Varun Sivaram

Energy, Security, and Climate

CFR experts examine the science and foreign policy surrounding climate change, energy, and nuclear security.

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What do Julian Assange and (Some) Climate Activists Have in Common?

by Michael Levi
December 5, 2010

Answer: Both don’t seem to understand that effective diplomacy requires some secrecy. Here’s what I mean.

Assange, the man behind WikiLeaks, seems to think that indiscriminately publishing hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables will somehow improve the world. I’m as opposed to counterproductive secrecy as much as the next guy, but by making private diplomacy much more difficult, WikiLeaks is undercutting efforts aimed at peaceful conflict resolution. As my former FAS colleague Steve Aftergood, a leading anti-secrecy crusader, wrote last week, “If [WikiLeaks] were anti-war, it would safeguard, not disrupt, the conduct of diplomatic communications.”

Meanwhile, at the Cancun climate talks, we’re once again hearing complaints about secret discussions and backroom deals from people who seem ideologically opposed to the idea. Andy Revkin has a good rundown of the phenomenon over at Dot Earth:

“At almost every negotiation in recent years aimed at building a new international climate agreement, a batch of delegates and United Nations officials huddle at the end of the first week to start framing some kind of text…. That process, which is vital considering there are nearly 200 countries involved, has always led to charges of secret deals and powerful nations shouldering out the smallest or poorest…. On Friday afternoon, three non-governmental organizations charged that a ‘secret Mexican text’ was being drafted….”

Andy seems conflicted about whether this is wise. On the one hand, he writes that the process is “vital”. On the other, here’s what he says further down:

“Later in the day, Christiana Figueres, the U.N. official running things, categorically denied any such move at a news conference…. I don’t doubt her, given how foolish it would be, after what happened in Copenhagen, to try an end run around any group of countries in these deliberations.”

I can’t say I agree. Negotiated deals don’t result from public tweaking of complex documents. They require the sort of leadership that a good “Mexican Text” – basically a draft accord that attempts to find a compromise – would provide. And the Mexican hosts of the conference can’t produce something useful unless they can have private conversations with the various negotiating parties about their bottom lines. (Do you think that arms control treaties would even happen if every proposal and counterproposal had to be made in the open? Or that the Kyoto Protocol, which so many climate purists revere, was created without backroom deals?)

To me, this is just another symptom of the utopianism that, while admirable in some ways, too often prevents the UN climate talks from getting serious work done. My former CFR colleague Walter Mead has been vicious in savaging the UN process for this, and while I think that he’s often been over the top, there’s an important core of truth in much of what he’s written. Do climate activists and diplomats want to create a new model of maximally inclusive and open diplomacy? Then they’re going to have to give up on doing much about climate change. Do they want to do something serious about climate change? Then they’re going to have to start getting serious about how diplomacy really works.

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