Those who are used to thinking of foreign policy and diplomacy as some sort of ceremonious activity should forget the Congress of Vienna and Helsinki talks. The time of intellectual battles between responsible professionals behind closed doors is gone. Now everything is put on display.
The decline of the basic principles of diplomacy is only one of the signs indicating the degradation of rules and norms which used to underlay international life. “Modern world politics and economy have come to a state of consistent erosion that gnaws at the systems and order developed since the middle of the 17th century. The reason for the general confusion is not that the institutions and rules known to us since the middle of last century (surprisingly, we have become strongly accustomed to them, too) are degrading, but that more fundamental principles of international communication are thrown into doubt.” This is a quote from an annual report prepared for a meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club this fall.
The White House’s decision to release the transcript of the telephone conversation the U.S. and Ukrainian presidents held in September 2019, albeit with the former’s consent, creates a precedent with far-reaching consequences. The opportunity was immediately seized on both sides of the Atlantic. Zelensky’s opponents in Ukraine happily demanded that the transcripts of his telephone conversations with Putin be made public too. Democrats on Capitol Hill are urging their enemy president to do the same…
One can only fanaticize about how such releases can impact not only these countries’ contacts with Russia but also foreign policy activities in general. In a sense, we have come to the point where diplomacy as a trade is standing at death’s door. There is simply no need for diplomacy if one cannot discuss important things confidentially, discreetly and frankly. Communication turns into an exchange of official statements, a show of strength and subversive operations (if they can still remain covert, of course), but certainly not into a dialogue designed to reach an agreement. Remarkably, this is happening not because of the information revolution or qualitative changes in technology, as many expected, but because of dreadful squabbles and professional degradation that have plagued the political elites in many countries at once and, above all, because of the fierce struggle for power. In other words, the reason is as old as the world itself. It is just that now it has assumed truly cosmic dimensions due to globalization. Current politics has definitively become a tool of domestic policy.
Eight years ago, WikiLeaks exposed a large amount of confidential correspondence from U.S. embassies around the world, which contained a lot of details that riled the U.S. and especially its international partners. The Department of State basically pretended that nothing had happened. The leaders and politicians of other countries, hurt by unflattering assessments, took note of it but did not make a row. At first it seemed that the American Foreign Service had suffered irreparable damage and that it would never regain the lost trust. Nothing of the kind! Everything was forgotten within several months. It must be said that the released documents caused not so much an amazement at the disclosed backstage but at how predictable, boring, and often even primitive the secret play was.
But whereas back then it was a leak, now it is a conscious decision. Does the notion of confidentiality, which used to be a key principle in diplomacy, still hold? Those who conduct serious confidential talks must know for sure that their content will never be made public. Otherwise, not only will they fail to achieve the desired result but will make things even worse than they were before. There are fewer and fewer guarantees of confidentiality nowadays.
On the one hand, technologies improve and communication becomes total, increasing the chance of leaks. On the other hand, it becomes customary now to bring to the limelight what used to be behind closed doors. Sometimes one gets the impression that the participants in delicate negotiations fear that their vis-à-vis will trip them up and for that reason hurry to make the content of their talks public. In part, this is happening because social networks and other modern forms of communication have made the public opinion a more powerful factor in world politics than ever before.
Trump is a vivid example in this respect. His voters’ trust and the image of a leader who has nothing to hide from his people are much more important for him than his repute with foreign partners.
The so-called populism is a multifaceted phenomenon, and one of its components is “new sincerity” which can be either real or affected. When he was foreign secretary, Boris Johnson said in parliament that he knew for a fact that the order to poison the Skripals had been given by the president of Russia personally. Let us discount the substantive side of his statement and focus instead on the technical side. The foreign secretary simply could not know such details, it is impossible in principle, especially within just several days of the incident. That idea was never brought up again. But there is an actual fact that the chief British diplomat openly accused the head of a foreign state of perpetrating an assassination attempt, but nothing followed. There were no diplomatic demarches, no investigation, and no demands to explain the statement. Everyone tacitly agreed that Johnson’s words were but wind, populist fervor. In other words, idle talk for effect.