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Monday, Dec. 6, 2010

Frankly, says the diplomat

LONDON — There is not much in the latest batch of Wikileaks that should come as a surprise to most well-informed people. It is surely common knowledge that the present Russian government has close connections with Mafia-style criminals. No one could have been surprised by reports of the concerns of Arab states about the threat from Iran.

The statement that some Chinese officials are fed up with the North Koreans and would welcome unification of the Korean Peninsula suggests that some Chinese recognize reality. French President Nicolas Sarkozy's tantrums, meanwhile, have been widely reported.

So does Wikileaks' publication of masses of secret and confidential reports from U.S. missions abroad really matter?

The publication of these cables is certainly a major embarrassment for the U.S. State Department. Whoever was responsible for leaking these documents has committed a criminal offense and should be prosecuted.

WikiLeaks cofounder Julian Assange has behaved irresponsibly, but we should not get too worked up about these leaks. The embarrassment will be forgotten in due course. Politicians should be grown up enough not to take notice of uncomplimentary comments in diplomatic cables. They ought to be inured to insults and brickbats, which are lobbed at them in Parliament and the media. These are generally more vitriolic than anything in the published diplomatic cables.

The damage done by these publications is, however, more than just one of embarrassment. It lies in the effect the publication will have on the willingness of important individuals to speak freely and write frankly. It is important that politicians and officials be able and willing to speak out and not just agree to government policies.

In the future, many fear that if their comments run the risk of being published, they would be wise to respond to most questions in guarded fashion or hide behind the phrase "no comment." Diplomats, too, will be inhibited from frank comments and their cables will become less interesting and informative.

Another important reason to deplore these leaks is that it will inhibit the sharing of information and intelligence.

Before 9/11, much information was not shared between different agencies. As a result leads were missed and partial intelligence led to assessments based on information available to one agency but not the whole spectrum.

Some valuable and beneficial information has come out. It is clear from the published cables that American diplomats were conscientious operators and were working in the interests of the democratic world as well the United States. As one British commentator has noted we know from these leaks that the Americans are our friends.

One of the greatest threats to good government is the sycophancy that leaders attract. Ministers need to have advisers who have the courage to warn their masters when they are being foolish and especially if they are tempted to act contrary to law and morality.

Power corrupts and servants of the powerful, mindful of their own positions and their future, are frequently inhibited from remonstrating for fear that they will be relegated or dismissed.

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was notorious for her dislike of ministers and officials who were "not one of us." But in fact she generally respected officials who stood up to her if — and this is crucial — they really knew what they were talking about and could match her knowledge of the detailed arguments.

Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were surrounded by carefully selected advisers who supported their chosen policies. Blair sidelined the Foreign Office because its officials did not tell him what he wanted to hear. He preferred, like so many politicians, to listen to half- digested information from secret sources. Brown would not listen when Alistair Darling, his chancellor of the Exchequer, warned him of the extent of Britain's indebtedness.

Coalition government may be exasperating to some politicians in the Conservative Party, but it does ensure that various strands of opinion are heard and considered. Cabinet government may be frustrating, but it helps to keep sycophancy in check.

The latest set of leaks confirms that royal personages also need courageous advisers, not flunkies. Remarks attributed to Prince Andrew, the duke of York and Britain's royal trade ambassador, by one American ambassador suggest that he was arrogant, indiscreet and rude.

It is sad that even today some individuals think that the chance of birth justifies arrogance.

There was until recently a tradition that British ambassadors in their last dispatch or report from the capital where they had been accredited could send a frank summation of the country in which they had been serving as well as their views on British policy toward that country. Some also took the opportunity to lambaste the way in which the diplomatic service was being run.

This practice was abolished a few years ago by Margaret Becket, a lackluster Labour Party foreign secretary, not least because ambassadors often said things that were critical and damaging to ministers' self-esteem. Sadly the present government has not apparently reinstated this practice.

A book titled "Parting Shots," which is a collection of extracts from the final dispatches of British ambassadors edited by Matthew Paris, a regular contributor to The Times in London and a former member of Parliament, was recently published in London.

It contains a number of perceptive and frank analyses of countries in which the ambassadors had served. Dispatches from Moscow, especially the final dispatch of Sir Roderick Braithwaite, were especially pungent and effective. Some were hilarious and others vitriolic.

One notorious dispatch from Sir Nicholas Henderson, who had been ambassador in Paris, was highly critical of British economic policies, not least Britain's attitude toward Europe. This found its way into the hands of the then editor of The Economist and, despite attempts to suppress it, was published to the chagrin of the then Labour government. To his surprise Henderson, although due to retire, was sent by Thatcher to Washington.

I thoroughly deplore the Wikileaks releases, but we must continue to speak frankly and critically when appropriate. There were times when, serving in Tokyo, I rather wished that my Japanese friends could hear my private comments on Japanese bureaucracy.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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