Tough times for diplomacy in post-WikiLeaks world

DAVOS, Switzerland Sun Jan 30, 2011 8:03pm EST

Attendees have lunch at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, January 29, 2011. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Attendees have lunch at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, January 29, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Christian Hartmann

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) - If ministers and diplomats have learned a single lesson from the WikiLeaks saga, it is this: write nothing down.

Behind the closed doors of a supposedly confidential Davos forum panel discussion, policymakers, diplomats, journalists and a buzz of social networkers gathered this weekend to ponder the uncertain future of diplomacy in the digital age.

"This session is off the record, whatever that means in the digital age," the moderator began, noting that delegates had breached the confidentiality of other World Economic Forum debates by sending Twitter messages live from the room.

This report of a dialogue on the eruption of blogs, tweets and Facebook into the once sedate and secretive world of international negotiations will respect those ground rules. Only one participant, former State Department official Richard Haass, agreed to be quoted since he no longer holds office.

As the session proceeded, tweets reported, erroneously, that veteran President Hosni Mubarak had fled Egypt or had a heart attack. Similar messages from anonymous Tunisians on January 14 were first to break the news that autocratic President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife had flown into exile.

It is clear that governments have been profoundly spooked by the publication of some of the 250,000 secret U.S. diplomatic cables disseminated by the WikiLeaks activist network headed by Julian Assange through a group of leading newspapers.

The immediacy of the Internet, real time news and citizen journalism is gnawing at the secrecy essential for successful diplomacy and compressing the time for analysis and consensus-building in shaping policy, Haas lamented.

"The time for consideration and reflection has shrunk," said Haass, president of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations.

The WikiLeaks disclosures had reinforced the narrative of U.S. foreign policy, by showing Washington's private actions were consistent with its public pronouncements, he said.

But others disputed his conclusion that the mega-leak of dispatches on the views of key allies, and incisive analyses of the personalities and foibles of foreign leaders, would not wreak lasting harm on America's international relations.

LESS FRANK?

European and Asian officials said foreign interlocutors would be more wary and a lot less frank with U.S. diplomats.

One European minister said the greatest blow may have been to Washington's reputation for competence in keeping secrets.

The orgy of indiscretions could undermine U.S. leadership at a time when economic shifts were already tilting the balance of global power toward China, he observed.

"This has deeply shaken every U.S. foreign service officer and every ambassador," said a former U.S. diplomat who is now a consultant on public diplomacy.

An official who grew up behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War said the WikiLeaks saga recalled a communist-era joke: "Don't think. If you must think, don't speak. If you must speak, don't write anything down. And if you write something down, don't sign it. And if you do all that, don't be surprised."

Governments around the world have reviewed security procedures and some, such as Germany's foreign office, have sent reminders to diplomatic staff about the need for discretion and sobriety in telegrams.

A security check in one foreign ministry found that only two officials had access to the entire database of cables, and they would have to access them together using encryption keys.

That is in stark contrast to the estimated 500,000 U.S. officials who had access to the telegrams passed to WikiLeaks, including an army private suspected of having downloaded the lot.

Two ministers said they were now using secure telephones rather than email for sensitive communications.

One said he communicated with his European counterparts by BlackBerry Messenger because he believed it safe from foreign security services "and from my own security service."

Some governments, from Austria to India, have decided the best option is to embrace the new social media, creating their own foreign ministry Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and encouraging public dialogue on their policies.

Alas, they tend to attract radicals, ultranationalists or crackpots unrepresentative of the electorate at large.

"The most prominent voices are not necessarily the most moderate, reasonable or representative," Haass said.

(Reporting by Paul Taylor, editing by Maria Golovnina)