WikiLeaks damage to US foreign policy colossal – political scientist

The information age has changed the way people communicate, and the WikiLeaks website – a product of that age – seems to be changing the world of politics as well. Political scientist Timothy Colton spoke to RT about the latest developments.

RT: Timothy Colton, thank you very much for being with us yet once again. The last time you spoke to RT you stressed the value of competition. What role, do you think, competition should play in Russia’s modernization?

TC: Well, the competition has always spurred Russians in a sense of competing with other countries, for security in particular. But that can lead to state-led modernization, which, I think, Medvedev now wants to moderate to a considerable extent. So, the competition in the end, I guess, has to be between firms and organizations, and I don’t think you can do without it. I think that’s what makes the world go forward.

RT: In the recent interview by Larry King with Putin, King quoted one of the leaked documents from WikiLeaks quoting Robert Gates, the defense minister, as saying that democracy in Russia is dead and the country is run by an oligarchy of secret services to which Putin said: “Well, as far as I know, Robert Gates has been the head of the CIA and now he’s the defense minister of America. If he’s the only expert on democracy, then I congratulate you. It was a pretty cynical answer. What do you think of that answer?

TC: Was your prime minister right to answer that way?

RT: Yeah.

TC: Well, you know, he has a combative side and sometimes it gets provoked by certain kinds of questions, and this seems to be a good example of that. I am sure he was right to express his opinion by all means. Gates was saying this in an unguarded moment and it was hardly a profound comment that democracy in Russia is dead. I personally don’t think that he’s an expert in questions like this. Democracy in Russia is not healthy, I am not sure I would say that it’s sensibly dead. As for the secret services, my strong sense here is that they all peaked some time ago and that they are less relevant to the real government of Russia – I don’t mean in their sphere, of course, but the overall system that you have, than they were five or six years ago.

RT: Well, with these whole WikiLeaks documents with it, the dignity of US foreign policy is kind of undermined. How can you be sure that you have a sustainable foreign policy when there’s so much gossiping and innuendoes in it?

TC: Well, you know, I am not sure that’s exactly the problem. These were cables, the ones that were leaked, that contained reporting on the situation in many different countries, including your country. And, you know, diplomats are expected to do this on a daily basis.They often contain information which is not of great value. They often simply recycle what they hear, what they read in a newspaper. So, some of that was very lightweight. I think that, since you’re talking about 250,000 documents – we’ve only seen a few of them – people are making comments or report on the same things that were probably indiscreet or inappropriate. What makes that, [or] turns it into a really big problem as opposed to a minor irritant, is that this information is being broadcast all over the world, including in the country where these conversations were held or these reports were generated. And seen in a different context, they may seem disrespectful or inappropriate. But, I think for American foreign policy this is a really big problem, I mean, it’s a really colossal thing.

RT: The damage is colossal, right?

TC: The damage is huge, absolutely. And I think the biggest problem is… well, there are certain kinds of highly sensitive secrets that have now been leaked. For example, that the United States was making contingency plans to locate Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, if Pakistan was destabilized, [or] for example, the United States was talking with the Arabs about a possible attack on Iran. These are things that, I guess, you had suspected, were taking place – but now we know. So that’s a leak of highly sensitive information. But I think the biggest problem is the loss of confidence and America’s ability to keep confidential conversations confidential. So, this is going to affect how Russians or Germans and Chinese and Ukrainians behave when they go into the ambassador’s office next time. And a lot of these relationships are really badly scarred – it’s going to take years to get over. And they must – they are going to find a way to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

RT: So, where do you go from now?

TC: Well, they are going to change, they are going, definitely, to lock this information up again. My understanding is that the problem was made acute by the information technology revolution – everything is digitized and made available. But it was the post-9/11 review of information sharing with the US government – the critique was that 9/11 happened because one department did not talk… did not speak to another department about this threat to American lives. So they found ways to pull information electronically and put it in databases where, it turns out, several hundred thousand people had access to them, and one of them, it turns out – one individual, a very low-ranking army private is the one who apparently took it and put it on a hard disk. So, I don’t think it’s going to happen in that form again. And they are going to prosecute him – he is already under arrest, and presumably the entrepreneurs who made this available as a deterrent for next time, but I think, my understanding is that there is no human way to reverse the flow of what has already started to flow.

RT: You said that the biggest problem with these leaked documents is the way they are being put out for the whole world to see. As an expert, in your opinion, what role is WikiLeaks playing in the international media?

TC: It’s going to create a lot of headlines between now and February, because, apparently, it’s going to take another two or three months for all of this to be released. And then, we’re talking about 250,000 documents – so, millions of pages that’ll take a long, long time to pour through. I think the media will probably get bored with the story. I mean, they will look for sensational items, but I don’t think by… a few weeks from now this will be reported on the front pages they are today. There’s only so much interest in that kind of thing. But at a deeper level, you know, there’s going to have to be a serious discussion of this. By the way there are rumors that some of these people have Russian documents – I don’t know whether they are cables or what they are. But they are actually preparing to unload a bunch of confidential Russian documents after Christmas. It’s a rumour that I’ve heard here in Moscow.

RT: The relationship between our two countries is going through ups and downs, and President Obama and [President] Medvedev have done what they could to make it positive again. But now Obama has become a vulnerable president because the Republicans won the Senate in the mid-term election. What kind of political swing is happening in American right now?

TC: Well, these so-called mid-term elections are always protest elections. This has happened before. It happened to President Bush to some extent in 2006, it happened to President Clinton in 1994. But this one was a spectacular version of that general pattern. So, it weakens the president, kind of in general. But in foreign policy, I mean, it so happens. As you know there is a treaty with Russia that needs to be ratified in the Senate. So, there is a particular problem there. Put that aside…

RT: Could that be salvaged? Can the START treaty be salvaged?

TC: Yeah, I think so. I think it may very well. I think there is probably a 50-50 chance it’ll be ratified by January 1. And if it’s not ratified by then, it may still very well get ratified by the new Senate after it comes back. It is just that the price that the Republican Senators will extract from the administration in terms of things that they want will go up considerably. But, I think the odds favor it, because, you know, even the people who attack it, with some exception, they are not attacking on its merits. Or they are saying, ‘[the] assurances that we provided in memorandums of understanding between the two governments should be into the treaty.’ But no-one’s saying that the provisions are… almost no-one is saying – that there is anything fundamentally wrong with them. So, here Russia’s going to have to, I think, exhibit some patience and, you know, think about long-term interest of the relationship. I think the treaty will be ratified.

RT: How do you assess the impact of the Tea Party politics on US relations with international partners?

TC: You know, it’s hard to say. I think the Tea Party candidates did not do that great in the election – almost none of the people with its endorsement who were running for the Senate of Government offices actually won. But still, it’s a factor in shaping the general political environment. They are – unlike the Neocons, you know – the Conservatives who staffed Bush’s cabinet, who had a foreign policy agenda which is one of the things that fed the deterioration of relations with Russia after 2002, these people don’t really have much interest in foreign policy. I mean, they are populist, if anything, a little bit isolationist, they, kind of, want the world to go away, they don’t want Americans to be paying for a lot of things. Some of them wanted the defense budget to be cut. So the effects would be rather complex. One of the unfortunate sides of the story is that, I think, any candidate who rides this wave is likely going to be… not to know a lot toward that side of foreign policy. And Sarah Palin is a good example of this. I mean, she’s an intelligent woman and she may learn quickly, but she is starting obviously with a very low level of familiarity, let alone deep knowledge.

RT: She still confuses North and South Korea.

TC: She’s made a few of these gaffes. For a world power, you expect a higher level of competence on foreign policy.

RT: Despite President Obama’s transition candidate potential it does seem like the State Department is still dividing the world into ‘good’ and ‘evil’. What impact do you think that would have on relations with Russia?

TC: You know, the relationship with Russia has improved. And the State Department is a great big bureaucracy. It’s got an analytical wing, it’s got foreign service officers. There are lots of things going on and I think there is a range of opinions – not so much about Russia per se but about Russia under its current leadership, to put it that way. But I think the State Department people who are involved in implementing this policy are behind it. And, setting aside comments and cables and things that I don’t think add up to a lot, I think they are on the whole trying to make it work.