01 July 2011
What is Wikileaks teaching us?
The question is what kind of leaders will be found when the light is shone on us.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need whistleblowers. But we live in an imperfect world with deeply flawed leadership. Wikileaks has taken the powerful principle of transparency and married it to the powerful technology of the Internet to produce a system that exposes governments and political leaders seeking to hide their deficiency and dishonesty behind diplomatic secrecy. Here are four things that we should be learning from Wikileaks.
1. Interconnectedness Brings Both Strength and Fragility
The Wikileaks saga highlights the interconnected nature of our globalised world in the 21st century. In December 2010, when one major credit card company, MasterCard, announced that it would no longer process donations to WikiLeaks, a network of online activists calling themselves Anonymous orchestrated a distributed denial of service attack on the Mastercard website, bringing its service to a halt. The website of the lawyer of alleged victims of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was also taken offline. (Assange was at this time still in UK custody accused of raping two Swedish women.)
The unprecedented events highlighted how a relatively small group of people, united in the pursuit of a common vision, could threaten to jeopardise the stability of the earth’s financial system. One small event could trigger global repercussions that could literally shut down the entire financial system of the earth for a day.
2. Global Media are a Powerful Political Weapon
If you’ve seen the Wikileaks Mastercard commercial parody recently released on Youtube, you’re not unfamiliar with the concept of using the Internet-based technologies, such as social media websites, to spread powerful political messages. Wikileaks didn’t invent this technique, but they’ve certainly depended on it.
In April 2010, WikiLeaks published gunsight footage from the 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrike in which Iraqi civilians and journalists were killed by an Apache helicopter. In July of the same year, WikiLeaks released Afghan War Diary, a compilation of more than 76,900 documents about the War in Afghanistan not previously available for public review. In October 2010, when Wikileaks released around 400,000 documents, both The US and UK condemned the leak, the largest in US military history, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that the disclosures put lives at risk.
The traditional or mainstream media are also involved. In November 2010, Wikileaks worked with Le Monde, El País, The Guardian and Der Spiegel to release some 250,000 classified documents, which Wikileaks claims to have acquired from an anonymous source. The Guardian subsequently shared its trove with The New York Times. Today, each of the five news organizations is hosting the text of at least some of the documents in various forms.
3. Counting the Cost of Exposing Darkness
Wikileaks’ slogan is “We open governments.” Their official website states, “Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public.” Wikileaks claims to act on the moral imperative to expose the wrong actions of oppressive political regimes. But many still question whether Wikileaks’ actions are ethically sound.
Critical voices have asked what good Wikileaks can claim to have brought about by publishing confidential documents. In exposing the wrongdoings of governments, Wikileaks endangered the lives of many others. Did their actions, on balance, cause more harm than good? Was that harm justified by the good that their actions produced, or at least intended to produce? Intangibles like motive, causality and justification are always difficult to pin down, and even more so in the current international environment of widespread distrust.
For their part, Wikileaks claims to adhere to some harm minimization principles, in spite of their apparently radical commitment to exposing truth. According to their website, they have “been developing and improving a harm minimisation procedure. We do not censor our news, but from time to time we may remove or significantly delay the publication of some identifying details from original documents to protect life and limb of innocent people.”
4. Hypocrisy Lies at the Heart of the Global System
There is some degree of irony in the fact that so-called First World nations that proclaim open and transparent government, democracy and the rule of law, have been unsettled (to say the least) by the actions of a relatively small organisation claiming to operate by the very same values. One could argue that the US government cannot undertake overt efforts to directly censure Wikileaks without promoting activity that undermines the very American values it must defend.
The international media have also come under fire from some quarters, as critics have accused them of using the Wikileaks documents irresponsibly to drive circulation and maximize profit. The situation has sparked debate regarding the nature of the media’s responsibility to the public. Media ethicists are among the many voices now trying to delineate the principles that should guide editorial decision-making in this new playing field.
Through their actions, Wikileaks have demonstrated that many international relationships cannot withstand the scrutiny that has come with the new levels of transparency now being involuntarily thrust upon them. By exposing the reality of competing self-interests that lie at the heart of the system, Wikileaks has provided a rationale for anyone inclined to distrust national leaders, the international media, and other powerful non-state actors in the international arena.
5. Defining the Point of Distinction
Ultimately, relationships built on a right foundation wouldn't be shaken by transparency, but how many nations build relationships on anything other than self-interest? Charles De Gaulle, former French president, said that "relationships between nations are solely based on interests" and unfortunately the same is true for many relationships among individuals. What will be the basis for relationships we build in our lives?
By shining a light on others’ hypocrisy, Wikileaks itself has come under great scrutiny. For their trouble, they’ve won precious few friends and countless enemies. It makes you appreciate the importance of individual character, professional standards and personal integrity. When the spotlight falls on us, the world should find a group of quality individuals, functioning in an unquestionably upright manner in everything that we do. The need for a generation of leaders with Teflon values and unbreachable integrity has become paramount. From the greatest to the smallest details we have to walk with a heightened sense of accountability among the people with whom we interact regularly, even when we might not notice that we are being watched.
The unfolding drama is playing out on a global stage but it is actually highlighting the significance of the individual actor in determining the activity, policy and destiny of nations. Although thousands of reports were leaked by Wikileaks, each of those reports represented the interpretations and observations of individual diplomats, officials and government agents. It is the perceptions and biases of these individuals that coloured the reports that they would send back to their respective governments. And these same reports began to influence policy decisions about how one nation will interact with another. What would happen if the people making the reports were filtering their interpretation through one accurate lens? The result would be significantly different and a correctly seeing individual could have a major influence on international relations. Are we confronting our own biases and seeking daily to have our opinions and perceptions shaped by biblical principles? When we are called to give a report, what will we say?
Force and secrecy are swiftly ceasing to be tools that leaders can use to manipulate other nations or oppress their own people. The call for true leadership has never been louder. We are all called to be leaders in some capacity, regardless of our level of qualification or field of professional practice. The question is what kind of leaders will we be found to be when a light is shone on us.