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Openness will not be served by WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks may have scored a publicity coup with its publishing of sensitive cables ... but in the process, they undermined the world's ability to speak freely at a time when greater cooperation is essential to the world's security.

Diplomatic dealings have always been meant for a limited audience. When mainstream media outlets rush to publish intimate details of a government's work, the fallout is certain to be fierce.

WikiLeaks may have scored a publicity coup with its publishing of sensitive cables from US embassies to Washington yesterday, but in the process, they undermined the world's ability to speak freely at a time when greater cooperation is essential to the world's security.

Angry responses are inevitable. Pakistan, for one, has bristled at American diplomats' characterisation of its nuclear programme as poorly protected.Other nations are certain to express similar frustrations as the less-than-diplomatic observations of US officials are spread before audiences from Moscow to Madrid.

WikiLeaks may fancy itself a champion of free-flowing information, but the paradox of the quest for transparency could well be that there is far less of it.

Once the global arbiter of democratic values, America's influence in the region has been diminished of late, from the Iraq war fallout to the lingering effects of the financial crisis. Now it turns out the United States can't even keep secrets secret.

World powers cannot conduct diplomacy if what they say one day is made public the next. That, by its very definition, would be the end of diplomacy. Governments are supposed to conduct negotiations with each other by sharing frank views. When discrete conversations are aired in the same manner as dirty laundry, the ability to be candid is jeopardised.

The documents do, however, raise questions about the behaviour of US officials at the United Nations. They also underscore the extent of concerns in the region with Iran and the willingness of some nations to use force. The documents present with clarity the views of many governments that are often opaque.

The trouble is, openness can also backfire. There's reason to wonder whether the largest diplomatic fiasco in a generation will inspire change for the better, or whether this dump of information will conspire to prevent it. In the long term, however, the leaks will prove an embarrassment but are unlikely to cause lasting damage to any party.

In arguing against the documents' release, the Obama administration urged news outlets to understand that publicising confidential conversations will make foreign governments less willing to cooperate on a broad range of issues. Sadly, this plea was ignored. We hope America and its global partners, in the region and beyond, will eventually look past a few disparaging cables and keep talking. Candid conversation is always needed, now more so than ever.

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