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WikiLeaks and the Historical Community

Good historians sift through mounds of documents, identifying the critical ones and providing context for the rest. So the latest Wikileaks document dump might have produced a boon for informed historical commentary. That hasn’t been the case.

Many aspects of the affair, of course, have been well analyzed by figures outside of the historical profession. Take, for instance, the lamentable if probably correct observation from Peter Spiro of Opinio Juris, who noted that the leak might mean the decline of diplomatic cables: “This episode will surely make cables look less attractive still. It’s one thing to understand that your work will come to light twenty-five years hence, when you (and your interlocutors) will either be dead or retired, too old much to care; or else flattered to see your handiwork become the stuff of history. It’s another to have to worry about something being disclosed that might affect your ability to function in your next post (or whether you’ll get one at all).”

Nor do we need a historian to ask the embarrassing, if on-point, question that Jeffrey Goldberg posed in The Atlantic: “How does the United States Government store its secrets? In shoeboxes?”

That said, a greater historical perspective would have improved most media commentary to date. Too much of the coverage has focused on peripheral issues (notably, catty commentary about various world leaders from either U.S. diplomats or other world leaders, as relayed by U.S. diplomats); confirming the already-known (the Gulf Arab states want forceful action against Iran); or advancing pre-existing internet debates (such as this post observing, correctly, on how the leaked documents undermine Andrew Sullivan’s newfound anti-Israel fanaticism).

Beyond the obvious points (providing context and historical background), a more robust presence from diplomatic and political historians could inform the WikiLeaks controversy in three ways:

    (1) By reminding people of what the leaked cables do not include. Peter Beinart hinted at this point shortly after the leak, when he described the document dump as “what the Starr Report was to presidential politics—fun, in a voyeuristic sort of way, revealing, but not about important things, and ultimately, more trouble than it is worth.” Beinart was faulting his fellow journalists for their focus on titillating elements from the leak, but the comment applies more broadly, since (in contrast to the Iraq documents leak, which brought to the fore considerable previously unknown information) the WikiLeaks material contained no material at the highest levels of classification. Predicting ahead three decades to the publication of the 2006-8 Foreign Relations of the United States, I suspect that few of these leaked documents will make it into the FRUS volumes, since the more significant documents of U.S. foreign policy—NSC and White House meeting notes, high-level intelligence analyses, Pentagon policymaking items—avoided the WikiLeaks reach. The WikiLeaks documents give at best an incomplete picture of recent U.S. foreign policy, and at worst will yield an inaccurate one.

    (2) By using the perspective of the past to discourage people from over-reaction. James Mann raised this point in The New Republic, pooh-poohing the cassandras who suggest that the document dump could mean the end of diplomacy. Mann noted that similar concerns greeted the Freedom of Information Act, which hardly has brought an end to secret diplomatic negotiations. In the end, Mann predicted, “the foreign policy bureaucracy will adjust, as it has before.”

    (3) By urging observers to focus on how the leak exposes faults in the structure of U.S. foreign policy. An emphasis on the relationship between structure and policymaking was a key theme of the late Ernest R. May’s work; and May’s voice would have allowed for more attention to what this affair says about shortcomings both in the kind of information U.S. diplomats gather and the national security implications of the U.S. government’s apparent failure to fully adapt to the new technological era.

It’s no secret why we haven’t seen more commentary from U.S. political and diplomatic historians in the media. First of all, of course, the last generation has seen a considerable pruning of these fields within history departments nationally. And the fields have changed in ways that make their approach of little use in analyzing the WikiLeaks documents. As pedagogically trendy as “re-visioning” U.S. political history might be, confining the field to analyses that fit into a race/class/gender worldview has produced scholarship that is of no help to either journalists or the general public seeking to understand the WikiLeaks material, or any other significant contemporary foreign policy debate. And the more recent emphasis to re-fashion diplomatic history as “international” history, so as to explore such inherently transnational issues as disease or population control, likewise will do little to illuminate the more traditional, state-based diplomatic issues raised by the WikiLeaks dump.

In short, while historians have the freedom to define the discipline as they choose, and to avoid any and all outside pressure as the discipline avoids fields branded as “traditional,” that decision comes with a cost: it makes academics less relevant to public policy debates in which previous generations of historians might have played an important, and productive, role

One final point: this document dump, to a greater extent than the previous ones, should settle once and for all the debate over the excessive use of classification in national security documents. Nearly all of the WikiLeaks documents appear to have been “over-classified,” as the AHA, SHAFR, and other historians’ organizations long have suggested. Unfortunately, I doubt that the resolution of the intellectual debate will yield a policy change: despite candidate Obama’s promise for greater transparency, the political imperatives for national security secrecy remain too strong.

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