Wikileaks and the Future of Diplomacy

Simon Chesterman

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Faculty of Law

June 14, 2011

When a diplomat says “yes,” as Voltaire famously observed, he means “perhaps.” When he says “perhaps,” he means “no.” And if he says “no,” he is not a diplomat.

Such diplomatic niceties are dependent on the discretion and nuance that enable the maintenance of cordial relations with host governments. To be useful to one’s home government, however, the diplomat must be candid. The line between these two discourses is a thin one, but can be maintained through the security of confidential communications and an element of willful blindness. For centuries, this was done through the inviolability of the diplomatic pouch. In a world of electronic communications, however, diplomatic cables must pass through many more virtual hands - and, if intercepted, can be shared instantly with the entire world.

Though widely identified as the problem, WikiLeaks is really a symptom of structural changes in the management of information. The guerrilla journalism Web site was launched in 2006 and capitalized on the virtues and the vices of the Internet. The virtues are that the Internet is decentralized, anonymous, and user-driven. Decentralization makes it hard to shut down. Anonymity enables the protection of sources. The user-driven nature of this Web 2.0 phenomenon encourages those sources to come forward.

These virtues of the Internet, of course, are also its vices. Decentralization undermines meaningful accountability. Anonymity enables the avoidance of responsibility. And being user-driven leaves quality control to the audience rather than the actors.

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Date posted: June 15, 2011  

Suggested Citation

Chesterman, Simon, Wikileaks and the Future of Diplomacy (June 14, 2011). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1864661 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1864661

Contact Information

Simon Chesterman (Contact Author)
National University of Singapore (NUS) - Faculty of Law ( email )
469G Bukit Timah Road
Eu Tong Sen Building
Singapore, 259776
HOME PAGE: www.SimonChesterman.com

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