One of the regular criticisms of WikiLeaks when it and its media partners began releasing US diplomatic cables was of the “chilling effect” the release would have not merely on the willingness of people across the world to speak frankly with US diplomats, but on the very art of diplomacy itself. Foreign policy, we were told, is special, and different, and the practice of such a high art couldn’t be done transparently. Stopping wars, brokering treaties and handling the fine nuances of interstate relations needs to be done behind closed doors.

What WikiLeaks has done, however, is reveal foreign policy as no different to any other kind of bureaucratic game playing, and driven by the same tawdry commercial imperatives that drive so much domestic policy.

It is clear, for example, that the prosecution of the interests of American pharmaceutical companies was a key priority for the State Department. One analyst, James Love, has found literally hundreds of cables devoted to the issue of ensuring exclusivity for US drug company products, even when US diplomats themselves acknowledged that lower prices for pharamceuticals were important for access to life-saving medicine in developing countries. The lives and health of citizens in developing countries was clearly a lower priority than the commercial interests of US companies.

It is clear, too, that the State Department aggressively pushed the interests of the GM crops industry, particularly in developing countries, where “biotechnology outreach programs” were established to influence decision-makers in favour of US companies such as Monsanto. And in developed countries, particularly in Europe, diplomats aggressively responded to any perceived threats to GM crop companies, calling for “retaliation” to ensure the Europeans understood there were “real costs” in refusing to do things the Monsanto way.

The WikiLeaks material also confirms what was already apparent from the conduct of the US in trying to negotiate international treaties relating to copyright: it aggressively pushes the interests of the US copyright industry in trying to convince other countries to impose draconian restrictions on any perceived threats to the movie and music industries. The cables, for example, reveal that litigation against Australian ISP iiNet by the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft was actually the beginning of a concerted campaign by the American copyright industry’s chief lobbying body, the MPAA (which wanted its involvement in the issue to be kept quiet). The campaign was to use a successful attack on iiNet to attack ISPs in a number of Commonwealth countries, with iiNet selected because the MPAA was intimidated by the size and legal resources of Telstra.

All three industries, it it known from other contexts, have strong links with the US government, with lobbyists and executives engaged in a revolving door between US government positions and industry positions.

WikiLeaks has in effect provided a Wizard of Oz moment, showing much diplomacy is anything but high-minded statecraft, ostensibly so delicate it can only be undertaken in private. Instead, it has demonstrated, in closely-written detail, the extent to which foreign policy is merely the grubbiest domestic policy given the gloss of international diplomacy.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey