December 6th, 2010

[LINK] "In Memoriam: Le quatorze de l'École Polytechnique"

[H&F] "Wikileaks as a historical source"

My co-blogger at History and Futility, The Oberamtmann considers Wiikileaks from the point of view of historical scholars: is it a good thing, or a bad thing, for the practical needs of the academy?

In my opinion, I don’t see a problem using whatever leaked sources are out there. The original commenter made the good point that this is only a small portion of the vast governmental cache, and that the rest of it will only be available in thirty or so years. The problem then is primarily twofold: the documentation is incomplete and we are unaware of its reliability. Redactions and the potential for Wikileaks releasing only those documents it wants released (and the even more sinister possibility of forgery) will make any researcher wonder about consistency and, without knowing who was reading the incoming cables, importance.

As an early modernist, I would say: go for it. With all the documents destroyed in wars, thrown out, unread, unorganized, unavailable, and so on, I and other early modernists are constantly faced with documentation that we know is incomplete. We are just happy to not be working in an earlier period that has even less available materials.

Daniel Drezner disagrees on two grounds.

Scholars will need to exercise care in putting the WikiLeaks documents in proper perspective. Some researchers suffer from "document fetishism," the belief that if something appears in an official, classified document, then it must be true. Sophisticated observers are well aware, however, that these cables offer only a partial picture of foreign-policy decision-making. Remember, with Cablegate, WikiLeaks has published cables and memos only from the State Department. Last I checked, other bureaucracies—the National Security Council, the Defense Department—also shape U.S. foreign policy. The WikiLeaks cables are a source—they should not be the sole source for anything.

[. . .]

As confused as the early analysis of the WikiLeaks cables has been, it is in the long term that their effect will be most negative for political scientists and diplomatic historians. In his public statements, the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, has evangelized for transparency. In July he said, "We are transparency activists who understand that transparent government tends to produce just government. And that is our sort of modus operandi behind our whole organization."

Assange's hypothesis may or may not be true, but his belief that WikiLeaks will lead to greater government transparency is blinkered in the extreme. Governments do not respond to security breaches by surrendering themselves to the fates. American foreign-policy bureaucracies have and will continue to respond to WikiLeaks by clamping down on the dissemination of information.

Note that the first of Drezner's arguments is met by my co-blogger's point, and that the second may not be relevant.

What think you?