In December 1917 British imperial troops occupied Jerusalem, ending four centuries of Ottoman rule. Earlier that year, the British Empire also took control of Baghdad, and was advancing across the middle east. In Asia and the West, the British government spread the message that they were bringing a new age of national freedom to the Arabs. Unfortunately for Whitehall, however, the newly installed Bolsheviks in Russia had their own message to tell the world. A couple of weeks before General Allenby, the chief of British forces in Palestine, made his official entrance on foot through the Jaffa Gate of the old city of Jerusalem, the Bolsheviks published the secret agreements that they had just discovered in the Russian archives.
This was the first major leak of international diplomatic documents, the scale of which has never been surpassed. If Julian Assange and his associates had access to the inner sanctum of the White House and the Pentagon, they might get close to documentation that was of similar significance. Pride of place amongst the material published by the Russians was a plan by the British and French governments in 1916 to carve up the middle east between themselves after the war. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, as it was known, divided west Asia into British and French spheres of influence. Thrust into the public domain, this document showed without any doubt that the British had been up to their old imperialist tricks. Their championing of Arab nationalism appeared to have been nothing but Machiavellian posturing.
The contemporary equivalent would be a leaked document proving that Britain and the US conspired to invent the threat of Iraqi WMD. The tittle-tattle of US diplomats revealed by Assange & co. is small fry in comparison. Nonetheless, the WikiLeaks files are damaging to the Obama administration because they confirm that the old world of political intrigue behind closed doors is alive and well. This will inevitably hamper Obama’s effort to portray his administration as heralding a new chapter in international politics. But the real harm to the power of the United States in the world comes not from the leaking of problematic documents; it lies instead in the disconnect between its rhetoric and the reality of its political actions in the world.
The long-term impact of the publication of the Sykes-Picot Agreement on the British Empire is instructive. There is no doubt that the unveiling of secret imperialist ambitions in the middle east posed a serious challenge to Britain. Unsurprisingly, Britain’s enemy in the middle east, the Ottoman Turks, made as much of the leaked agreement as they could. The loyalty of Britain’s principal Arab ally, Sherif Hussein of Mecca—the leader of TE Lawrence’s Arab Revolt— was thrown into doubt. It was feared in Whitehall that the whole edifice of the Anglo-Arab alliance could collapse as a result. As well, the Agreement flew in the face of the principles of the powerful US president, Woodrow Wilson, who had been arguing that secret diplomacy and imperialism were the root cause of the War. According to Wilson, national self-determination had to be the order of the day.
The British response to all this was not to change its policy in the middle east— though that had been extremely vague anyway. Instead, the British accelerated in the same direction in which they were already heading. Their aim was to dominate the middle east whilst portraying themselves as the principal champion of nationality. The government hoped to combine a modern-looking commitment to nation-building with the old imperial aim of political domination.
In the long-run, this project undoubtedly failed; but this wasn’t because of the publication of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. That agreement continues to this day to be a powerful symbol of British, and indeed Western, perfidy in the collective memory of west Asia. But it would have been long forgotten if it were not for Britain’s actions in the region over the following three decades and their violent legacies. The image of Britain as the champion of Arab freedom was demolished by the meteoric rise of Zionism under British auspices in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, support for anti-democratic elites across the middle east, and, above all, the determined effort to direct the politics of the region.
Similar to the British in 1917, the United States government talks of a new international politics, of a commitment to openness, freedom, and the greater good. But at the same time, realpolitik and old-fashioned assessments of the national interest continue to rule the roost in Washington. This national interest may (eventually) have positive outcomes that fit with the rhetoric, such as serious peace negotiations in Israel/Palestine. But it will also lead to the backing of authoritarian and corrupt regimes when it is thought to be expedient, and an ongoing effort to shape the political landscape wherever it has the will and the way.
The leaks are doing a good job of chipping away at the thin veneer of the Obama administration’s public image. But they only reveal what is already plain to see in the actions of the United States in the middle east and elsewhere. The real threat to US power in the long-term is not the freedom of Julian Assange; it is the stubborn attempt to conduct foreign policy as if we still lived in the 19th century world of imperialism and great power politics. As the British started to discover ninety years ago, those days are over.