Richard Haass on the Lessons of WikiLeaks

Christian Schmidt / Corbis

The gossip is so good at times in the classified dispatches leaked to and then published by WikiLeaks that it can be difficult to get beyond it. Who can resist characterizations of Italy's prime minister as "feckless, vain, and ineffective," of Russia's prime minister and former president as an "alpha dog," or of Zimbabwe's president as a "crazy old man"?

But if you are disciplined enough to get beyond such amusements, you will be rewarded. There is enough material here for a class—no, make that a course—in foreign policy.

For instance, we learn that several years ago U.S. officials tipped off their Chinese counterparts that North Korea was shipping ballistic missile components to Iran on commercial aircraft transiting China. We also learn that Beijing did little to impede such flows, more concerned with maintaining good relations with Tehran (and the accompanying trade and energy deals) and Pyongyang than with thwarting nuclear and missile proliferation.

The lesson is that China approaches foreign policy largely through a prism of domestic concerns. Among the cables we also read of a gathering debate within China about its ties to North Korea. Beijing mostly resists exploiting the considerable leverage it harbors vis-à-vis its neighbor and longtime client. Yet one Chinese official describes North Korea as a "spoiled child"; others see it as a threat to world security. The day may be approaching when Chinese officials recognize Pyongyang as the liability it is and accept Korean unification; the United States and South Korea are seen talking about what commercial incentives and military assurances to offer China to bring about just such an evolution.

Moscow, similarly, demonstrates more flexibility than caricatures of Vladimir Putin might suggest. Early on in its tenure, the Obama administration revised plans for building a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, a system that Russia objected to. In return for these changes, the Russians agreed to tougher policies toward Iran. The cables make explicit what was previously implicit: a successful foreign policy must at times accommodate the interests of others if others are to reciprocate.

In the Middle East, the leaks show how concerned Arab leaders are about Iran, urging the United States to take military action against the country before it develops a nuclear weapon. While the Israeli-Arab fault line that has dominated the region for decades has not disappeared, a new one has been added. But here's where raw cable traffic can be misleading. Arab elites might support a confrontation with Iran, but the Arab masses most likely would not. As a result, it's still far from assured the United States could count on support from Arab governments if push comes to shove.

Pakistan, similarly, shows the limits of our alliances. In public, U.S. officials routinely describe Pakistan as a partner. But the reality is often anything but. There is considerable detail about the refusal of Pakistani authorities to allow U.S. technicians access to a nuclear research reactor to remove dangerous amounts of enriched uranium. Indeed, throughout the cables, we are witness to a relationship racked by an absence of common priorities, shared perspectives, and, most of all, trust. That should raise fresh doubts about the prospects for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, given that Pakistan provides sanctuary for the Taliban and other groups hostile to our purposes. Little in these cables suggest this support will end any time soon.

All this learning comes at a steep cost. As a result of the leaks, foreign officials will be less inclined to provide candid assessments to their U.S. counterparts, thereby depriving U.S. officials of valuable insights. American diplomats will be less willing to put on paper their candid assessments, thereby depriving policymakers in Washington of the local information they need most.

The leaks will also make U.S. government officials even more wary of sharing information with their colleagues in other departments lest the information become public. Sound familiar? It should. It was precisely this reticence to share intelligence across departmental lines that helped make the United States vulnerable on 9/11. Intelligence must be shared if information is to be pieced together to make a narrative that can be acted on. We should take the right lessons from the leaking of these cables, not hurt ourselves further by learning the wrong ones.

Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.