The Wikileaks phenomenon: impact on 21st century statecraft?

Yesterday evening, The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel published analyses of a six-year archive of classified documents from US-led forces in Afghanistan, released to them by the organization Wikileaks.  The disclosure of the material has already raised much debate about what The Guardian has termed “the biggest leak in intelligence history.”

What is different about this leak is that it is mainly happening online, and the debate around it currently spans from Washington DC to Berlin to Islamabad.

Since the Obama campaign’s groundbreaking use of social media, the US government has been coming to terms with what it has deemed “21st century statecraft,” and this leak will put the new strategy to the test.

Two weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a piece on Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, the “public faces” of “21st century statecraft,” an effort by the State Department to magnify traditional methods of diplomacy, and the first to recognize that control of information will simply not be possible as it was in the past. (The strategy was originally outlined by State’s Policy & Planning Director, Anne-Marie Slaughter, in a 2009 article in Foreign Affairs.)

But do 21st century technologies change everything? Or are they a new means to the same old communications challenges?

The hard reality is that the Internet does and doesn’t change everything.

The Web remains unfamiliar territory for traditional policymakers who are wrestling how to keep up in a world with instant online news breaks and social media. While leaks are not new, their mass publication is instantaneous, volumes of feedback are exponentially larger and it can be difficult to distinguish the experts from the amateurs. Crisis-communications take on new meaning.

A recent BBC analysis of recent online crisis-management efforts by the British government and BP asks Should we trust the wisdom of crowds? The US government has publicly denounced the publication of the classified documents. It will be interesting to gauge how the public reacts to this leak and – in turn – how the architects of 21st century statecraft react to the public.



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