WikiLeaks 'attack': How damaging to US foreign relations?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemns the WikiLeaks 'attack on the international community' as harmful to US policy goals. But major geopolitical shifts are unlikely, analysts say.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gestures as she delivers a statement about WikiLeaks at the State Department in Washington on Monday.

The US intensified its efforts at damage control on Monday following the publication by WikiLeaks of more than a quarter-million diplomatic cables, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calling the massive release not just a problem for American foreign policy but “an attack on the international community.”

In a statement to journalists in the State Department’s Treaty Room before she was to leave on a four-country trip through Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, Secretary Clinton said that both the furthering of US national interests and the operation of the world’s international political system depend on thousands of confidential exchanges, assessments, and conversations every day.

Far from being a “laudable” effort to make the workings of government transparent, the leaking of classified cables, she said, can have a chilling effect on such US foreign policy goals as the promotion of human rights or expansion of religious freedoms by discouraging the foreign proponents of those goals from working with the US.

The release of more than 250,000 cables primarily from the Bush and Obama administrations by WikiLeaks – the same organization that released classified information on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars earlier this year – is a cause of deep embarrassment to the US.

But it is not likely to lead to any significant geopolitical shifts or fundamental reworkings of US relations with other countries, many foreign-policy analysts say. And that is because foreign partners were assumed to be acting in their own national interest in their dealings with the US before the revelations, and presumably will continue to do so now. “No country is going to suddenly act against its own self interest because of this,” says Lawrence Korb, a foreign-policy expert and former Pentagon official at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Impact on diplomatic corps

The real impact of the new WikiLeaks release, he says, is likely to be on the US diplomatic corps – and on the conversations with foreigners that they depend on to do their work. “The real issue here is whether our own diplomats now are going to be as forthcoming as they used to be,” he says, “and will the people they talk to be as open with them?”

On the other hand, the exposed confidential communications could make some of the US’s prickliest dealings all the more difficult, some analysts note. Two examples are Pakistan and Yemen.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York, says that while much of the WikiLeaks release “confirms more than it informs,” in other cases the documents will likely cause immediate problems.

“Working with Pakistan’s weak government to ensure that its nuclear materials remain under tight control – a process described in the WikiLeaks papers – will prove even more difficult,” Mr. Haass says in a CFR commentary. “Counterterrorism efforts in Yemen might also be set back as the leadership there might well feel the need to distance itself from the United States.”

In one cable containing a discussion between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and US Gen. David Petraeus, Mr. Saleh allegedly suggests he will continue to insist publicly that US missile strikes against the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen are actually Yemeni government strikes.

And Mr. Korb offers the example of Russia. He says that if the Senate fails to ratify the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) now before it, he could imagine Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin using the leaks’ revelations – among other things, an unflattering characterization of Mr. Putin’s relationship with President Dimitry Medvedev – to promote a tougher line with the US.

Clinton acknowledged that the unauthorized release of classified diplomatic cables “undermines our efforts to work with other countries on shared problems.” She said she had personally contacted dozens of her counterparts and other foreign leaders to convey her and President Obama’s dismay at the leaks and intentions to pursue the administration’s “hard work” on alliance-building and international partnerships.

A touch of humor

Injecting a bit of humor in an otherwise serious statement, Clinton referred obliquely to the sometimes caustic assessments the leaked cables offered of some foreign leaders by reporting that one “counterpart” she contacted said, “Don’t worry about it – you should see what we say about you.”

But she added that what may be routine assessments and appraisals in the diplomatic world can, if divulged, be matters of life and death for activists and political dissidents in foreign countries who work with the US on the promotion of rights, for example, but find their identities released publicly.

The ensuing chill on day-to-day diplomatic efforts won’t go away overnight, says American Progress’s Korb. “It’ll last over the short term,” he says, “and at least until we can prove that more of this kind of thing is not going to get out.”

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