Julian Assange, spokesman for WikiLeaks, said over the weekend: “Geopolitics will be separated into pre- and post-cablegate phases.” A number of developments on Monday seemed to support his bold thesis, or at least give credence to the supposition that geopolitics will have to take note of the “post-cablegate” era. Nonetheless, STRATFOR disagrees.
Another batch of released cables on Monday included a note from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking U.S. diplomats abroad to gather a list of sites sensitive to American national security interests. The media caught on to this particular cable as potentially the most damaging of the entire batch thus far. In the cable, Clinton asked for an updated list of sites “which, if destroyed, disrupted or exploited, would likely have an immediate and deleterious effect on the United States.” The disclosure sparked immediate outrage with U.S. officials. U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley commented that the release “amounts to giving a targeting list to groups like al Qaeda.”
Meanwhile, STRATFOR sources in the United States, as well as foreign intelligence agencies and diplomatic officials, continued on Monday to speak to STRATFOR about how the leaks had a negative effect on their ability to conduct diplomatic business. A senior foreign diplomat of a critical country to Washington’s interests working inside the United States talked about apprehensively waiting to see if that country — and the country’s diplomats themselves — are mentioned in the cables. The candor with U.S. diplomats — often done at the expense of home government and as an attempt to build credibility with U.S. counterparts — may very well cost them their job if conversations are revealed. A precedent has been set within that country’s foreign ministry, the diplomat acknowledged, of pulling back on speaking honestly about government deficiencies with U.S. officials. It may be a passing phase — after all, foreign diplomats speak to the United States because they have to, not because they want to or have an affinity for Washington, as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said — but it is a concerning development nonetheless.
U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials have also expressed frustration, with particularly negative implications for operations in the Middle East. The U.S. intelligence community is also considering further compartmentalization of information to prohibit similar disclosures in the future.
Repercussions of the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables therefore are serious and global, not confined to American statecraft. Diplomacy and intelligence professions may very well consider classifying eras as pre- and post-WikiLeaks. We are not sure, and it is too early to tell so close to the actual leaks.
But STRATFOR takes issue with the thesis that the leaked cables will mark geopolitics itself. Geopolitics is a set of constraints imposed primarily by geography — with demographics and technology playing roles — that limit strategic options for nations. Belgium may want to be a world power — and it may have dabbled in the pursuit of such power in the jungles of the Congo — but its existence is defined by its geography as a buffer between France and Germany. Mongolia may once have dominated vast stretches of the Eurasian steppe, but technological advancements have long since minimized the utility of cavalry archers.
One could argue that WikiLeaks introduces a new set of constraints, of open information that will limit how governments pursue their national interests. But the episode does not actually affect one set of countries disproportionately over others. In fact, as much as the United States will now be hampered in intelligence sharing among its diplomats and intelligence officials with Washington, a much less technologically advanced country will be hampered in getting its point across in a frank manner. It is not clear if anyone wins or loses. Power structures established by geography, demographics and technology remain unaffected. One continues to be either constrained or enabled by their particular circumstances. In fact, those geopolitical circumstances will continue to determine the particulars of who speaks to whom and how — only the method may change.
Diplomacy and intelligence work are crafts of manipulating and alleviating the constraints of geopolitics. They are not constraints or enablers themselves. Diplomats and intelligence officials will adapt to the new set of constraints in their work — much as they adapted to the telegraph or the photocopy machine — and this will take time, resources and training. But ultimately geopolitics remains unaffected.
Perhaps we have misread the WikiLeak thesis. Perhaps behind the idea that leaked U.S. diplomatic cables would change geopolitics is not a simple argument of new constraints and enablers emerging, but rather the assumption that the revelation of supposed cynicism and insidious scheming of U.S. diplomats would by itself create a call for change within the American — and global — society. This has not happened. In fact, the U.S. public — as well as the global public — seem to be very much aware of what their diplomats are doing and how they are going about their business. They are, as Joseph Stalin once wrote, quite aware that “sincere diplomacy is no more possible than dry water or wooden iron.”