Diplomacy mandates subtlety; it's the golden rule of negotiation. But in the event of a breach, honesty and ownership can go a long way.
An honest reply to a diplomatic nightmare
Diplomacy mandates subtlety; it's the golden rule of negotiation. But when a state's honest assessment of another becomes public, tact can devolve into damage control, which explains why a spokesman for the US State Department, PJ Crowely, was circling the wagons at the weekend.
"Across the State Department, senior officials are reaching out to countries and warning them about a possible release of documents," Mr Crowley wrote via Twitter yesterday. Leaders from Germany to the UAE have been briefed "regarding WikiLeaks".
The whistle-blowing thorn in the American government's side, WikiLeaks, is at it again. The web site has already published thousands of documents detailing military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a new round of diplomatic cables is expected in the coming days.
It remains to be seen what specifics will emerge when the document dump unfolds. What is clear, though, is that publishing these materials will do more harm than good. Knowledge for knowledge sake is valuable only when its benefits outweigh the risks, and in matters of national security and international diplomacy, this is rarely the case. Rather than shed light on shady dealings, posting American diplomats' unvarnished assessments online will instead sour the air when trust is already in short supply.
If revelations unveiled by the leaks are as explosive as America's damage control efforts suggest, Washington is certain to be tested. But how the US responds could also set the tone for a new era of engagement abroad. Although the fallout is a given, a well thought-out response may provide a window of opportunity, rather than a threat.
The Americans have a legitimate concern that the airing of classified material could damage their international image. Every country shares cables between embassies and home offices; few expect embarrassing tidbits to become public. When they are, relationships suffer. As one Russian researcher told the Christian Science Monitor, "How can we talk candidly with our American colleagues in [the] future if we don't know who's going to read it tomorrow?"
Perhaps the only way to answer that question is with more candour. Those who read the leaked documents will remember less what is said about their governments than how it is said.
If the US response is to be frank, and not defensive, they can actually win respect. Most of these "secrets" are likely to be secret only in name - particularly in this part of the world. It also stands to reason that foreign governments already have a firm understanding of Washington's views and policies. Warning foreign allies to brace for the fallout, as Mr Crowley is doing, might seem logical. Honesty and ownership might prove more effective.