Diplomacy in Public – The India Cables

 Diplomacy in Public – The India Cables

March 23, 2011: The latest best seller on the Indian political scene, The Hindu’s daily dose of “India Cables” from Wikileaks, paints a depressing picture of the seamy underside of Indian politics. It also shows how American diplomats carry out the basic tasks of diplomacy – how they report, analyze events, assess their impact on U.S. interests, make recommendations to their government, and advocate U.S. positions both to foreign officials and to people who have influence on policymaking.  

Both in the India Cables and in leaks from other countries disclosed earlier, the most titillating revelations and the greatest embarrassment come from reporting messages sent by diplomats who are simply doing their job. This embarrassment stems primarily from what is being reported – usually accurately and well — by these diplomats. Embarrassment stemming from the fact that the diplomats got hold of the information is ordinarily secondary.

The eye-popping “cash for votes” message is a good example of an embassy carrying out its reporting responsibilities. An official at the embassy in Delhi reported that an assistant to a senior politician had showed him a suitcase full of cash, saying that this was how the government would survive the upcoming vote of confidence over the U.S.-India nuclear agreement. Was the person with the suitcase engaging in “true confessions” or in political theater? We may never know, but the publication of the cable caused acute political embarrassment to an Indian government already reeling from a parade of scandals over the past few months. The damage came from what it appeared to reveal about the Indian politicians in question. (For those Wikileaks readers who assume that the person who signed the cable also wrote it – wrong. In the U.S. Foreign Service, a cable is transmitted over the name of the official in charge of the post that sends it – the Secretary of State, or the Ambassador or Charge d’affaires – regardless of who drafted it. The officer whose name appears is ultimately responsible, but would draft very few messages and would only see a small part of the huge volume of cables leaving his or her post, those with major policy significance.)

The cables on the transition from Mani Shankar Aiyar to Murli Deora in India’s Petroleum Ministry are an example of the way embassies analyse the significance of an event. The embassy is giving its assessment of important personnel changes in the Indian government and what these changes may mean for U.S. interests. Its judgment that the new minister is “pro-American” may be right or wrong, but its job, in representing the United States in Delhi, is to give the home government its candid view of what the changes mean for the United States. If diplomats can’t do that, they might as well stay home and save American taxpayers a lot of money in a time of financial stringency.

The messages describing how U.S. diplomats sought India’s vote on Iran in the IAEA illustrate the advocacy function of diplomacy. American diplomats had two important jobs to do at that time: to give their Indian counterparts an accurate assessment of the impact their vote would have on Washington; and to persuade them, if at all possible, to support the same position as the U.S. in an IAEA vote which was very important to the United States. Their job, in other words, was to advocate and persuade.

Commentators in India are indignant over “arm-twisting” (example: Karan Thapar, in his interview with David Mulford, Lalit Mansingh and N. Ram on IBN Live). But there is nothing improper about advocacy. It is why governments send diplomats to live half-way around the world. India’s diplomats, in Washington, Beijing, Moscow, or other world capitals, do the same thing. Think back to the early days of the Obama administration when many Indian newspapers were crowing over India’s success in limiting the mandate of Richard Holbrooke to Pakistan-Afghanistan issues. This was diplomatic advocacy carried on with skill and conviction on India’s behalf, in all likelihood both in Washington and New Delhi. As experienced diplomats, we can assure you that our Indian colleagues are superb professionals. They can advocate – or arm-twist, if you prefer that term – with the best of them.

So far, it appears that most of the damage from the release of the India cables has been to the good name and standing of the Indian government and its political leaders. Revealing apparent misdeeds is one of the jobs of a free press. It is painful but serves the cause of better informed democracy. We remember both the fury of the Nixon administration over the publication of the Pentagon Papers and our own conviction that the political duplicity those papers revealed needed to come into the sunlight. But one must be a bit careful in assuming that all the wiki-leaked cables are to be believed. The Guardian has published at least one report of false cables planted in the Pakistani press, in an effort to paint the United States as hostile to India. These cables were apparently not included in the Wikileaks cache and had been maliciously made up. And even if a shocking cable is genuine, it’s possible that the reporting officer was misled by an exaggerated story, or otherwise misinterpreted information.

Elsewhere, some of the consequences have damaged U.S. foreign policy and blown holes in careers. The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, an official with an excellent record, resigned because the Mexican government took offense at his having criticized Mexico’s anti-narcotics efforts in cables to his own government that were not intended to be revealed or to cause public embarrassment. Some of the colorful descriptions of world leaders that made their way into Wikileaks caused unnecessary offense and undermined the cause of serious but discreet discussion. And we don’t know what is in the still-unpublished store of India cables.

The leaks reveal a catastrophic failure of information handling on the part of the U.S. government. The mechanism that put hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables into the hands of a private first class in an intelligence office in Afghanistan started as a laudable effort to make needed information available to analysts supporting the war in Afghanistan. It got completely out of hand. We understand that this distribution system has been drastically revised, and in any case embassies all over the world have taken steps to prevent future messages from this kind of indiscriminate dissemination.

So: Enjoy your daily dose of India Cables, but keep in mind what diplomats are trained and paid to do. The discretion one normally associates with diplomacy helps them do a delicate and important job. Those from India and the United States can take some comfort that living in a democracy has prepared us for raucous public debate.

Teresita and Howard Schaffer

Comments on the India cables by B. Raman, veteran Indian security commentator and intelligence official.

2 Replies to “Diplomacy in Public – The India Cables”

  1. My thought is that government has perforce to function at a level of confidentiality for it to function at all. If diplomatic cables get into the press, the professionals have only one option left to them– report in the knowledge that nothing except banalities can be mentioned, and use other means of communication to get the real message through to headquarters.
    An analogy. If all requested file notings have to be made public under the Right to Information law, will anyone offer serious advice on the files?

    1. You’re right, of course. And this already happens, via email, with a corresponding reduction in the ability of managers to keep track of what their staffs are up to.


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