Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Dawning Of The Age Of Assange?

I find myself with little sympathy for the various government officials expressing outrage over Julian Assange's release via his Wikileaks website of the US State department cables containing secret communications between US diplomats and their governments.

Yes I know Hilary Clinton among others have said that lives will be lost as a result. But still I find these protests unconvincing. Let's face it, government officials are completely invested in the current ways of conducting the affairs of state. Clay Shirky said "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution." This is the aggregate effect of the phenomenon described in Upton Sinclair's statement that "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

So the fact that the US' Secretary of State is alarmed by the thought of letting more sunlight into the diplomatic machinery is neither surprising nor persuasive as to the actual merits of Assange's desire to let the sunshine in.

In fact some of the strident defending of the status quo sounded like what I imagine members of the aristocracy might have said about the concept of democracy when those troublemakers Voltaire and Rousseau started going on about individual rights and self-determination. It must have been unthinkable to a member of the nobility that the nation's future was going to be in the hands of the unwashed & uneducated masses.

Clinton said hyperbolically, "This disclosure is not just an attack on America — it's an attack on the international community". Well, I guess it's an attack, but I'd say it's an attack on subterfuge and secrecy. And secrecy itself is arguably an assault on democracy. It's a safe bet that had transparency existed around the 2003 debate over the invasion of Iraq things would have played out differently.

One of the interesting revelations from these cables is that it seems possible that China is not so committed to defending the Kim Jong Il regime in North Korea as we have been led to expect. China has shown hints of being willing to live with a Korea unified under the current South Korean government & system. If this is true it opens up the question of whether the US needs quite the military presence in South Korea that it currently has. I have no way to come to a sensible opinion about that question, but I am pretty sure that the debate is different with the possibility of an ambivalent China rather than a fiercely committed one. And if it weren't for Wikileaks I'm reasonably confident that we wouldn't have had a clue about that possibility. Governments that want to maintain high levels of military activity will not be keen to entertain discussion that will lead to a reduced sense of peril among it's constituents.

If an intransigent China poses a problem to which increased US influence is the solution, then it will be difficult for those in the halls of power in the US to do anything but preserve that problem, and if that means portraying China as more intransigent than they really are, so be it. There are a lot of salaries dependent on failing to understand any other reality.
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