Sanctity of diplomatic communications has been honored for ages. Even during war time warring countries preferred acquisition of intelligence over intrusion into the contents of diplomatic communications between the embassy and its sending country.
Revolutionary changes in communication in this century with the advancement of technology have made the old methods antiquated and irrelevant to many countries. But the public exposure of hundreds of thousands of secret communications by the US embassies abroad to Washington have shaken the faith of the world in the confidentiality of high level consultations with the US representatives at home and abroad. One wonders whether Thomas Friedman in his Flat Earth theory had the slightest notion that technology would be used in this fashion. Likewise Samuel Huntington had never anticipated the great global interest in his Clash of Civilization article he wrote in Foreign Affairs ( Summer 1993) till the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
The White House is reportedly considering possibilities of taking legal actions against Wiki leaks. US Senators including Joe Lieberman have put forth a bill to prevent leaks of classified documents. Lieberman has described Wiki leaks’ exposure as “espionage in a most serious form”. But then many in the computer savvy present generation believe in “digital libertarianism”, more so when interminable wars like those waged in Afghanistan and Iraq, often clouded in secrecy and muddled with water boarding and other acts of sadism, may induce well intentioned citizens to inform his/her compatriots of the “illegal or immoral” acts being perpetrated by their government in the name of “state security”. People have a right to know the process of decision making, for example, if the US or Israel decides to attack Iranian nuclear facilities that would certainly affect the peace and security of the world. The question of the bounds of secrecy that would be legally permissible should be decided through open debate with the people, and if debated in Parliament, through full access by the electronic and print media.
These are still early days to assess the impact of Wiki leaks on the conduct of global diplomacy. While some of the information are embarrassing or “titillating” it is difficult to visualize a situation in which in this digitalized world diplomacy would go back to sending personal emissaries to and fro carrying sensitive information just because organizations like Wiki leaks may at some future day make them public. Nicholas Gosdev of the US War College in a recent article wrote about then Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s use of personal emissaries to brief then King Fahd and other members of the Saudi government on Saudi assistance on Iran Contra issue and his own briefing of President Reagan to avoid any public disclosure. Gosdev adds that in the competition between secrecy and informed awareness the former won the day. Yet one cannot ignore the public’s right to information, an integral part of democratic governance that must not be thwarted by overzealous bureaucrats hiding their mistakes/corruption behind the veil of secrecy in the name of “national security”.
Bush era intelligence czar in a recent television interview argued that intelligence and confidential diplomatic information are shared with the Senate and House of Representative Committees on a regular basis or when asked for. On the other hand but for Bob Woodward’s investigative journalism Watergate Scandal would not have surfaced and Richard Nixon would not have had to resign. Print and visual media in the free world have unearthed more infractions made by public figures than the willingness of the most liberal governments to share information with the people.
To South Asians Wiki leaks have done a favor by letting the people know of the dangerous situation evolving in the area, particularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and further increase in Indo-Pak tension. Notwithstanding the leaks described by President Obama’s AfPak representative Richard Holbrooke as “dreadful, appalling, unfortunate” the US administration’s public stance remains that the leaks would not affect US-Pakistan relations as the Americans appreciate the efforts put in by Pakistan in the fight against terrorism. As opposed to such public stance Wiki leaks now informs the world of former US ambassador to Pakistan Anne Petterson’s cable to Washington that US concern was not that the entire nuclear weapon would be stolen by terrorists but “rather the chance that someone working in the government of Pakistan would gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon”.
Ambassador Patterson added that no amount of money could buy off Pak army from backing Islamist militants and Taliban despite the fact that “more and more territory every day ( is falling into the hands of ) foreign and domestic militants, deteriorating law and order undermining economic recovery( and) bureaucracy settling into Third World mediocrity”. Pak army’s backing of the Taliban is mainly because of historical connection the army had built up during the US proxy war against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan; some Pakistani people’s attachment to jihadi ideology as evidenced by many terror plots against Western targets traced back to Pakistani jihadi groups; and perhaps most importantly Pak army’s strong desire for strategic depth in Afghan territory in case on Indo-Pak conflict. International Crisis Group’s latest(28-11-2010) report on Afghanistan has once again mentioned that despite US urgings Pakistan military still supports Mullah Omar’s Shura based in Quetta bordering Kandahar and al-Qaeda linked Haqqani group’s terrorist activities. It is paradoxical that Pakistan itself is a victim of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and other terrorists yet the country does not desist from supporting the Taliban.
Early this year a Russian foreign ministry official expressed concern about the safety of workers of Pakistani nuclear establishment numbering about 130000 whose loyalty and reliability could not be fully guaranteed. Russian concern also covered the physical safety of Pakistanis working in nuclear facilities as many were ambushed, killed or kidnapped in the last few years. Russian fear is because the Islamists are not only seeking power but also wish to acquire nuclear materials/weapons. Similarly in September last year a senior British foreign office official expressed British concern about the safety of Pak nuclear materials. Such concerns, perhaps, led the US to persuade Pakistan to handover nuclear fuel for safe keeping, an offer spurned by Pakistan. Despite economic difficulties Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world.
According to Chinese Foreign Minister’s explanation to the Americans at a London meeting last year that nuclear weapons are crucial to Pakistan due to Indo-Pak enmity and Pakistan’s realization that its army is no match for Indian army is note worthy. Additionally India is reportedly prepared to mount a rapid invasion of Pakistan if she is sufficiently provoked triggering a nuclear war with all its attendant horrors. The US embassy in India is not confident that India will be able to achieve a quick victory over Pakistan goading the Pakistan army to force the government to use nuclear weapons. Given the history of Pak inspired terrorism in India, notably the attack on Indian Parliament and the Mumbai massacre, one can only surmise the threshold of India’s tolerance of Pak inspired terrorism on Indian soil. Indian reticence is perhaps linked with India’s growing international stature both as a political and economic power and her desire, supported by many countries including the US and Bangladesh, to become a member of the UN Security Council. An aspirant member of the UNSC has to be seen as a responsible actor in the international arena and not a truant nation that one cannot do business with.
Any armed confrontation between India and Pakistan is unlikely to be confined between the two countries or even within the region. China is likely to come on the side of Pakistan and the Western world would try to contain the conflagration if it cannot prevent the war from breaking out. The US would be in a most difficult position as it has strategic relations with India and needs Pakistan to contain the Afghan situation. Pakistan could try to invoke clash of civilization theory as a fight between the Islamic and Hindu civilizations. Besides, Afghanistan would be totally destabilized. Hamid Karzai, writes the latest report (28-11-2010) by International Crisis Group, no longer enjoys the legitimacy and popularity he once enjoyed. Efforts to integrate a part of the Taliban are not yielding any results. A worsening civil war would see a victory for the Taliban. So the Pak army would like to see the extremist Taliban and Haqqani group to have lions share in post-US Afghanistan. The interests of the US and of Karzai have diverged as Karzai struggles to remain a part of his country’s future power structure after the exit of the US forces.
While the world would not tolerate a nuclear war, even between not so great powers, Chinese stand, should one happen, would be crucial. Columbia University Professor Richard Betts commenting on Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington and John Mearsheimer’s books opined that both Huntington and Mearsheimer assume that China would seek hegemony in Asia. China, says Huntington, is the only major power that has been more violent than Muslim states and has used force four times more than the US. Chinese culture is uncomfortable with multipolarity, balance and equality and prefers hierarchy and Sino-centric order in East Asia. It has been suggested that widening economic interest inhibit a country from embarking on armed conflict. In South Asia India and China may wish to do so. As far as Bangladesh is concerned our efforts should be directed towards upliftment of our economy and follow a realist foreign policy and avoid conflict with any country.
Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Ambassador and Secretary of Bangladesh.