The Starr Report Of American Foreign Policy?

Beinart yawns while reading Wikileaks' latest. A surprising number of writers have been taking this position:

When journalists gather information that genuinely changes the way we see some aspect of American foreign policy, or exposes government folly or abuse, they should move heaven and earth to make sure it sees the light of day. But that’s a far cry from publishing documents that sabotage American foreign policy without adding much, if anything, to the public debate. The latest WikiLeaks dump is to American foreign policy what the Starr Report was to presidential politicsfun, in a voyeuristic sort of way, revealing, but not about important things, and ultimately, more trouble than it is worth.

I have not yet plumbed the depths of all these documents, but I agree with Peter that we have learned nothing new in terms of generalities here, merely in terms of specifics. I guess to the member of the American public who has better things to do than analyze foreign policy, it may indeed seem news that Saudi Arabia wants war. But to anyone else: meh.

I favor greater public scrutiny of government actions. But it also seems quite clear that it is impossible to conduct international relations in total transparency. The world does not operate that way - from corporate or office decision-making to statecraft. There will have to be times in which certain views and policies will need to remain secret, and the ability of foreign ambassadors and analysts to give candid, clear advice to policy-makers without having them published in the global media, is vital to a successful foreign policy. The Wikileaks model is therefore a step backwards in many practical respects.

But there may be very little we can do about it. The simple technological ease with which masses of data can now be downloaded and disseminated is a fact of modern life.

The Starr Report is an interesting precedent for Peter to cite because it was the first time I remember ever actually downloading a document before reading about it in the next day's paper. Now, of course, this is routine. Keeping things secret is therefore simply going to be much harder as technology facilitates this kind of global dispersion. Note that the risks are shared among several global papers, meaning that no individual government can truly prevent dissemination by pressuring its own press. Note that it appears that all of this was made possible by one lone government worker. Secrecy was hard when preventing transmission or release of discrete paper documents to a single source. Now? A running and losing battle.

I doubt that this means a new era of perpetual peace and harmony in a newly transparent world, as Julian Assange apparently believes in his more utopian moments. It may make governing as we have known it close to impossible. At the same time, I think it's useful for Americans to see more clearly the hypocrisy and lies and manipulation and deception and flattery and embarrassment that are required by any great power trying to run the world. Why? Because it will perhaps reveal more clearly that America cannot both be the liberal, honest city on a hill while also running a de facto global empire. Grappling with that truth, as America's global over-reach has brought the hegemon to bankruptcy, is not a fruitless endeavor.