The world narrowly escaped nuclear war in October 1962. In the run-up to the mid-term elections, President Kennedy repeatedly asserted that Soviet offensive missiles would not be deployed in Cuba and would not be tolerated if they were. Moscow did not respond, not knowing whether these statements were merely intended to pander to voters or were a genuine warning. Secret exchanges subsequently made the parties’ intentions clear and they were able to defuse the crisis. The Americans let it be known that they might discreetly agree, later on, to one of Moscow’s demands and quietly withdraw the Nato missiles deployed in Turkey. On the Soviet side, Khrushchev privately informed Kennedy that a US pledge not to invade Cuba would enable him to order the removal of all missiles from the island without losing face (1).
Will the WikiLeaks disclosures prompt diplomatic moves to avoid war, as in 1962, or prepare for it? Some leaks, it seems, are more troublesome than others. When Germany’s military authorities produced a fictitious Serbian plan, Operation Horseshoe, to justify the war in Kosovo, or when The New York Times passed on the Pentagon’s little white lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the White House did not call for sanctions.
It’s claimed the Wikileaks disclosure that certain people visited the US embassy could have put innocent lives at risk. But if there really was such a risk (and none has yet been identified), why did so many people have access to these diplomatic cables? And what of the political risks? Granted, the French Socialist leader who confided to a US envoy in 2006 that French opposition to the Iraq war had been “too open” (François Hollande), or the Socialist MP who protested that relations between the two countries “were always better when the left was in power” (Pierre Moscovici), might have preferred these conversations to be disclosed a few decades down the line…
But an ambassador is not an ordinary messenger. To prove their worth, ambassadors may play up the extent to which the views of the eminent people they meet coincide with their own. The statements attributed to the American diplomats’ interlocutors have not been confirmed by those who are alleged to have made them. That they seem to be patently true, just as we already suspected, was apparently reason enough to publish them.
As to the threat to US security, Defence Secretary Robert Gates seems quite relaxed: “The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets” (2).
Translated by Barbara Wilson
(1) See Graham T Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, Little Brown and Company, Boston, 1971.
(2) Pentagon press conference, 30 November 2010.