Curious case of cables

One of the delightful gifts I gave myself last Christmas was a curious collection of diplomatic despatches. Parting Shots is a collection of what its editor Matthew Parris has called “an extraordinary beast”, the Valedictory Despatch of an envoy before he retired to walk the Labrador on the South Downs. The valedictories (as they were called) weren’t just a confidential report to the minister or permanent secretary; convention deemed that they also be circulated to colleagues in the diplomatic service.

In 2006, the valedictories were formally discontinued by a humourless foreign secretary. Presumably she saw nothing funny in the observations of the pre-politically correct generation of Britons. Although the murder of yet another noble tradition was robustly denounced in the gentleman’s clubs, New Labour’s killjoy streak may have actually saved the United Kingdom from grave embarrassment in the age of WikiLeaks.
Random selections from two valedictories by Her Majesty’s envoys to Thailand may explain why candour and confidentiality can’t be separated. Writing on the eve of his departure in July 1967, Sir Anthony Rumbold debunked the belief that “Thais are rather easier for Europeans to understand”. “It seems to me”, he wrote uninhibitedly, “that Sino/ Indian/Malay/Thai ways of thought are so alien to ours that analogies between events in Southeast Asia and events in Europe are nearly always misleading… The general intelligence of Thais is rather low, a good deal lower than ours and much lower than that of the Chinese. But there are a few very intelligent and articulate ones…”
In a similar vein, Sir Arthur De La Mare in his valedictory of November 1973 noted that like “other people including ourselves the Thais tend to gauge their status by the past… Inordinately vain and race conscious by nature they look upon themselves as the elite of Southeast Asia. After 37 years of acquaintance with them… I cannot say that I find their pretensions entirely justified. Except for those who have Chinese blood they are indolent and feckless”. Before launching into a clinical dissection of the Thai character, Sir Arthur confessed he was doing so “since it is now immaterial whether my superiors consider me better fitted for a lunatic asylum than for a diplomatic post…”
It must be a matter of intense reassurance to Washington D.C. that most of its diplomats do not share the refreshing lack of earnestness that marks their trans-Atlantic cousins. The phased release of what the White House described as the “unauthorised release of classified documents and national security information” by WikiLeaks has titillated the charmed world of politics, diplomacy and the media. Only India’s Prime Minister is in denial, insisting the cables are “unverified and unverifiable”. However, contrary to what the state department feared, the contentious cables have so far neither led to riots and regime change nor forced American diplomats into involuntary purdah.
The cables can be classified into two broad categories. First, there are the assessments of issues and events as seen through the prism of American interests. The US embassy in New Delhi thus inquired into the Bharatiya Janata Party’s apparently unrelenting opposition to the Indo-US nuclear agreement and was urged by Washington to be inquisitive about the preferences and predilections of finance minister Pranab Mukherjee. Although the quality of some of these assessments have been called into question — a British columnist wrote that “what the American embassy thinks about the (Conservative-Liberal Democrat) coalition (in the UK) suggests not an alliance at risk but an embassy with a talent problem” — their legitimacy is undeniable.
Diplomatic outposts, after all, exist to feed the home government with assessments of the goings-on in different parts of the world. What is, however, interesting is how little these assessments differ from conventional media wisdom of situations, suggesting the US embassy’s reliance on what are called “open sources” — the euphemism for the lack of insider knowledge.
Secondly, there are reports (often woven into situation updates) of private conversations with public figures. It has, for example, emerged Rahul Gandhi’s view of internal security is woefully one-sided and that the relationship of former national security adviser M.K. Narayanan with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was tempered by mutual disrespect. The scepticism of one journalist over the political potential of Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi is the subject of an entire cable — a pointer not so much to the journalist’s perceived proximity to the family as to the paucity of the US embassy’s open contacts.
WikiLeaks may have set out to damage US interests and perhaps even trigger a global wave of anti-Americanism. However, there is precious little by way of ammunition in the leaked cables to bolster the highly conspiratorial view of a US engaged in subversion. The 25,000 stolen US diplomatic cables don’t as yet make for another Mitrokhin Archive. Arguably, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports — if these were ever to find their way into the public domain — could point to the non-diplomatic games. But these WikiLeaks indicate a separation between legitimate diplomacy and undercover operations. For all their interest in the survival of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in the trust vote of July 2008, US diplomats could only gain limited access to the skulduggery of the operation to woo Opposition MPs — and that too because two unsavoury fixers chose to boast. If the UPA gets singed by witness account of a proposed act of criminality, it will amount to unintended collateral damage.
The image of the Ugly American hasn’t been strengthened by WikiLeaks. The cables have been remarkably restrained — so unlike the eccentric British valedictories. Yet, the WikiLeaks have damaged American diplomacy grievously. They have subjected it to peer group ridicule.
The sheer porousness of a system that can lead to one disgruntled man downloading 25,000 secret cables from secure servers has left the world in a state of bewilderment. A nation unable to respect private conversations has been decried with the disdain befitting a diplomat incapable of holding his drink. After WikiLeaks, few will be willing to engage US diplomats in uninhibited conversation. That’s good news for the American spook community.

Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist

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