Rarely has any journalistic scoop revealed so much that so many already knew – or might have guessed. The fuss about Wikileaks’ release of thousands of US embassy cables has occluded the fact that the communiques in question contain little that is likely to provoke vapours in people with the mildest understanding of, well, anything at all. A caveat must be offered here, noting that, at time of writing, there is apparently much more to come – but one suspects that if Wikileaks had disinterred an official email referring to the fraudulence of the Moon landings, or Dick Cheney’s orchestration of September 11th, they’d have led with it.
Far from being shocking or scandalous, these cables are actually rather comforting, confirming that our world is run by uncertain, anxious human beings who make the best decisions they can with the often imperfect information available – as we all are, and we all do, every day. The revelation that diplomats, in private – or what they assumed was in private – occasionally use undiplomatic language is as complete a non-story as the one that inexplicably gripped Britain’s media during the most recent general election, when a microphone attached to a forgetful prime minister broadcast confirmation that tired, pressured politicians occasionally become frustrated with voters.
The serious question raised is how the people who send and read such reports will operate in a future in which they must wonder whether their dispatches will eventually be dissected on Twitter. “It would certainly have made my job more difficult,” says one former British diplomat. “It could lead to a situation where a foreign government has less confidence in you and your country – even though you may have been striving to reach an agreement.”
The diplomat cites the one genuine sensation of the leak so far – that China wouldn’t necessarily be all that perturbed if North Korea ceased to be. “That’s not news as far as the principal actors are concerned,” says the diplomat, “but now it becomes a question of whether China can stick with that, or whether the fact of it becoming public causes other pressures. This often happens – that someone makes a position to a foreign interlocutor which isn’t foursquare with official line, but which might be basis for negotiation. If it’s prematurely publicised, that possibility might be ruined.”
The diplomat does not believe, however, that Wikileaks’ latest dump will alter the world’s workings dramatically. “It’s noticeable,” he says, “that telegrams with the highest classifications have not been leaked, so the US will give that better protection to more communications. Ambassadors will carry on. There will be some reticence in some quarters, but it won’t severely impact international relations.”