WikiLeaks and the U.S. Image

There are lots of reasons, real and imagined, why people around the world don't like America.

Extraordinary renditions. The occasional crudeness of international capitalism. Belief that America harbors ambitions of economic and cultural hegemony. Bitterness at repeated success in the Olympics. Sometimes those reasons overlap with a notion that America is the most enlightened of the superpowers, even for people who don't like superpowers to begin with.

The WikiLeaks cable dump, aside from damaging trustworthiness of U.S. confidentiality (and embarrassing some individual diplomats by revealing their candid commentary) seems to have done some, but not a whole lot, to further any such negative perceptions.

The worst headline to come out of Cablegate, with regard to the broader intentions and goals of the United States, reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked her staff to gather information on UN personnel.

"US diplomats spied on UN leadership," The Guardian reported last Sunday, furthering the idea, with a splashy headline in a prominent world newspaper, that America's government is made up of cronies bent on world domination. "CIA sought material on UN Chief," the Sydney Morning Herald declared.

But while the internal deliberations and aims of the U.S. diplomatic corps have been mostly laid bare, this appears to have been the worst of it. Major press outlets have picked up many scoops from the cables, some of them embarrassing (for instance, the questioning of Vladimir Putin's work ethic), but largely missing any anecdotes of the international gangsterism of which America is sometimes accused by its harshest critics.

"Although their contents are often startling and troubling, the cables are unlikely to gratify conspiracy theorists. They do not contain evidence of assassination plots, CIA bribery or such criminal enterprises as the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan years," The Guardian surmised on the day the cables were published.

Cablegate's impact is different from, say, the leak this past spring of military video that showed U.S. troops firing upon civilians in Iraq from a helicopter. It is an embarrassment to the State Department, and, so far, it will only damage America's global opinion polling insofar as the spying-on-the-UN story resonates.

I talked to two American foreign-policy experts about how the WikiLeaks dump will affect the U.S. global image; both agreed that, for America's critics, the WikiLeaks dump will provide more data points to reinforce such views, but that the dump will do little to move opinion in the aggregate.

"The meaning people give to the leaked cables depends on what they think of the U.S. government (or the Obama administration) to begin with, not the other way around," said James Lindsay, the Council on Foreign Relations' director of studies and senior VP.

"It's actually pretty striking how generally intelligent and sensible and straightforward the officials involved have been," said Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose. "U.S. policy turns out to be pretty much what we say it is on the surface. There are not secret, nefarious, hidden agendas behind the scenes."

The cables revealed a diplomatic corps made up not of soulless, colorless bureaucrats but of perceptive, human, and well-intentioned people, Rose said. If anything, the cable dump makes the U.S. look weak (and incompetent in preventing leaks) rather than hegemonic or scheming.

"The United States is seen as trying to do sensible things but blocked by the intractability of various situations and the obduracy of other currents. This does portray a world in which the U.S. is not dominant," Rose said, while noting that such an interpretation may be realistic, given the truth that "diplomacy is always a matter of getting a less bad option."

Granted, both Rose and Lindsay are Americans. But the lesson of Cablegate seems more to be that the U.S. could encounter trouble getting allies to supply information, rather than any misconduct or bad intentions on the part of the U.S. diplomatic corps--a little bit of which, one would think, could have been revealed by the airing of such a massive, confidential record of American motives and methods.

Thumbnail image credit: WikiLeaks