Remember the diplomatic bag?

Business Times - 04 Dec 2010

Remember the diplomatic bag?

Governments could respond to online whistle blowing through more advanced forms of electronic encryption and other measures or they may even feel that old-fashioned methods of diplomatic communication could be useful once again


A FRIEND emailed me recently a YouTube spoof of those television commercials that market the latest big thing in consumer high-tech devices - the iPad, for example.

'Hi, we are going to introduce you to a new device,' a young geeky-looking announcer tells the viewers. 'A bio-optically knowledge centre commercially called book.' Book, he explains, is a 'revolutionary technological breakthrough: no wires. No electric circuits. No battery. No connection. Compact and portable, the book can be used anywhere. Having no electric batteries, it doesn't need to be recharged and can be used as long as necessary. Without electricity outlets, the book never crashes. You can simply open it and enjoy its great advantages.' (;feature=related)

Blow for diplomacy

I recalled that 'revolutionary technological breakthrough', the book, as I was reading the latest document posted by WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing organisation that has been publishing hundreds of thousands of confidential American diplomatic cables on its website in recent days as officials use apocalyptic terms to warn us that the new age of information technology is destroying the profession of diplomacy as we know it.

From now on, it will become impossible for governments to conduct secret negotiations and to conclude agreements on issues of war and peace.

Being in a somewhat geeky mood, perhaps the time has come for introducing another revolutionary technological breakthrough that will help those poor diplomats who allegedly face extinction. I call it the Diplomatic Bag aka the Diplomatic Pouch.

Let's say that you are a member of a diplomatic mission in a foreign capital and are worried that your cable containing highly sensitive information to the home office will end up being posted on WikiLeaks. What to do? Here is a great idea.

Instead of transmitting your cable on the Internet, you could use an envelope, parcel, shipping container or any other kind of receptacle. It will be externally marked to show its status, as a Diplomatic Pouch, which under article 27 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations will be granted diplomatic immunity from search or seizure.

And, in order to ensure that no unauthorised person tries to open the pouch, it will be escorted by a diplomatic courier, who is similarly immune from arrest and detention. Now what do you think about that, Julian Assange?

Okay. I know. The Diplomatic Pouch, not unlike the book, has been around for quite a long time, but at a time when messages can be transmitted instantaneously around the globe, the notion of waiting for many hours for a diplomatic bag to be transported from, say, Islamabad to Washington, is not very cost-effective and doesn't make a lot of sense, especially if Pakistani officials will be able to email a cable from Washington to Islamabad in three seconds or less.

In a way, the current debate over how governments and the public should respond to the trove of diplomatic documents that WikiLeaks has published mirrors similar discussions about the way that information technology as well as the globalisation process is revolutionising our society and culture and transforming our political and economic systems.

What lies ahead?

Hence, depending on your point of view, the information revolution unleashed by the Internet will either make governments more transparent - every policy decision will be made in the open for all to watch and debate - or will make it impossible for governments and other public institutions to do their business.

But both those who celebrate the openness as well as the prophets of doom assume that it is irreversible and that for better or for worse, there is not much that we can do about it.

In fact, I doubt very much that in an international system that is dominated by nation-states and where national security considerations continue to be a primary role of governments, elected leaders and officials are going to surrender their authority over the management of the nation's diplomacy and their ability to maintain a zone of secrecy when it comes to diplomatic communication.

Indeed, in the same way that the Internet has not made reading superfluous - it has actually provided us with new ways to read (e-readers for example) and most of us continue to read books - WikiLeaks is not going to pose a major long-term threat to national security.

If anything, in addition to devising and enforcing new rules for classifying and distributing sensitive official information, expect governments to respond to online whistle blowing through more advanced forms of electronic encryption and other sophisticated measures that take opportunity of the new information technology.

After all, governments have been very successful to adapting their operations to earlier new technologies, like the telegraph and the telephone.

And who knows? It's not inconceivable that the good old diplomatic pouch will prove to be useful once again.

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