Historians need years, or even decades, to identify the most relevant facts of the past, reconstruct the course of events and reveal the intentions of its protagonists. A rigorous look at history necessarily demands from us the application of critical methods for evaluating the sources, the adoption of recognized techniques for presenting and editing the material and considerable ingenuity to detect errors in the transmission of information and to determine the reliability of individual testimonies.
Suddenly, in just a few days, the leak of a huge quantity of diplomatic material, obtained by WikiLeaks and published by some of the most prestigious international media, provides a detailed chronicle of the relationship of the United States of America, the most powerful country on earth, with the rest of the planet. A quarter of a million messages, some sent as recently as this year, from over 250 embassies. We are, without doubt, faced with a breakdown of general laws and the moral principles that had governed, up to now, the knowledge of international relations and the balance of power between great states. History accelerates and we cannot hope to understand things with the passage of time, with the sources held by law for a time in the archives, then analyzed with the use of critical methods to interpret the texts and information. It has to be now, today rather than tomorrow, although this can lead to a distorted version of the facts.
It's no surprise, then, that such a disclosure, previously secret, over military strategy and policy of U.S. intelligence services has set off alarm bells in a substantial portion of the international diplomatic community. The United States faces a diplomatic crisis with unpredictable consequences. And all this comes at a time of a sharp economic downturn amid a notable absence of political leadership and a number of war fronts and terrorist threats in the world. It is enough to worry a person, although some believe that only "the others" should be worried: The complex connections, woven in secret by a network of informants spread across the world, have been laid bare.
On the other hand, it is difficult not to recognize the great leap forward that all this means to the knowledge of how power works — a power, in this case, with a long history of imperialist aggression, of criticism and destruction of the positions contrary to its interests. Under the apparent defense of a political and economic order beneficial to capitalism and democracy, strong evidence now appears of the subordination of that order to the demands of U.S. foreign policy in Europe, the Middle East and China.
In those thousands and thousands of diplomatic messages — most of them produced in the last decade — big issues and distinguished figures appear, from jihadist terrorism to nuclear proliferation, not to mention the close relationship between Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi. The New York Times summed up the relevance of these official documents in a note directed to its readers on Sunday Nov. 28,* explaining the reasons for publication: The newspaper is providing an important public service, "illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy."This is also what four other newspapers thought, and they followed the same course, by mutual agreement, after weeks of careful analysis: The Guardian in Britain, Der Spiegel in Germany, Le Monde in France and El País in Spain.
This may mark the beginning of a great international debate. Because, from the U.S. perspective, as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates clarified, when governments maintain relationships with the United States, they are also defending their own interests. Some fear America's power, others respect it, and the majority needs the United States to be, still — at least until now — "the indispensable nation."
The leaks principally affect the United States, among other reasons, because Julian Assange, founder, chief organizer and ideologue of WikiLeaks, has considered it more relevant and profitable to focus on the great empire. But at the speed by which new technologies move, new competitors will emerge that claim that the same transparency extends to other countries.
To reveal the deep and hidden mechanisms that trigger international relations, i.e., the functioning of politics — that is the positive side of the ineluctable right to information, and the necessity that we as citizens of democracies understand that right. Information and knowledge should not lead to instability or the ruin of the system. Instead, it is bad policies that lose contact with reality and the voracity of many capitalists and financial groups that can cause instability. Nostalgia for the prosperous world that was — including the good old days of diplomacy — is useless. We need a different organization, a change of course, before the lights that remain are extinguished.
*Editor’s Note: This note actually appeared on Monday Nov. 29.