Wikileaks and diplomacy

I have, over time, heard two definitions of the word “diplomat”:

1 – a man sent to lie abroad for his country;

2 – someone who can tell you to go to Hell in such a way that you feel you would benefit from the journey.

(By way of disclaimer, I should point out that I heard both from my father, who was himself a career diplomat… ;^)

To me, what the current Wikileaks “cablegate” incident reveals is this: as individuals and social animals, we all understand the fine nuances of truth-telling, lying and hypocrisy (from ‘white lies’ to ‘social convention’, ‘good manners’, ‘gentlemanly or ladylike behaviour’, ‘discretion’ and so on and so forth). When you scale that up to ‘social’ scale, it tends to become simplified and polarised – as we see from the press coverage and the political rhetoric.

Diplomats are intelligent tools of the political system (in German, a single word – Botschafter – serves for both “messenger” and “ambassador”). In the sense of ‘messenger’, the diplomat is there only to convey what his or her government wishes to be said. However, in representing their government’s wishes, it is also their job to exercise judgement about when the national interest is best served by the truth, a lie, a lie which is known to be a lie, an apparently accidental indiscretion, an unpalatable truth told in jest… or any of the million shades of grey along that spectrum.

Often, the value of diplomacy lies precisely in the ability to convey one thing while saying another. That way, an official position is publicised, without preventing what is pragmatically necessary from being communicated.

The leaked cables will, of course, reveal that what diplomats say to their colleagues and their political masters is often not what they say to their counterparts in post. That should surprise no-one…