Wilson, Trotsky, Assange: lessons from the history of diplomatic transparency

IMMANUEL KANT is against censorship!Bentham and Kant were clear that diplomatic secrecy was bad. So were Wilson and Trotsky. And while Wikileaks may not be the ideal organisation to take diplomatic publicity to a new level, we should embrace its challenge.

On the 7th of November 1917, just after the revolution, Lev Trotsky took office at the Russian Foreign Ministry and started reading the correspondence between his predecessors and the ministers of the other countries. The new People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs discovered many secret treaties with old Europe's powers aimed at exchanging rights over colonies and re-drawing national boundaries. Official documents revealed what the Bolsheviks had claimed since the beginning of the war: it was not fought for patriotic reasons. From the Russian archives came strong evidence that there was an agreement among the hegemonic classes against thousands of Russian peasants enlisted in the army. Those sent to die for the glory of Holy Mother Russia were actually sold by their Tsar to the highest bidder. In a word, it confirmed the validity of one of Lenin’s simplest demands: a peace treaty had to be signed as soon as possible and without annexations or reparations.

Trotsky, a polyglot intellectual who was already widely traveled did not hesitate in deciding what to do: the Foreign Ministry's archives had to be made public in order to make the whole world aware that the war in Europe was fought by the hegemonic classes against their own peoples. Secret diplomacy was just the make-up needed to hide this fact: “Secret diplomacy is a necessary tool for a propertied minority which is compelled to deceive the majority in order to subject it to its interests”, declared Trotsky, only two weeks after the conquest of the Winter Palace.

Thanks also to the megaphone of political forces sympathizing with the new Bolshevik government the secret documents had a remarkable distribution thoughout Europe. Nevertheless, the major impact occurred in the United States. American President Woodrow Wilson became somehow an early Trotskyist by repeating in the first of his Fourteen points, released just two months after the Russian revolution, the principle of diplomatic activities' publicity: “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”. The communist and atheist Trotsky together with the liberal and Presbyterian Wilson managed to dramatically change practice: from that day, the majority of international treaties have not been secret.

It is true that liberal thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant, had already at the end of the XVIII century, called for much more than publicity of the treaties. Bentham, for example, stated that all practice of secret diplomacy should be abolished: “The Foreign Department is the Department of all others in which the strongest checks are needful. At the same time, thanks to the rules of secrecy of all the Departments, this is the only one in which there are no checks at all. I will say, then, the conclusion is demonstrated. The principle which throws a veil of secrecy of the proceeding of the Foreign Department of the Cabinet is pernicious in the highest degree, pregnant with mischiefs superior to everything to which the most perfect absence of all concealment could possibly give rise”.# Trotsky himself just repeated the point made much earlier by Bentham when he argued that “the abolition of secret diplomacy is the primary condition for an honest, popular, truly democratic foreign policy”.

Today history is repeating itself. Julian Assange is neither Trotsky nor Wilson, and WikiLeaks is neither the Russian Bolshevik party nor the American Democratic party. Nevertheless WikiLeaks is readdressing the issue which was left open at the end of the First World War: is diplomatic secret in the people's interest? Both Trotsky and Wilson moved their agenda forward to some limited extent: the Soviet Union soon became a harsh dictatorship and transparency was so despised under Stalin that even the map of the Moscow underground was a classified document. The practice of publicity had better luck in the United States and in other Western countries. Transparency and accountability started to be common sense in consolidated democratic regimes although state secret still exists and diplomacy is still covered by the seven veils of classified documents. Even in the most democratic countries, secrecy in international affairs continues to be justified by the need to protect the state's integrity and to guarantee citizens’ security and these aims prevail over the need to guarantee transparency and freedom of expression.

Through WikiLeaks world public opinion was informed of numerous violations of humanitarian law in Afghanistan, of false reports on the legitimacy of the military intervention in Iraq, of the exaggeration of the weapons of mass destruction held by Saddam Hussein. This core information has been peppered with hundreds and hundreds of more exciting but less relevant gossip about political celebrities. Not surprisingly, those holding the secrets have reacted furiously against the leaks, have made what efforts they can to prevent further leaks and threatened retaliation against those who provided the information, those who published it and even those who dared to read it. The prize for the most furious reaction goes to Congressman Peter King, who wanted WikiLeaks to be declared a foreign terrorist organization. These reactions are certainly comprehensible but not justified. If there is the need to fight a war, the citizens, the taxpayers and even more the conscripted should clearly know the reasons for spilling blood on the battleground. Otherwise, as Noam Chomsky correctly pointed out, “government secrecy is to protect the government from its own population”.

Until now WikLleaks' revelations have not provoked major damage to intelligence mechanisms, either in Afghanistan or anywhere else. It may always be that such revelations can harm and identify specific persons, making their actions and their information services known to malicious people. Excessive transparency can in principle be dangerous for a few individuals, and it should be balanced with the need to protect the privacy of individuals. At the expense of violating the privacy of many individuals, WikiLeaks has allowed public opinion to know that public offices have been used for private purposes, that false information has been released with the explicit aim of diverting public attention, that crimes have been committed without liability. Looking at the outcomes so far produced, it can be argued that the violation of privacy has been minimal compared to the relevance of the information provided to public opinion.

An instrument like WikiLeaks has proven to be helpful not only in making governments and their officials more accountable. It has also proved very useful to check and control the business sector. We have already seen that WikiLeaks has started eating into banking secrecy, with the publication of the greatest tax dodgers' lists by a banker that worked in Cayman Islands on behalf of the Swiss bank Julius Baer. In this case, it would be difficult to claim that confidentiality on tax evasion and money laundering should be protected in deference of privacy. It is somehow surprising that some Courts, rather than using the occasion to prosecute financial crimes, have preferred to be on the side of the banks and requested that leaked documents should be removed from the public domain.

WikiLeaks raises a more general point that needs to be addressed: is there any effective filter between the load of information leaked out and what is actually published? WikilLeaks today has been a pioneer and it is carrying out an important public function, but it is probably inappropriate that an unaccountable private organization holds so much power. The opportunity to publish classified document has traditionally been a prerogative of all media, but there is no media, to date, that is solely devoted to releasing classified documents. This puts WikiLeakes in a league by its own.

The responsibility to monitor the transparency of geopolitical relations, of financial flows and of other sensitive information should be put in the hands of organizations that are themselves fully transparent and accountable. The empirical research carried out by One World Trust on the accountability of inter-governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and of business corporations has often provided counter-intuitive results, indicating that institutions such as the World Bank are more transparent than institutions such as the WWF International.# Paradoxically, WikiLeaks risks being an organization more secretive than those whose documents it publishes. “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” said Juvenal and today we can wonder: “Who will assure the transparency of those who generate transparency?”

WikiLeaks is denouncing a major transparency deficit in world politics. But we need to ask if it is acceptable that a group of private citizens and a website, even if it is well built and it has the best intention, is the most appropriate way of protecting the public interest. Shouldn’t the international community, governments and the groups that constitute global civil society start to look into the possibility of developing similar institutional mechanisms?

The governments that are using any possible means to stop Assange should reflect on one thing: the revolution triggered by WikiLeaks and the algorithms that determinate its functioning are not reversible. The state secret as we knew it is definitively dead. The main task for the present and future is to find the appropriate mechanisms to manage confidential information. President Wilson was brave enough to accept Trotsky's challenge and to establish an innovative principle: the publicity of international treaties. Is there anybody today brave enough to accept Assange's challenge?

About the authors

Daniele Archibugi is a director at the Italian National Research Council (CNR), and professor of innovation, governance and public policy at Birkbeck College.

Marina Chiarugi is  a research assistant at the Italian National Research Council in Rome. An international lawyer, she is currently working on the on the transformation of international criminal justice in the global age.