When I was in high school a few buddies and I finagled our way from Detroit to D.C. to represent Somalia at the Model United Nations. I won’t go into all the sordid details; it’s enough say that the trip is affectionately known in our historical canon as “Fear and Loathing in Washington.”
It was the Year of the Refugee, so we had scored big with our randomly assigned country as Somalia was the unfortunate host of millions of displaced persons. During the first day’s plenary session, we thought it would be a good idea to break the ice by sending a note via floor page to our nemesis, Ethiopia, a country we were at war with and in real life had severed all ties: “Party in our hotel room tonight! Go OAS!” Yes, that refers to the Organization of African States, and no, the hostile delegation did not think this funny.
Within moments of reading our missive, one of our adversaries rose to his feet shrieking to the Chairman: “Point of order! Calling for the immediate censure [or whatever] of Somalia for attempting to initiate contact!” Evidently, we were not allowed to even pass a note to our (c’mon, not really) enemy and we were embarrassingly taken to task in front of the session. We immediately struck back by pointing out to the same Chair the “Ethiopians” failure to wear neckties. This breach of decorum was, it turned out, as grave an error on their part as was our failure to not communicate. Needless to say, we Somalis learned our lesson and avoided our fellows from the Horn of Africa – and co-creators of the world’s largest refugee problem – for the rest of our time in Washington.
No meaningful resolutions were passed.
I recall this story in the light of WikiLeaks’ recent release (to five major news outlets) of a large number of United States diplomatic cables between the State Department and its operations around the world. The “leaks” are the beginning of the third in a series, following the exposure of Afghan War and Iraq War documents earlier this year. The incident has become a global sensation, bringing to light the way in which diplomatic activity is conducted – and calling into question the security of intra- and international communications surrounding that activity. (Adding to the drama was WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s recent surrender to British authorities as a result of a sexual assault investigation in Sweden.)
High school memories aside, I do recognize the gravity of the situation here, and I, for one, am as dazzled as anyone by the savage behind-the-scenes elicit interactions, horse trading, strong-arming and bribery that seems to be the norm when it comes to what our American delegations – from the United Nations in New York to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change conferences in Copenhagen and Cancun – like to call “delicate negotiations” or “meetings of the minds.”
Of course, we at EcoSalon are concerned about the diplomacy around climate change negotiations – and as the data comes in regarding what went down in Copenhagen, for example, we’re seeing quite a troubling picture. By way of background, the accord, which allows each nation to choose a target for greenhouse gas cuts, was designed in part to make it easy to get countries likes China and rapidly developing nations on board, though many feel it falls way short of needed measures. Moreover, opponents said it would get in the way of extending the binding provisions of the Kyoto Protocol – placed on richer nations – and it was thus opposed by many poorer countries.
Here’s what we know from the Guardian (guardian.co.uk), one of the five news organizations that has access to the leaks: The United States began “a diplomatic offensive” to get the accord signed and cables show that the U.S. sought “dirt on nations opposed to its approach to tackling global warming.” This included going after “human intelligence” from UN diplomats. One cable “names specific countries of interest, including China, France, Japan, Mexico, Russia and the European Union, and seeks biographical details of individuals such as credit card and frequent-flyer numbers. It also seeks compromising intelligence on the officials running the climate negotiations, such as ‘efforts by treaty secretariats to influence treaty negotiations or compliance.’”
Meanwhile, the “Basic” nations (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) mounted their opposition. Says another cable: “It is remarkable how closely coordinated the Basic group has become in international fora, taking turns to impede US/EU initiatives and playing the US and EU off against each other. Basic countries have widely differing interests, but have subordinated these to their common short-term goals.”
And then there was another huge player, Saudi Arabia. A cable from Ambassador James Smith says, interestingly, that officials from the oil-producing giant “have suggested that they need to find a way to climb down gracefully from the country’s tough negotiating position. … Saudi officials are very eager to obtain investment credits for carbon capture and storage (CCS) and other technology transfer projects.”
The bottom line is that everyone was maneuvering hard. Some nations were even willing to sell their vote to the highest bidder.
But here’s the rub, and the question on the street in Cancun, where this year’s conference is currently underway. With the fear that back-room dealings might be exposed to the public – including the benign, the ugly muscling and the sometimes uglier beddings among those who don’t want anyone to know that they’re engaged in any contact – could progress be slowed to crawl, or even doomed?
What role could secret talks play in allowing an obstructionist country to “climb down gracefully,” or the U.S. and the E.U. to work together to prevent a China from killing a (more comprehensive than Copenhagen) deal? Or who’s to say that less-developed nations (perhaps even outwardly adversarial ones) ought not to be able to secretly gather in their own smoke-filled rooms to circumvent the agendas of richer nations? After all, from the Middle East to Middle America, anyone familiar with diplomatic negotiations knows that a lot of trees are often quietly felled in very private forests before breakthroughs occur.
This is not to say that exposure of dirty deals and powerful countries abusing less-powerful ones isn’t a good thing. In fact, the WikiLeaks witch-hunt and censorship effort is somewhere between abhorrent and Orwellian. But some players would tell you this: If next year’s dealings in Durban – where real, binding breakthroughs are not out of the question – were to be conducted with the presumption of complete transparency, progress might be no more than an elusive dream.
So here is the essential quandary of the Wikileaks phenomenon. Says Julian Assange in yesterday’s The Australian: “The truth will always win.” Nice sentiment. Will it? So much of what has been revealed is opening the world’s eyes to the gruesome underbelly of how nations deal with each other to manipulate people and populations to the benefit of the greedy and the powerful. Yet the question remains, without the ability for nations to conduct business in private, would certain essential bridges never be built, subterranean ties never be made, diplomatic infrastructure never exist that could open doors to change and allow for conflict resolution?
There’s a lot of support for WikiLeaks out there. And there are a lot of critics. But there are a lot of mixed feelings, as well. “What ifs” are easy, but I have to ask these questions: If every Soviet constituency knew of Mikhail Gorbachev’s interactions with Washington, would he have made it to the finish line? If certain Republicans knew of Richard Nixon’s interactions with Mao Tse-Tung, would relations with China have opened? How much sooner might Anwar Sadat have been murdered had his back-room dealings with Menachem Begin been revealed? There are no easy answers, but there’s a lot to consider, as well as a lot of trust going on that publications like the The New York Times, Der Spiegel and the Guardian will be making some wise decisions.
In the meantime, in the world’s diplomatic circles the question continues to be asked, often in secret: “Can we talk?” The answer: “Maybe. Depends who’s listening.”