The Chronicle Review

Why WikiLeaks Is Bad for Scholars

Chronicle illustration by Scott Seymour

December 05, 2010

Let me share one of my recurring nightmares with you. I'm delivering a paper on why the United States pursued a particular strategy during an international negotiation. Suddenly a former policy principal, groaning with gravitas, emerges from the shadows and declares, "You lie! We did that for another reason entirely." Then, with a dramatic flourish, the person raises a wadded piece of paper and shouts triumphantly, "And I have the document to prove it!" The audience gasps; my shoulders slump. My career in ruins, I wake up in a sweat.

I'll bet I'm not the only one who has this nightmare. International-relations experts writing about recent events suffer a handicap that other scholars avoid: Information that can make or break our arguments is often classified. Most governments keep foreign-policy memoranda classified for decades. We can and do rely on other sources to "process-trace" decisions on foreign policy, including news reporting, interviews with policy makers, memoirs, and the occasional Bob Woodward book. After 25 years or so, most of the key documents are declassified and published in Foreign Relations of the United States, a many-volume compendium of primary-source documents. Until then, however, scholars wonder if there are top-secret memos somewhere that vindicate or vitiate our hypotheses.

Seen in this light, WikiLeaks clearly has the potential to be a game changer. The organization's latest document dump contains 250,000 U.S. State Department cables, to be released over the next few months. The bulk of the cables were written in the past five years, and will be available far earlier than political scientists or diplomatic historians ever expected. In the short term, this is a potential gold mine for foreign-affairs scholarship. In the long term, however, what WikiLeaks wants to call "Cablegate" will very likely make life far more difficult for my profession.

For now, things certainly look very sweet. Timothy Garton Ash characterized the documents as "the historian's dream." Jon Western, a visiting professor of international relations at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, blogged that WikiLeaks may allow scholars to "leapfrog" the traditional process of declassification, which takes decades. While the first wave of news reports focused on the more titillating disclosures (see: Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi's Ukrainian nurse), the second wave has highlighted substantive and trenchant aspects of world politics and American foreign policy. The published memos reveal provocative Chinese perspectives on the future of the Korean peninsula, as well as American policy makers' pessimistic perceptions of the Russian state.

Scholars will need to exercise care in putting the WikiLeaks documents in proper perspective. Some researchers suffer from "document fetishism," the belief that if something appears in an official, classified document, then it must be true. Sophisticated observers are well aware, however, that these cables offer only a partial picture of foreign-policy decision-making. Remember, with Cablegate, WikiLeaks has published cables and memos only from the State Department. Last I checked, other bureaucracies—the National Security Council, the Defense Department—also shape U.S. foreign policy. The WikiLeaks cables are a source—they should not be the sole source for anything.

For example, some cables from 2009 and 2010 suggest that Chinese officials were growing weary of their North Korean allies and even envisioned a reunified Korea run by Seoul and allied with the United States. The Guardian, in Britain, hyped those cables as a signal that China would rein in North Korea's bellicose behavior. Those Chinese sentiments, however, usually came second or thirdhand, via South Korean diplomats. The Chinese officials, moreover, were talking primarily about the far future rather than the near term.

Most important, Chinese actions over the past six months do not match the views that appear in those cables. China's muted responses to the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, to North Korea's development of a light-water nuclear reactor, and to the latest exchange of artillery fire between North and South Korea hardly suggest that the leadership in Beijing will soon abandon its partners in Pyongyang.

As confused as the early analysis of the WikiLeaks cables has been, it is in the long term that their effect will be most negative for political scientists and diplomatic historians. In his public statements, the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, has evangelized for transparency. In July he said, "We are transparency activists who understand that transparent government tends to produce just government. And that is our sort of modus operandi behind our whole organization."

Assange's hypothesis may or may not be true, but his belief that WikiLeaks will lead to greater government transparency is blinkered in the extreme. Governments do not respond to security breaches by surrendering themselves to the fates. American foreign-policy bureaucracies have and will continue to respond to WikiLeaks by clamping down on the dissemination of information.

That means more compartmentalization, to make sure that someone like Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst suspected of disclosing documents to WikiLeaks, can't download classified files from multiple agencies. It means that more cables will be classified, reducing the number of people who can access them and delaying their release to the public. Most important, a lot less will be written down. State Department officials will opt for telephones over e-mail. As a result, future data dumps from WikiLeaks or its imitators are less likely. The cumulative effect of these measures will make it much harder for political scientists and diplomatic historians to piece together how decisions were made.

Julian Assange and other true believers in transparency argue that they have discovered the very crowbar to pry open the U.S. government. Unfortunately for them, WikiLeaks will be more like a boomerang—and the next generation of scholars are the ones who will be hit on the head.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His next book, Theories of International Politics and Zombies, will be published by Princeton University Press in February.