Is honesty the best foreign policy?

We live — as politicians frequently repeat — under the rule of law and there is nothing the legal system frowns on more earnestly than perjury. Hence during trials the solemn ritual that witnesses must swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

And then there is government, where the conduct of the people’s business apparently requires the economical expression of truth, the guarding of secrecy and a subtle contempt for honesty — as though only those who are ignorant about the way the world works would attach great value to truthfulness.

Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, asked HRW staff to canvass sources in Tunisia to gauge the impact of the revelations from WikiLeaks and how they influenced the revolution.

The candid appraisal of Ben Ali by U.S. diplomats showed Tunisians that the rottenness of the regime was obvious not just to them but to the whole world — and that it was a source of shame for Tunisia on an international stage. The cables also contradicted the prevailing view among Tunisians that Washington would back Ben Ali to the bloody end, giving them added impetus to take to the streets. They further delegitimized the Tunisian leader and boosted the morale of his opponents at a pivotal moment in the drama that unfolded over the last few weeks.

This point might not be worth dwelling on, except that it suggests something interesting about how the United States, and the State Department in particular, approaches the challenge of promoting human rights and democracy in countries like Tunisia. Consider the following proposition: None of the decent, principled, conscientious, but behind the scenes efforts the State Department made in recent years to persuade the Tunisian government to relax its authoritarian grip — mostly through diplomatic démarches and meetings with top Tunisian officials — had any significant impact on the Ben Ali regime’s behavior or increased the likelihood of democratic change. Nor did the many quiet U.S. programs of outreach to Tunisian society, cultural exchanges and the like, even if Tunisians appreciated them and they will bear fruit as the country democratizes.

Instead, the one thing that did seem to have some impact was a public statement exposing what the United States really thought about the Ben Ali regime: a statement that was vivid, honest, raw, undiplomatic, extremely well-timed — and completely inadvertent.

Had anyone at the State Department proposed deliberately making a statement along the lines of what appears in the cables, they would have been booted out of Foggy Bottom as quickly as you can say “we value our multifaceted relationship with the GOT.” [Continue reading…]

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One thought on “Is honesty the best foreign policy?

  1. Christopher Hoare

    I believe Malinaowski is overlooking an important point. The Tunisians believed the cables to be a true representation of American opinion BECAUSE the documents were leaked. If the US diplomats came out to say the same words openly, the people would, justifiably, suspect some underlying trick being played on someone — themselves or the rulers.

    Similarly, I doubt Hilary Clinton’s admonitions would cause any Gulf autocrats to tremble in their Guccis when they know this is only a switch caused by the egg-on-face embarrassment of Tunisia. Diplomacy cannot produce results when weak states issue advice or threats they have no intention or ability to follow up with action. In fact, diplomacy is often of no use except as a method to smooth over actions that have already happened and ruffled feathers.

    When you haven’t the faintest idea what to do — make a speech.

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