What WikiLeaks reveals about the changing map of global power

By Guest Contributor
January 12, 2011

-Andrew Hammond is a Director at ReputationInc. The opinions expressed are his own-

The WikiLeaks release last month of around a quarter of a million classified U.S. State Department documents has, by critics, been variously characterised as the “September 11 of world diplomacy” (Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini); an “attack on the international community” (U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton); and a threat to “democratic sovereignty and authority” (French Government Spokesman Francois Baroin).

Debate will long continue, across the world, about the rights and wrongs of WikiLeaks’ actions. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the episode has, highly regrettably, caused not inconsiderable damage to the United States.

Underlying many of these issues is the fundamental question of what the Wikileaks affair reveals about the changing map of influence and power in a world that continues to be transformed by the information revolution and economic globalisation. To date, these forces have generally reinforced U.S. pre-eminence for several reasons, including the country’s relative technological edge over much of the rest of the world (which will decrease over time); the fact that its dominant culture and ideas are very close to prevailing global norms; and its multiple channels of communication which help to frame global issues.

However, as the WikiLeaks’s releases underline, this emerging environment has simultaneously raised new challenges not just for the United States, but for all countries. For instance, with technological advances leading to vast increases in information, international publics have generally become more sensitive to “spin” and propaganda. Here, governments must not just compete for credibility vis a vis their foreign counterparts, but also with new actors such as Al-Jazeera and indeed WikiLeaks.

Information that appears to be spin or propaganda, or indeed sensitive leaks that are damaging, can undermine the credibility of a country and/or its government. For instance, pre-war intelligence controversies about Iraq damaged the reputation both of the United States and United Kingdom, and also of the Blair and Bush administrations.

In this current context, key dangers from the WikiLeaks episode for Washington (and certain of its allies) is potential backlash from some international publics, and also foreign elites proving more cautious in sharing information and cooperation going forwards. As Representative Peter Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee has asserted, a “catastrophic issue here is a breakdown in trust”.

Taken overall, the WikiLeaks affair thus intensifies the already massive global public diplomacy and alliance-building challenge that President Barack Obama inherited from the Bush administration. While the Obama team has begun to make strides in the right direction, including on the strategic communications dimensions of the campaign against terrorism, its focus continues to be distracted by major political headaches such as this latest one.

Looking specifically at the campaign against terrorism, the scale of the public diplomacy task which Obama still faces is regularly highlighted in opinion polls. For instance, the 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Survey revealed that in Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey, just 17% of people have favourable perceptions of the United States.  In the space of just twelve months, U.S. favourability in Egypt has dropped to 17% from 27%.

This public diplomacy problem, however, is not restricted to the Muslim world. Indeed, the 2010 Pew survey showed that in nine of 15 key countries public favourability towards the United States continues to lag behind that recorded at the end of the Clinton administration a decade ago.

It is important that the Obama team turns this climate of perception about the country around. This is because, in common with the Cold War, the challenges posed by the campaign against terror cannot be overcome by military might alone. In addition, the United States must redouble its efforts to win the battle for “hearts and minds”, especially in the Muslim world. This will help create an enabling (rather than disabling) environment facilitating both covert and overt cooperation and information sharing with U.S. officials.

It is true that some countries will continue to assist Washington because of factors such as self interest and/or fundamental agreement with U.S. strategy and policy. However, the degree to which other states do so, especially in critical theatres like the Middle East and Asia, will often depend heavily upon a mixture of the attractiveness amongst foreign publics, and the degree of trust within national elites, of the United States in general and the Obama administration in particular.

It would be a tragedy if these relationships become critically damaged by the WikiLeaks affair.


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