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Transparency and the Internet
by Dr. Gopal Singh Bookmark and Share

I read the article by Mr. Rajinder Puri on “Life in the Leaking World”.  In that he observes that the breakthrough in technologies, in this case the internet, is bringing about a paradigm shift where transparency would become the norm by default.

This is very interesting observation. Let us examine it a bit further. Let us begin with the Wiki Leaks first. Ever since the classified papers were leaked a storm of damage control activities followed. Understandably most governments, with United States at the forefront (since it was the prime victim), condemned it. It was argued that diplomacy requires a certain degree of secrecy and these leaks have done great harms, particularly to the United States, in terms of maintaining good relationships with its friends and allies all over the world. The US government then launched an all out effort to minimize the damage from such exposure. It is interesting to note that their own internal security is so porous that they cannot stop these leaks internally from taking place repeatedly.

Ironically, none of the other governments affected by these cables seemed to be greatly concerned about it. No one has launched an official diplomatic protest or taken any abrupt counter diplomatic actions. The reason is very obvious. There is nothing unique in the leaks that other governments did not know or suspect already.

Diplomacy is like a chess game. Politicians and top level bureaucrats love to play it. If nothing else it gives them a heightened sense of importance about themselves. They have to carry the burden of this great secrecy in the interest of the nation and its citizens who are mere mortals and cannot handle it if they were exposed to it all of a sudden. It also gives them an opportunity for ego gratification within their own organizations by continuously exercising it. It is commonly known in the annals of political power that you have to frequently use the power (crack the whip) given to you or else you begin losing it. You wonder what Mrs. Clinton gained by calling India (and some of the other countries) as self appointed front runners to gain UNSC permanent seat? Perhaps she was upset that they didn’t run to her for permission before voicing their claims. The point is it was a meaningless statement made out of arrogance (not out of candor that she would prefer to call). 

Having said this, let us not forget that virtually all the governments, including India, play this game. So it is not particularly attributable to USA or any given country specifically. There is a need for secrecy in running the affairs of the government including diplomacy. There are emergency plans, contingency plans, strategic plans etc that deal with a series of realistic, probable and imagined set of scenarios. If these plans are leaked, they can create genuine misunderstandings particularly amongst our friends and allies. Similarly there are plans dealing with national defense, internal and external intelligence, contingencies to fight terrorism etc that need to be kept secret. I am sure there are other similar plans requiring secrecy that I have not mentioned.

However, the recent set of leaks have made it amply clear that an awful lot of secrecy games played in diplomacy are meaningless, non-productive and sometimes counterproductive. The basic premise of diplomacy is based on distrust.  No wonder it is such a non-productive exercise.  We play the game of “show me your hand before I will show you mine”. You wonder who become the victims in this game - perhaps the sincere ones who would like to be transparent. They too catch on with this game after being burned once or twice. So we all read in newspapers each day as the top diplomats from all the nations gather in nice venues in the world to carry out these “awfully intricate and burdensome” diplomatic negotiations embedded with secrets the burden of which their countrymen cannot bear and are better off not knowing.

Now back to Mr. Puri’s comments about paradigm shift brought about by technology to lead toward higher transparency. There is a lot of merit in it. Wiki leaks would not be heard of it was not for the internet. We would not be able to go back and readily check the actions and the accuracy of statements made in the past by bureaucrats, diplomats and politicians if it was not for the internet. We would not be able to consult each other quickly and effectively if it was not for the internet. You would not be reading this viewpoint on this subject (who knows that could be a blessing) if it was not for the internet. The mark of success of any government is the degree of transparency it has with its own people. There is a room for secrecy to carry out certain affairs of the government but it should not be the first resort. Transparency should first be given chance to work. 

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Comment Can we totally agree with the conclusion of this blog? Perhaps not - let us have the privilege of preserving some of our pretensions!

12/10/2010 04:50 AM

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