Why the WikiLeaks cables aren’t as threatening as advertised

By now, I think we have learned that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has vast ambitions. Among them is the end of American government as we know it. On his Web site he describes the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables in dramatic and sinister terms, evoking the lost ideals of George Washington and claiming that they demonstrate a profound gap between the United States’ “public persona and what it says behind closed doors.” Alas, the cables don’t live up to that promise. On the contrary – as others have noted – they show that U.S. diplomats pursue pretty much the same goals in private as they do in public, albeit using more caustic language.

But the cables should in theory raise more far serious problems for governments that pursue quite different goals in public than in private. For example, the cables should create trouble for Vladimir Putin, the prime minister of Russia. One of them describes his country as “a mafia state.” In another, an American official reports that the opaque operations of Russia’s fourth-largest oil company are designed to benefit Putin personally. Yet another reports that Russian officials laugh at U.S. efforts to prevent arms sales to countries such as Iran, Sudan, Syria and Venezuela. Why? “Russia attaches importance to . . . the diplomatic doors that weapon sales open, to the ill-gotten gains that these sales reap for corrupt senior officials.”

The cables should also create trouble for Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, not least because of his relationship with Putin. One cable from Rome claims “Berlusconi and his cronies are profiting personally and handsomely” from energy deals with Russia, and says the prime ministers’ personal interests have warped Italy’s foreign policy: “The Italian government is deeply ambivalent about energy projects that would help Europe diversify its energy imports, while at the same time it is supportive of other projects that would increase Europe’s Russian energy dependency.” Elsewhere, Berlusconi is depicted at muddled, erratic and exhausted from too much late-night debauchery. At one point, he nods off during a high-level meeting.

But human beings, not Web sites, ultimately carry out revolutions. Can this kind of information, released outside the context of a national media or domestic criminal investigation, actually affect Putin or Berlusconi at home? Can documents published on an (ironically) secretive Internet server in Switzerland end Russian or Italian government as we know it?

In Italy, the stories have certainly been read: Corriere della Sera, Italy’s newspaper of record, printed and analyzed the cables, which were then debated even in that half of the Italian media that Berlusconi owns. But the prime minister was in trouble anyway – his coalition is falling apart and might dissolve this month. More to the point, Italians are “not really” shocked by the cables, the Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini told me: “The majority assume that politicians feather their own nest.” In the absence of a political culture that abhors corruption, in the absence of prosecutors who pursue it, this is just another in a long series of sensational scandals. Berlusconi parties with Putin? So what, he parties with everyone else, too.

In Russia, there are no national media to discuss the allegations. On the day the “mafia state” allegations appeared, the main state television channel reported that the Moscow River had frozen, that sharks attacked Russian tourists in Egypt, and that drunken truck drivers transport nuclear weapons in the United States. Russian officials have dismissed the reports as nonsense, implying that American diplomats in Moscow are out of touch. Putin parties with Berlusconi? Nobody knows anything about it.

Had these allegations come from Russian politicians in Russia – or Italian prosecutors in Italy – reactions in Russia might have been different. By themselves, these cables don’t really prove anything: The diplomats reported allegations but didn’t necessarily substantiate them with documents or anything else. For stories about Berlusconi and Putin to have real impact, someone – a journalist, an opposition leader – would have to work on them, investigate them and back them up. Someone else would then have to organize existing institutions – or create new ones – that would impeach, oppose or outvote the national leader. But if corruption laws don’t stick, if the judicial system doesn’t work, if voters have no outlet for their outrage – if they cannot even throw the bums out – then the cables will have no more impact than cocktail party gossip.

Alas for Assange and his revolutionary cohorts, enigmatic lumps of information, without a narrative to connect them and without a political system capable of acting upon them, have no meaning. “Leaks” out of context have no significance. Despite the hype, there has never actually been a Twitter revolution – activism on the Internet just isn’t as effective as activism in real life – and it doesn’t look as if the WikiLeaks revolution is going anywhere very fast either.

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