The Wikileaks dump: Kind of a big deal

Four quick points about the Wikileaks document dump.

1. I think it’s a mistake to simply shrug off the leaks, as my good friend Erin at Media Souffle and many others have done. The conventional wisdom that’s emerged about the leaks – that they don’t tell us anything we don’t already know – misses the most interesting thing about the whole situation. Which is: even without access to insider views, academics and journalists (when they’re speaking truth to power) have been providing us with a pretty good picture of how the political world works.

This is huge. I live in Ottawa, so I’ve had my share of conversations with people with security clearances who attempt to trump every argument with an infuriating, “If you only knew what I knew…” (infuriating military corollary: “If you’d seen what I’ve seen…”). Well, these releases actually prove that in 99 cases out of 100, we do know what you know. There’s a tendency, particularly in some parts of government, to fetishize “secret” information, merely because it’s classified, and to denigrate open-source information sources. These leaks are actually a good argument in favour of open-source research.

For us academics, most of whom don’t have access to this deep kind of insider information, this is fantastic news: it means that our theoretical models and information-gathering methods are actually providing us with a reasonably accurate picture of the way that the political world works.

And, of course, there is the one case out of 100 that actually does tell us something new. I, for one, had no idea that every country in the Middle East is pressuring the U.S. to attack Iran. I’d also argue that having proof that United States is spying at the United Nations, breaking formal international obligations, is a big deal. Saying that this isn’t a big surprise says more about our lowered expectations for the rule of law and what we consider appropriate behaviour than it does about the leaks themselves.

2. One of the reasons that these leaks didn’t tell us much that we couldn’t have inferred from paying attention to the world is that they came from the United States. One thing that stood out in my dissertation field work was how open U.S. government sources and lobbyists were in presenting their positions. Sure, they know that you might disagree with them, but they are more than willing to share their perspectives with you. With some notable exceptions, the Canadian government was much harder to deal with (Exhibit A: Three years and counting for the documents I requested under the 30-day Access to Information process).

I wonder if a document dump of Canadian cables would have been as shrug-worthy as the ones from the more-open U.S. government. Just sayin’.

3. I can’t wait until the cables from the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa are released. It looks like some of them deal with Canadian copyright reform. Given the nightmarish experience I’ve had at the hands of the Canadian Access to Information process, I’m viewing this release as a form of karmic balancing. I may have to adjust my dissertation’s argument to account for this new information, but probably not (see point #1).

4. Does anyone else find all the angst about the loss of face in the international community bizarre? For all the advances of the past several hundred years (a United Nations, democratic countries around the world), our diplomacy hasn’t left the 18th century. It’s the 21st century, and everyone is acting like the United States is Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (or, for the more camp-inclined among us, Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions). Which would make Julian Assange either John Malkovich or Ryan Phillippe:

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