Diplomacy has gone through a lot of changes, evolution— particularly in its practice bringing forth its many types which serve to strengthen and at the same time dilute the competing foreign policies of states. With diplomacy operating within the context of globalized interests, it comes as no surprise that achieving transparency and accountability in this arena have become severe challenges for many nations.

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Security under the cloak of secrecy

With transparency and accountability as vital threads strengthening the new blanket of security—be it national, economic or humanitarian, nations such as the US can no longer bask in the warmth of its security blanket woven through espionage or covert methods in ensuring its interests and safety from what it considers as threats to democracy.

The “Snowden disclosures” is at best a monumental case in history, as far as whistle-blowing goes. The “leaks” have made a resounding ripple over the already chaotic waters of relations between and among states. For instance, it has strained even further, the relations of US, China and Russia. Another issue the Snowden case has not left untouched is the post 9/11 agreement regarding aggressive intelligence gathering and of great importance to the public interest is the false impression of privacy in the digital age. Snowden’s revelations obviously presented a trade-off between privacy and security—a balance between which the Obama administration is struggling to achieve. In reference to history, President Woodrow Wilson clearly stated in his well-known Fourteen Point Speech during a joint session of the US Congress, of ‘open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view’ (Wilson 1918). This call for international treaties to be negotiated and ratified open to the public eye had certainly reshaped the rules of diplomatic conduct.

But then again, just as the Snowden case has proven, the part in which “diplomacy shall proceed always in frankly and in the public view” remains to be a daunting task for diplomacy to carry out. The big question now is how to draw the clear line between secrecy and transparency in practicing diplomacy. Another imperative question is how will diplomacy meet the challenge of adapting to the digital information age or as many analysts have dubbed it, the age of leaks?

Enter the new password: Diplomatic Transparency?

The practice of scrutinizing foreign policy decision-making behind closed doors has been a silent game of understanding among governments for many years, dating back to even before the First World War. This included data gathering in covert ways as well—which is very well understood as a part of the game of espionage among nations. Such covert diplomatic practices were treated as means that justify the end, another salient feature of the Machiavellian diplomacy. Machiavelli even sized-up ambassadors’ performances by their capability to gather information about matters concluded and done and for matters that are yet to be done. This type of secret diplomacy often invokes the principle of raison d’état (state reason) which in many cases serves to justify the dishonest operations of governments or in other words, provides them the legitimacy to achieve state objectives even at the expense and/or violation of human rights.

Snowden’s case then also reveals to us how the practice of diplomacy is stuck in a gridlock between security and transparency. It is not wrong to say that there have been cases in which the secret practice of diplomacy proved to be beneficial to countries, as in the case of the US where they consider gathering intelligence vital to their national security. And so we return again to the big question, to what extent can the practice of secret diplomacy be considered as ethical and vital to uphold national security? Then again, it is also not wrong to say that practicing secret diplomacy proved to be troublesome as in the case of the First World War, where many blame its fruition on secret diplomacy. What then can and should be done?

In analyzing the impact of leaks on the practice of diplomacy, we find that there are two sides that justify and at the same time denigrate the practice of both secret and open diplomacy. First, it is revealed how secret negotiations (i.e. US-Iran nuclear deal) can establish mutual confidence between leaders of governments and provide them with the avenue to prevent grandstanding, as opposed to negotiations monitored by the media in which they can improve their reputation while in the eyes of the public. At the same, these highly classified types of meetings between leaders, ambassadors, diplomats or other high-ranking officials can also be detrimental in that these state officials could be working against the interest of the government they represent. Second, practicing diplomacy covertly can provide or prevent the escalation of certain issues which again is double-edged. Seeing that a single leak can cause large disruptions to the reputation of a government, what more if these leaks are allowed to accumulate and eventually cause a flood of issues that may or can undermine even more the public’s trust in their government? In contrast, the disclosure of such leaks can in the end provide the proper reforms needed particularly in the area of human rights violations. The Snowden case definitely hit the mark with the massive data-mining that infringed on universally declared human rights on privacy. This revelation provided fuel to the distrust harbored by the public on the practice of secret diplomacy.

Basically, though the practice of secret diplomacy proved to have some benefits, its disadvantages can outweigh these when context is carefully considered. At present, the international system is operating within a globalizing world where technological developments in communication are ongoing and the demand for greater transparency and accountability—diplomatic transparency to be exact, is the new blanket of security for many citizens. Thus, the practice of secret diplomacy is rather impractical at best noting that the matters of diplomacy are also now considered a matter of public interest. The digital age or the so-called age of leaks, is definitely not a conducive environment for secret diplomacy to thrive in. As such, the US government must be careful of the decision it makes concerning Snowden’s case. Just like entering a wrong password could disable or lock a device, any wrong move they make is sure to render them immobile—a dangerous position specifically in this race to gain diplomatic advantages.