A great deal of fuss has been made of the release of American diplomatic cables on Wikileaks, much of it fluff (such as here and here). In contrast, the intervention of a former chairman of the Cambridge Universities Labour Club (and a former British ambassador), Brian Barder, is an accurate summation of the impact of Wikileaks on the practice of diplomacy. As Barder explains, the danger that diplomats are less likely to be openly candid with each other, their foreign ministries or the United States is massively exaggerated – there is simply too much to lose. Diplomacy will carry on regardless and, whether we lament it or not, diplomats need to be able to speak to one another in confidence. Perhaps if the structure of international relations (and the ordering of human societies?) were radically different then diplomats would no more need to negotiate in secret than protester groups would need to organise without the knowledge of the state. But the world is not quite there. And the conduct of diplomacy, with all the problematic trappings of a Euro-centric heritage is far less of a danger to democracy than the domestic policies of many European states.
An intensely social practice predicated on communication, diplomacy is frequently dialectical and brutally honest. That national interest is always at the forefront of a diplomat’s mind is a myth that obscures the complexity of professional diplomatic practice. National interest has to compete with a lot. There is a strong cultural desire for solidarity amongst the diplomatic corps and most diplomats have a desire to affect positive change in the world. Occasionally, this might take the form of a public commentary or the (better) idea of addressing some of the inequalities in the international system. Many diplomats do not publicly air their gruesome discoveries or frequently resign over some moral quandary. But to assume that this is as a result of an absence of moral feeling or the subjugation of humane desire to national interest is an awful and very stupid caricature.
The inhabitants of state institutions are not homogenous. Not everyone in the military wants to kill people or plot a coup d’état. Not everyone in Cambridge is intelligent. Nor does every British diplomat want to rape the global South for the benefit of Britain or become a (neo)imperial governor in the Middle East. Critical dialogue exists within state institutions: the Foreign Office is a site of complex, progressive and normative discussion about the conduct and practice of British foreign policy and international affairs. It is such a site precisely because the individuals who inhabit the institution are as eager and capable of making a case for moral action as any other agent, possibly more willing than many journalists. Diplomatic services are not populated with unthinking automatons. The Foreign Office, for instance, is populated by many our friends from Cambridge.