Bismarck and the Perils of Wiki-Diplomacy

Paul Schroeder, professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois, asks a favorite question of international-politics scholars: "What would Otto von Bismarck say?"—in this case, about Wikileaks. While Bismarck did use carefully calculated, targeted leaks, Schroeder writes in the New York Times, dropping troves of classified documents into the public domain that could influence foreign relations "is like using dynamite in a construction zone." And the Wikileaks are on a "historically unprecedented" scale. He says diplomacy should be conducted largely in secret, with its results—agreements and treaties—ratified or rejected "by elected legislators": "In other words, open covenants of peace, secretly arrived at."

Just below Schroeder's op-ed, author David Kahn also examines the leaks through the lens of diplomatic history. "Whatever" the top-secret cables might reveal about America's diplomats, he says they can rest assured it "cannot compare in underhandedness with what ambassadors did in the past." Take the sixteenth-century French envoy that paid a British secretary a monthly stipend to read him London's dispatches. Or eighteenth-century Vienna, where fine wine, art and prostitution was exchanged for information. And while norms of diplomatic behavior (don't tamper with the mail or engage in illegal behavior) began to take root about two hundred years ago, Wikileaks harkens back to an earlier age and demonstrates that "diplomatic cables can always be intercepted."