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The Changing Nature of Diplomacy in the Age of Leaks

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The more these official channels—whether the cable, letter, or encrypted email—are bypassed, the more chance there is of a security breach or mistake going unrecorded. The diplomats who told The Atlantic that they worked around official channels also admitted that the practice risked further undermining public and political trust in the system, by ensuring there is an incomplete institutional record on potentially key decisions that may become the center of future inquiries. If diplomats, senior officials, and politicians are secretly communicating in ways that cannot be recorded, released under freedom of information laws, or even archived for future record, then the risk of major mistakes going undetected may rise, with lessons unable to be learned, cover-ups facilitated, and even—at its most extreme—corruption undetected.

“If we continue with this,” one Brussels-based ambassador from a European Union member state said, politicians “will not get the same amount of information they should have on which they are supposed to base their political judgments.” Yet the diplomat noted that while he worried about the long-term effects of keeping sensitive communications off the official diplomatic wire, this was now the day-to-day reality, one he had opted for reluctantly to protect himself and the information he wanted to relay back to his home capital.

A similar story emerged repeatedly in our conversations with diplomats and officials. One, a serving ambassador to Brussels for another EU member state, said “the long telegram” in particular was dead as a result of WikiLeaks and, now, the Darroch affair, although he was less cataclysmic in his assessment of the overall impact on diplomacy, arguing that there are ways around the issue of institutional insecurity, including a mixture of written and oral briefings. A European government official, who previously served as a diplomat, agreed that the world would not change in the wake of the Darroch affair—but primarily because the primacy of the cable had come to an end long before anyway. “Emails and letters are where you actually say what you think,” he said, via WhatsApp. “Or WhatsApp.”

While each diplomat who spoke with The Atlantic had a different interpretation of how much had changed in the past decade—and how damaging or otherwise it was to the political system—almost all named Cablegate, when hundreds of thousands of American diplomatic messages were published by WikiLeaks in 2010, as the principal reason for the undermining of trust in the system. Most relegated the Darroch affair to just the latest example—albeit a particularly seismic one—of the new reality facing their profession.

To be sure, the two issues are wildly different in their impact. Whereas American diplomats, at the time of Cablegate and since, worried that the details of sensitive meetings in nondemocratic countries, such as with human-rights activists, opposition politicians, and others, were published, along with, at times, the names of those who were meeting with the U.S., the leak involving Darroch is viewed differently. Here in London, it has widely been interpreted as being related to Britain’s exit from the EU and questions among Brexit supporters over Darroch’s loyalty to that effort—though the British ambassador has publicly never deviated from government policy on the matter. And that has triggered uniform worry among the diplomats we spoke with about the corrosive effect of domestic politics seeping into foreign policy making.

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