Global Ethics Corner: WikiLeaks: Trust or Transparency?

Dec 10, 2010

U.S. diplomatic cables exposed through WikiLeaks raise several questions about transparency and trust. Should governments employ secrecy in diplomacy? Without transparency, are democracy and diplomacy compatible?

Sensationalism may bury fundamental issues, in the controversy over leaked U.S. diplomatic cables. Were the cables leaked intentionally? Are dark designs behind founder Julian Assange's prosecution? Which leaders are most outraged, or whose policy is most damaged?

The basic point is the balance between trust and transparency.

Perhaps openness is the sine qua non for diplomacy in the modern world and especially for democratic governments.

Davidson asks, "Can one imagine circumstances in which diplomatic interaction necessities secrecy? I am sure one can. However, those circumstances should be exceptional. They should not constitute the norm. And, there should be clear criteria...[reflecting] the right to know what your government is doing in your name."

Alternatively, trust is the key to preventing conflict. Just like doctors, priests, and lawyers, without trust diplomats cannot function. Ischinger notes, "Every single leak damages or destroys trust, …. And trust is the single most precious commodity in diplomacy. That is why the ongoing WikiLeaks publication...endangers the entire species. It puts the business of diplomacy at risk."

In a nuanced third suggestion, Bremmer asks, "Does transparency on a country's views of another make negotiated settlements more or less likely?" He answers that it depends upon..."the nature of the preexisting relationship between the countries...." There is no necessary negative relationship between trust and transparency.

What do you think? Employ secrecy to insure trust? Eliminate duplicity through transparency? Choose, depending on the circumstances?

By William Vocke

For more information see:Radio Free Europe,"U.S. Says WikiLeaks Release Harms Diplomacy" Dec. 8, 2010. Woodrow Wilson, Fourteen Points. Lawrence Davidson, "On the Historical Necessity of WikiLeaks," ARAB NEWS. Wolfgang Ischinger, "The End of Diplomacy as We Know It?" The New York Times, December 3, 2010 Ian Bremmer, "EG Update," 12/6/2010.

Photo Credits in order of Appearance: Alex "BuckyBit" Covic New Media Days U.S. Department of State Alpha Mils Geylen Pete Souza Pete Souza iStockphoto/ Thinkstock Agostino Zamboni Screenshot dapd

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