine in the interest of promoting “justice through the method of transparency.”
Launched in 2006, WikiLeaks is a global non-profit organization dedicated to transparency through the publication of classified, secret, and private information. Supported by a loosely affiliated network of programmers, WikiLeaks’ core of employees number around a dozen people. Initially structured as an open source wiki where “principled users” could anonymously leak censored documents of ethical, political, and diplomatic significance, the site steadily moved to a more standardized Internet publishing platform, ostensibly to guarantee access to its database of more than 1 million documents. Early examples of WikiLeaks’ activities included publishing party member lists of the extreme rightwing British National Party, exposing the illegitimate practices of Swiss bank Julius Baer, and distributing an operations manual from the American detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Interestingly, given its Reston, Virginia area code, a significant number of spy-watchers assumed the organization to be a CIA front, at least in its first year of operation. This particular conspiracy dissipated when WikiLeaks released the viral video Collateral Murder in April 2010, which showed a U.S. Army Apache helicopter crew celebrating its deadly attack on a dozen Iraqi non-combatants in 2007, including two Reuters employees. Relations between WikiLeaks and the U.S. government had already sunk to an extreme low point in 2008 when the web site published a Pentagon report that stated: “WikiLeaks.org represents a potential force protection, counterintelligence, OPSEC [operations security] and INFOSEC [information security] threat to the U.S. Army.” While the organization originally began with intention of shedding light on restrictive regimes such the People’s Republic of China, Burma, and Saudi Arabia, WikiLeaks—by the end of the decade—had become primarily focused on publishing documents supplied to them by whistleblowers within the U.S. government.
In a profile of WikiLeaks published more than a month before the diplomatic cable leaks, the American left-of-centre periodical The Nation posited that WikiLeaks represented the next generation of a hacker culture that dates back decades. Like all hackers, the people behind WikiLeaks hold two truths fundamental: all information should be free and that one should mistrust authority and promote decentralization of power. According to Peter Ludlow,
The traditional media, governments and their security organizations just cannot get unglued from the idea that there must be a single mastermind behind an operation like WikiLeaks. While this model works great in fictional dramas, it does not track what is really happening. This is not a one-man or even one-group operation. It is a network of thousands motivated by a shared hacktivist culture and ethic.
As Ludlow implies, WikiLeaks, despite the media coverage, does not begin and end with Julian Assange. In fact, it was reported in September 2010 that the organization was actually working to diminish the Australian’s role, given the difficulties in his personal life including the outstanding criminal charges in Sweden. Despite this, the U.S. media focused like a laser on Assange, drawing a direct line between him and the ramifications of “Cablegate.” Rather than attacking the individual who released the documents to WikiLeaks, U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, media coverage—particularly cable television news, the blogosphere, and the “Twitterverse”—centered on the “mysterious and eccentric” Assange and his supposed motivations and whereabouts. This interesting turn of events demands scrutiny.
Through the application of the tools of critical IR theory, it is possible to understand this response as completely natural given the existing dynamics of influence in international politics. As Raymond Duvall and Latha Varadarajan state:
Critical international relations theory provides tools to ‘see’ the operation of various modes of power—the ways in which they are intrinsically involved in the production of world order. Critical IR theory not only offers the means to address that question by focusing analysis on the multiple ways in which power operates and the effects of power in its multiple forms on the differential ability of actors to exercise control over their own circumstances.
Via hegemonic access to the dominant media outlets and use of pejorative emotive labels (e.g., “terrorist,” “saboteur,” “villain,” “high-value target,” and “al Qaeda”), policy elites vested in the maintenance of the established modes of diplomacy based on secrecy, a system of mutual favors, doubletalk and codified language, etc. moved to discredit and ultimately demonize Julian Assange. In the ensuing media storm, Assange’s character quickly emerged as the key “talking point” in the debate, effectively muting the coverage of the vast inventory of released documents. Assange’s purported unwillingness to appear publicly and the rumors and innuendo surrounding his libidinous predilections (related to a Swedish extradition request to face charges of sexual assault). It was left to print publications like the New York Times, El País (Spain), Le Monde (France), Der Spiegel (Germany), and The Guardian (United Kingdom), all of which received the cables directly from WikiLeaks, to plumb the importance of the leaked cables and their effects on world politics.
Ironically, given the invective surrounding the leaks themselves, the actual content of the leaked cables did very little damage to the image of the U.S. or its diplomatic corps. Arguably, some of the most piquant revelations may have actually benefited Washington’s standing in world politics (if not the reputation of its diplomats vis-à-vis their foreign counterparts and sources). For instance, the publication of private exchanges between American diplomats and Arab leaders reflect that the U.S. is comparatively moderate in its position on Tehran’s nuclear program when contrasted with that of Iran’s neighbors. While regimes like the United Arab Emirates are actively courting investment from Tehran, it was revealed that Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Muhammad bin Zayed, had urged the U.S. not to appease Iran, referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as “Hitler.” Likewise, Jordanian lawmakers urged the U.S. to bomb Iran or suffer an Iranian bomb, while King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urged the U.S. to “cut off the head of the snake” referring to the Iranian leadership. Similarly, the King of Bahrain, a country with a Shi’a majority, stressed that the danger of letting Iran’s nuclear program proceed was greater than of stopping it militarily.
Many of the leaks provided little more than interesting bits of data that supported perfectly logical assumptions about the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. In Yemen, the extreme willingness of the country’s leadership to lie to its people was put on display with President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s guarantees to U.S. General David Petraeus that any attacks carried out by American forces in his country would be covered up and attributed to Yemeni military. The release of NATO plans to defend the Baltic States and Poland from a potential Russian invasion should have come as a shock to no one, especially Russia, which likely knew about the preparations long before they were transmitted in diplomatic cables. Likewise, the notion that Washington would seek to influence Joseph Ratzinger’s agenda following his election as Pope in April 2005 is hardly startling. Other pieces of information proved to be little more than interesting tidbits in the larger fabric of world affairs. Reports of U.S. anger at Armenia for shipping weapons to Iran that were ultimately used by Iraqi insurgents against the U.S. military certainly fit this mould, as does the disclose that Gordon Brown’s government secretly supported the early release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of carrying out the Lockerbie bombing, despite having no official public position on the issue. Predictably, journalists gravitated to the more salacious, scandalous, and gossipy of the leaks, including reports that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi confides the highest state secrets to his “voluptuous” Ukrainian nurse, the “bro-mance” between Vladimir Putin and Italian President Silvio Berlusconi, and debauchery and lavish spending of Chechen and Dagestani leaders.
Perhaps the most damning piece of information to the U.S. was evidence that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered diplomats to spy on Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, and other key UN officials. However, given the previously discussed historical role of diplomats as part-time spies for their country, even this revelation has dropped few jaws, at least in official circles. The exposure of U.S. complicity in surreptitious tank shipments from Ukraine to Southern Sudanese militias via Kenya also gave Washington a bit of a proverbial black eye, particularly given the harshness of the U.S. rebuke of Kenya when the story first broke in 2008. Yet, the unfolding of this particular story should not stun anyone familiar with the complicated balancing act that is American diplomacy.
Overall, the release of more than 2,000 cables has had almost no impact on world affairs, despite Hillary Clinton’s bombastic prognostication that the leaks would “sabotage peaceful relations between countries.” At the very least, the WikiLeaks exposure of the innards of diplomacy in the current era will inure agents of the state to be a bit more careful when they put pen to paper (or, more accurately, fingers to BlackBerry keypads). To that point, when asked whether the publication of the leaked cables would prevent diplomats from expressing their opinions in the future, Assange stated: “No, they just have to start committing things to paper that they’re proud of,” thus reflecting his declared goal of “subverting illegitimate authority” whenever and wherever he encounters it.
In this instance, an interesting historic parallel presents itself: Leon Trotsky’s publication of the secret treaties and conventions of tsarist Russia and the other members of the Entente in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. Acting as Commissar for Foreign Affairs of Soviet Russia, Trotsky declared, “Secret diplomacy is a necessary tool for a propertied minority which is compelled to deceive the majority in order to subject it to its interests…. The abolition of secret diplomacy is the primary condition for an honest, popular, truly democratic foreign policy.” The revelations, published in Pravda and Izvestia before appearing in English in The Guardian (one of the chosen five publications for WikiLeaks’ cable release), included territorial promises to Italy for joining the allies, the cession of Constantinople to Russia, and other secret deals. Who knew that the first hacktivist was Lev Davidovich?
Through the use of deterritorialized, cheap, and ubiquitous technologies (i.e., computer files and the Internet) and operating in a global realm where information can be shared both anonymously and openly (i.e., cyberspace), WikiLeaks has attempted to bring the benefits of the Habermasian public sphere into the arena of international diplomacy. In his critique of power relations, Jürgen Habermas presupposed an ideal speech community wherein all participants capable of discourse would have legitimate access to the debate and all players would have equal rights to defend their stated positions without resorting to coercion. In this decidedly democratic environment, mutual comprehension and trust is a given and ideology is rejected as destructive to consensus. Effectively, Habermas was arguing that by dragging debate out of the shadowy halls of power and into the light of public sphere, a more effective, more moral, and fairer system of governance might be enacted.
In recent years, a host of scholars have sought to apply Habermas’ theories to digitally-based exchanges, pointing to cyberspace as an emergent, though imperfect, global public sphere. The Internet has radically altered the discursive environment because of its distributed structure, openness, and functionality. Cyberspace allows for the multifold digital replication of all pre-existing media platforms (texts, newspapers, motion pictures, radio, and television). Furthermore, the Internet is a universally-oriented communication platform that delivers the functions of the post, telephone, and fax machine, while simultaneously offering innovative ways to interact, from instant messaging to blogging to video chat. The deterritorialized nature of the platform allows communication and information consumption without regard for geographic location, assuming the user has access to the Web. The Internet also provides its users with near simultaneity, allowing its users not only to bridge space, but time as well. This effect is compounded by the capacity of cyberspace to function as timeless reservoir for storing data, sound, and images, effectively functioning as a time capsule for future generations. Furthermore, the medium allows for high levels of anonymity and, despite the best efforts of governments, the Web has proved difficult for states to regulate and/or censor.
The structure of the Web allows for alternative approaches to information. Unlike novels, newspapers, motion pictures, satellite TV, etc., “cyberspace is not a broadcast medium with a few producers and many consumers, but rather a decentralized communication system where individuals are both the consumer and the producers… cyberspace is interactive; users can choose what information they receive and send.” Ronald Deibert identifies this as a large–scale shift in the modes of communication towards new media like the Internet as a distributional change that is leading to a world order transformation on par with the shift from parchment to printing in the waning days of the medieval period. As WikiLeaks has so efficaciously demonstrated, such changes have enormous potential for altering political authority as governments lose the possibility of collective amnesia due to the evidence of their misdeeds being permanently accessible in cyberspace. The Internet provides the means to bypass and circumvent traditional state sovereignty and transcend geographically bound entities, thus allowing Web-enabled communities a great deal of latitude in the way that they confront political issues. In the words of Victoria Bernal, “The Internet can be seen as decentralized, participatory, unregulated, and egalitarian in operation compared to mass media such as newspapers, radio, or television where communication is largely one way and consumers have very little opportunity to be producers of content.” Thus, the Internet is extremely effective in creating apertures in the propaganda blankets which have been established through state domination of traditional mass media. In the case of the leaked cables, it also provided a venue for a disgruntled U.S. soldier to distribute, via WikiLeaks, unparalleled amounts of information about the inner workings of American diplomacy.
Returning to the historical link between Leon Trotsky and Julian Assange, the importance of the changing nature of international relations now comes into the picture, and how critical theory can help us understand the new dynamics of global politics. In 1917, the hegemonic conditions surrounding diplomacy required any potential actor to possess affiliation with a state to affect political change. While most of the world considered Soviet Russia (the precursor to the Soviet Union) to be an abomination, its representatives—Trotsky included—were at least recognized as legitimate (albeit unwelcome) voices within the international political system. When Trotsky published the secret covenants of the Entente, he was acting not as a private citizen, but as a renegade member of the small clique of diplomatic elites. Julian Assange, on the other hand, is not affiliated with any national government. He and other members of the WikiLeaks organization are, for good or ill, private citizens who have decided to inject themselves in global politics. They do not speak for states, and, as U.S. Attorney General Holder quickly learned, are beyond the reach of American sovereignty. Yet, through the emergent structure of the digitized global communications and information grid discussed in the previous section, these individuals wield substantial power. As judged by their critics, WikiLeaks has the power to endanger American security, threaten the lives engaged in counter-terrorism and democratization efforts, and upset the balance of Middle Eastern relations. Perhaps at no time in history have “ordinary” citizens possessed so much power in the field of global politics.
However, before getting carried away celebrating the end of secret diplomacy, it is important to note that nothing actually changed in the overall structure of how diplomacy gets done. Neither of the “great hacks” of 1917 or 2010 has had that result. Certainly, Trotsky’s publication of the secret covenants made history and embarrassed more than few British and French ambassadors, yet the Soviet foreign ministry eventually realized that it too had to “play ball” according to established rules of international diplomacy (perhaps a lesson learned too well, if one considers the ruinous effects of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939). While Julian Assange & Co. proved that even the most clandestine exchanges might be plastered across the front page of the New York Times, no member of WikiLeaks will ever be called upon to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, negotiate trade agreements between Azerbaijan and Russia, or set environmental policy for the G-20. These tasks today, as ever, are the bailiwick of diplomats. As agents of the state with the ability to shape discourse and influence the public through the mainstream media, international diplomatic elites still rule the roost. While the diplomatic corps, including Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, may be chastened by the WikiLeaks scandal, their power is far from spent.
This is the original English-language version of an essay to be published in the Ukrainian journal Krytyka.
 Richard Wyn Jones, “Introduction: Locating Critical International Relations Theory.” In Critical Theory and World Politics, ed. Richard Wyn Jones (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2001), 9.
 Mark A. Neufeld, The Restructuring of International Relations Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
 Raymond Duvall and Latha Varadarajan, “On the Practical Significance of Critical International Relations Theory,” Asian Journal of Political Science 11, no. 2 (2003): 75-88.
 American Vice President Joe Biden referred to Assange as a “high-tech terrorist” on NBC’s influential public affairs program Meet the Press on 1 December 2010.
 Richard Langhorne, The Essential of Global Politics (London: Hodder Arnold, 2006), 245
 Carne Ross, Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite (Ithaca: (Cornell University Press, 2007).
 Frederic Austin Ogg, “The Campaign against Secret Diplomacy,” Munsey’s Magazine 64, no. 4 (1918): 697-704, p. 699.
 Parag Khanna, How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance (New York: Random House, 2011), 43.
 Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 165.
 Bull, The Anarchical Society, 166.
 “Assange concerned over ‘natural justice’ in Sweden,” BBC News, 21 December 2010 (accessed 11 January 2010).
 Dan Goldberg, “Will Wikileaks Work?” Columbia Journalism Review 45, no. 6 (2007): 10-11, p. 10.
 Stephanie Strom, “Pentagon sees a threat from online muckrakers,” New York Times, 18 March 2010.
 Peter Ludlow, “WikiLeaks and Hacktivist Culture,” Nation 291, no. 14 (2010): 25-26, p. 26.
 These terms were used by 60 Minutes to describe WikiLeaks’ founder in the introduction to the two-part interview of Assange that aired on 30 January 2011; see “The man behind WikiLeaks,” 60 Minutes, CBS, produced by Howard L. Rosenberg and Tanya Simon (30 January 2011).
 Duvall and Varadarajan, “On the Practical Significance of Critical International Relations Theory,” 84.
 “Assange concerned over ‘natural justice’ in Sweden,” BBC News.
 “The man behind WikiLeaks,” 60 Minutes.
 James Bunyan and Harold H. Fisher (1934) The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1918: Documents and Materials (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1934), 243-244.
 Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).
 See, for instance, Victoria Carty, “New Information Communication Technologies and Grassroots Mobilization,” Information, Communication & Society 13, no. 2 (2001): 155-173; A. Michael Froomkin, “Habermas@discourse.net: Toward a Critical Theory of Cyberspace,” Harvard Law Review 116, no. 3 (2003): 749-873; and Lincoln Dahlberg, “The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Exploring the Prospects of Online Deliberative Forums Extending the Public Sphere,” Information, Communication & Society 4, no. 4 (2001): 615-633.
 Rob Kitchin, Cyberspace: The World in Wires (Chichester, UK: John Wiley and Sons, 1998), 74.
 Ronald J. Deibert, Parchment, Printing and Hypermedia: Communication in World Order Transformation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).
 Christoph Engel, “The Internet and the Nation State.” In Understanding the Impact of Global Networks in Local Social, Political and Cultural Values, eds. Christoph Engel, C. and Kenneth Keller (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 2000), 122.
 Victoria Bernal, “Diaspora, Cyberspace and Political Imagination: The Eritrean Diaspora Online.” Global Networks 6, no. 2 (2006): 161-179, p. 164.