12.09.10

The British Empire's WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks isn’t the first time diplomatic secrets have been leaked to the public. Andrew Roberts reports on how British officials dealt with exposure of their dealings in the 19th century.

It might not afford much solace for Hillary Clinton as she tries to minimize the appalling damage done by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, but much the same thing happened to the British Empire at the height of its power and prestige in 1878, and that incident could provide a way forward for her, should she have the magisterial self-confidence to take it.

The sheer rudeness of several of the WikiLeaks cables may be excruciatingly embarrassing for all the people involved, but that is the way most countries’ diplomats talk when they don’t think anyone’s listening. The greatest British ambassadors of the Victorian age—such as Sir William White in Constantinople, Lord Dufferin in St. Petersburg, and Lord Lytton in Paris—could be immensely caustic in their private reports back home. In the days before “joined up government” and electronic communication, they were very unlikely to be caught out. “The Tsar is stupid,” the Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury wrote to the British ambassador in Vienna in 1885, “Prince Bismarck’s nerves have become a little excitable, and there is a dark uncertain future which creates a constant state of inchoate panic.” Good relations with Russia and Germany would have been deeply compromised if any of his hundreds of remarks of that nature had ever been made public, or even his milder statement about the Russian Foreign Minister Gortschakov, that: “If some kindly fit of gout were to take him off we would move much faster.”

It is precisely because diplomats have to be so reserved and moderate in their public statements that they let loose in encrypted cables that they believe will be kept private. Diplomatic messages are also intended to amuse as well as inform, and ambassadors know that a good way to attract the attention of the decision-makers back home is to inject as much spice as possible. Cables likening President Medvedev of Russia as Robin to Vladimir Putin’s Batman will achieve just that. Few in Washington would really have been shocked by the descriptions of Putin as a gangster, Sarkozy as hyperactive, Zardawi as a numbskull or Ahmadinejad as Hitlerian, but they undoubtedly would have read on to the end.

Similarly, when Lord Salisbury wrote to Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, the British ambassador to Tehran, to say, “I do not like the look of things in Germany; it is evident that the young Kaiser [Wilhelm II] hates us and loves Russia,” describing the new German ruler as psychologically warped and “a danger to peace,” it was time to take notice. Imagine the outcry if Salisbury’s remark that, “War must come, and we had better take it at a time when we are not quarreling with anyone else,” had been made public, however sensible that might have been as a policy at the time. He also wrote to an ambassador saying of the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck: “He has a vast corrupt influence over the press and can give enormous circulation to slanders.” (Bismarck’s son was nicknamed “Hateful Herbert” throughout the British Foreign Office.)

On 14 June 1878—the second day of the Congress of Berlin—the entire text of a secret Anglo-Russian treaty was published in The Globe newspaper, only two weeks after it had been signed. It was the 19th-century version of WikiLeaks. No sooner had all the diplomats of Europe arrived in Berlin for port and biscuits at Bismarck’s Radziwill Palace to discuss how war in Europe could be avoided during the most dangerous Balkans crisis in a generation, than a copying clerk called Charles Marvin, on secondment from the Foreign Office, sold the secret treaty to The Globe for £40 ($63), which published it in full, proving that the British and Russians had stitched up a deal and the whole Congress was therefore a complete sham and farce.

Although Lord Salisbury initially described the scoop as “incomplete, and therefore inaccurate”—which Hillary Clinton can hardly do over WikiLeaks—he then basically told the chancelleries of Europe to get over it. Such was the self-confidence of the British Empire of the day, that the rest of Europe—though privately outraged at his duplicity—had little option but to comply.

Of course the Obama administration, which has little or none of the supreme self-confidence of Lord Salisbury’s ministry, will not tell the rest of the world simply to get over the WikiLeaks revelations, but will instead continue squirming with embarrassment over the coming weeks and months as the implications of each of the cables are analyzed and picked over in all their painfully elaborate details. The reverberations—particularly for those Sunni-led Middle Eastern states with significant Shia populations caught lying to their own peoples about Iran—could be with us for many years. As well as being a snapshot of the retreat of American power, therefore, these WikiLeaks could also become a contributing factor to it. America should tell the world to get over it, but whether the world will listen is another matter.

Historian Andrew Roberts' latest book, Masters and Commanders, was published in the UK in September. His previous books include Napoleon and Wellington, Hitler and Churchill, and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. Roberts is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts.