Transparency advocates love to quote Louis Brandeis to the effect that “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” Who could dispute the beneficial impact on politics of throwing open the doors and flinging open the windows?
But sunlight can have other effects as well. If too intense, sunlight can wilt. It can scorch. It can even kill.
Transparency has been a trending topic for several decades. The Sunlight Foundation, established in 2006, focuses on transparency in Congress and at various levels of governance, lobbying, and campaign finance. Transparency International, founded in 1993, evaluates the level of corruption and bureaucratic opacity in countries around the world. These and other organizations are committed not only to opening up the political realm but also empowering citizens to become watchdogs.
In effect, transparency advocates want to turn the surveillance state upside down, so that we the people are monitoring our elected — and unelected — representatives. “Storm the Bastille!” was the slogan of the French revolution. “Storm the Panopticon!” is the slogan of the transparency revolution.
But in recent years, a backlash against transparency has been taking shape.
In a 2009 article in The New Republic, the legal scholar Lawrence Lessig argued that complete openness could have unintended consequences, for it could radically constrain privacy and reveal information that would be ripe for misunderstanding. Bulgarian thinker Ivan Krastev has pointed out that more information doesn’t necessarily lead to more informed civic choices (American voters, for instance, returned George W. Bush to office even after the lies of the Iraq War came out in the press). After the first Wikileaks documents appeared in public in 2006 — and even more so after the cyber-organization turned on its information fire hose in 2010 — the U.S. government, the diplomatic class, and mainstream punditry complained that the whole world could now sift through at all the state’s laundry, dirty or otherwise.
In his 2013 novel The Circle, Dave Eggers imagined a world in which we all live in glass houses, not because the NSA has acquired universal monitoring power but because we citizens are surveilling ourselves via social media and wearable cameras. This is what I’ve called participatory totalitarianism.
We all want to expose the nefarious activities of our politicians, government institutions, and constabulary forces. GoPro cameras on police officers, annual audits of government agencies, and campaign contribution information all help us rein in the lawless.
Transparency, however, can also go too far. I’m not going to write here in favor of corruption. But the opposite of transparency, when it comes to foreign policy, is often something else: discretion.
That Other Part of Valor
In one of the great ironies of my work on North Korea, when I was actually visiting the country between 1998 and 2001, I couldn’t write about what I saw or the discussions I had there. Only when I was no longer engaged in citizen diplomacy — and only when I no longer had direct access to “facts on the ground” — could I write to my heart’s content.
Discretion is an important — perhaps the most important — tool in the diplomat’s toolbox. Diplomacy requires trust, on both sides, and the best way of ensuring trust is by not blabbing. Your interlocutors are often telling you things in confidence. Or perhaps they’re feeding you information as a test, to see if that particular morsel ends up in the next day’s newspaper. If it does, you’re obviously untrustworthy.
Transparency, in other words, is antithetical to diplomacy. Like it or not, diplomacy is all about backroom deals.
Take the recent nuclear agreement with Iran. They were the result of many meetings in public places (Kazakhstan, Geneva, Vienna) covered by the world media. If journalists had been sitting in on the negotiations — and listening to all the starts and stops, the diplomatic dead-ends, the shouting and the reconciliations — they would have adversely affected the course on the negotiations. If a theater reviewer reported on all the mistakes of a production during its first week of rehearsals, the play would open to an empty house, if it even made it to opening night.
But the Iran deal also required secret assignations where much of the real work of trust building took place.
In late February 2013, immediately after multilateral negotiations in Almaty, Kazakhstan, two American negotiators secretly flew to Oman to meet with their Iranian counterparts. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, met with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Asghar Khaji at the invitation of the Omani sultan. The very willingness of both sides to keep the proceedings secret represented a base-level investment in serious negotiations. Here’s how al-Monitor described it:
In Oman in March, both Khaji’s and Burns’ teams, as well as their Omani hosts, went to some lengths to keep the unusual meeting off the radar. Burns, the second highest diplomat in the United States, did not appear on the State Department public schedules at all the first four days in March, without explanation. Similarly, Iran’s Foreign Ministry and media published nothing about Khaji’s trip to Muscat, although his March 7 trip to Switzerland, a few days after the secret talks with the Americans, was announced by his Swiss Foreign Ministry hosts and received press coverage.
It wasn’t just secret meetings. The United States also arranged, under the radar, to return a precious 7th-century silver chalice that U.S. customs officials had seized from a smuggler who spirited it out of an Iranian cave shortly after the 1979 revolution. In summer 2013, when American officials were looking for some way to send a signal of respect to the newly elected government of Hassan Rouhani, an Iran expert in the Obama administration recommended the return of an object of great value.
In September of that year, when the United States and Iran were both participating in the UN General Assembly in New York, the handover was arranged. A U.S. diplomat describes the scene:
When the American slid the bag containing the chalice across the conference table, the Iranian diplomat looked inside and his eyes grew wide.
“He gave this lovely speech, telling me how much this meant to the Iranian people, and to him personally,” the U.S. diplomat said. “It was an important moment. I know I’ll never forget it.”
If a state is doing nothing but waging war, then transparency is an important tool for exposing lies (“Saddam has WMD!”) and revealing nefarious activities (“Israel has WMD!”). But states also on occasion resolve problems, and when they do, it sometimes requires what might be called “black ops for peace.” It’s not just states, of course. The same can be said for peace activists, like Code Pink, whose actions require a measure of secrecy in order to produce the element of surprise (“Henry Kissinger, you are served!”).
From mushrooms to movie-watching to multilateral efforts to end wars, some things benefit from taking place in the dark.
A Tool of the Strong?
We think of transparency as a weapon wielded by the powerless against the powerful. But in the realm of international relations, the reverse is often true.
Political scientist James Marquadt has argued, in his Transparency and American Primacy in World Politics, that the United States in particular has used the value of transparency to strengthen its global hegemony. After World War I, Woodrow Wilson placed transparency at the top of his 14 Points as a way for the United States to remake global politics with America as primus inter pares. Later, under Eisenhower, the United States used transparency to suss out the military capabilities of its adversaries.
It’s no surprise, then, that opacity is often a weapon of the weak. Does North Korea have a robust nuclear weapons arsenal? Who knows! They could have ten bombs ready for use. Or they could have nothing at all, since their nuclear tests were inconclusive, and the North Koreans are excellent bluffers. As long as the U.S. government is kept guessing, it will assume the worst-case scenario and refrain from pushing North Korea too far for fear of the consequences. Iran’s game of nuclear peak-a-boo was similarly effective in drawing the United States into negotiations. This asymmetry of information can help those who are disadvantaged in the global asymmetry of power.
In a world in which all countries enjoy free and unfettered media, transparency might represent an important constraint on waging war (as media politics specialist Douglas Van Belle argues). Politicians, after all, are worried about how a free media, in covering conflicts, can sway the electorate. But we don’t live in such a world. We live in a world in which power is unevenly distributed and the press operates in very different environments.
So, yes, especially when we’re emerging from a dark winter of government secrecy, we’re all instinctively sun worshippers. But when it comes to concluding peace treaties or dealing with the global power imbalance, sometimes we have to go where the sun don’t shine.