Wikileaks and the (alleged) “Diplomacy-Crisis”

Though I should actually be working on an oral presentation on Maoism, I cannot restrain myself from commenting on the latest “Wikileaks-Coup”. Once more, the (allegedly) “subversive” website attracted an incredibly intense media coverage. I will spare you an elaborate recap of what has happened – you can read, watch or listen to the story on each and every media channel.  All major newspapers, news websites, and broadcasters have put the story on the publication of 250.000 “sensitive” diplomatic documents on the top of their agendas; you can find background information on the issue almost everywhere. Sensational headlines  speak of a “real” diplomacy crisis. Another catchy term is “cablegate”, an allegory to the infamous Watergate-scandal of the Nixon administration in the 1970s. Well, I have my doubts here.

Especially the last comparison seems to be far from being appropriate. In the original scandal, the then government was directly involved in illegal surveillance and monitoring activities; of course, similar things happen today all the time (in partly much more sophisticated manner), too. However, today’s “cablegate” documents have not shown yet, that the US administration did anything particularly “deceptive” or “evil”. Even if some notes on certain politicians are rather embarrassing. But are they really that surprising? Would secret, diplomatic notes from other countries look any different? Let’s see: Arabia has a problem with a possible Iranian hegemony – tell me something new. Putin is Batman, Medwedew resembles his sidekick Robin and Ahmadinedschad reminds people of Hitler – well, I kinda knew that before Wikileaks told us. And to realise that Berlusconi loves parties you do not have to be a diplomat. Moreover, when I read what the US diplomats think of Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle, I literally had to laugh out loud – because the characterizations are simply true (well, at least from my political perspective); nothing “sensitive” here. As regards spying on the UN, history has shown that diplomats had always been involved in rather shady forms of information gathering. That’s scandalous to very naive people only.

The whole issue appears to be a bit overblown and serious consequences for the diplomatic relationships between the involved nations remain to be seen. This has already been proven all day, when the different involved statesmen and -women downplayed the impact of this “revealment”. There is no real diplomacy crisis, just a few blushing faces (and some flattery damage containment). However, I am only mocking about today’s “over-emotional” coverage of the issue – I am not thinking that there is nothing truly surprising or maybe even shocking in this 250.000 documents. All I am saying is: It’s a bit too early to draw any hasty conclusions. We have to wait – and contemplate advantages over disadvantages of a force like Wikileaks in our current information environment. This applies to various dimensions of the issue:

1. The most basic question is of course: When does the monopoly on information of a (democratic) state end – and when do activities of organizations like Wikileaks violate  a government’s right on secrecy? I am far from being an enemy of a “free” information flow and I do not believe that contemporary democracies are the most perfect political system to live in (though, and here I agree with Churchill, all others are still much worse). But I am also convinced that too much transparency can be harmful for a collective, i.e. a nation-state in certain truly sensitive respects.

2. Wikileaks fulfills an important function by keeping debates on information, censorship, the media and the role of the Internet alive. In the case of the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, it confirmed what critical observers already assumed: That there is a another, far more complex and difficult reality to both wars. It has also shown that online media can truly circumvent and stimulate traditional media. Hence, there is a moral and political justification for a platform like Wikileaks  – to break established hegemonies. However, in the very moment an “independent” organisation accumulates the strength to challenge the establishment, it is not far from becoming a hegemonic factor within a certain power discourse itself. It is today the no. 1 source for classified information; there are no other notable Wikis for political leaks. In order to hold its position, it actually needs to “produce” constantly new breaking stories. It needs the media and vice versa. This encompasses certain demerits. Therefore, I sometimes doubt that Wikileaks always remembers its enormous responsibility every time it publishes masses of governmental documents – I simply cannot believe that its staff reads and evaluates every single piece appropriately before pushing it over to the media and the public, respectively. So how does who in Wikileaks actually decide which information goes out? I am not the first who questions the organization’s inner and outer transparency. One should never trust 100% in what a government is announcing – the same applies to its antagonists.

3. There is also the question of the actual political impact – I have already touched the problem above. For instance, though there had been a loud and vital discussion on the war logs, the number of anti-war protests did not really increase. As so often, the “scandal” arose broad attention for a relatively brief moment. The new media, the mass media, governments and the public – all factors influence each other, but the actual outcome of each debate needs to be evaluated and scrutinized anew. However, some rather unwelcomed effects of this one are already tangible: Restrictive governments can misuse the whole issue to justify their strict information policies, less restrictive ones will revise their information security policies.

To make one thing clear: Being critical towards Wikileaks here does not mean that I am fully supporting the different official governments’ stands in this debate; I would define my position as a neutral, extremely sceptical one. What I wanted to point out is: It is important that such events are accompanied  by sober, balanced discussions which consider all positive and negative factors; and that it is not enough to throw out a stack of controversial documents and then see what happens.

Back at Uni – Some Differences between Germany and the UK

It has been a while since I have posted my last article – due to the fact that I have an awful lot to do: Seminars, coursework, and two jobs. After a few weeks of leisure, time became once more an extremely valuable commodity. Two months have passed since I am back at my alma mater in Münster, the Westfälische Wilhelms-University. Though I had been gone for only a little more than a year, it felt a bit strange to sit in a German class after my time in England. I immediately realised many difference, which can be identified on various levels: Assignments, Deadlines, the relationship between tutors and students, the mentality -or to put it differently- the “spirit” of my fellow students, library, teaching – almost every aspect in everyday life at uni varies in comparison to the UK. As I had the opportunity to study in both systems, I would like to digest briefly the most striking characteristics and variations in both the British and German higher educational system. However, I want to emphasize that these experiences are purely subjective and base exclusively on what I have seen in Coventry and Münster. Moreover, not only readers from overseas might be unfamiliar with my German”Magister”-degree. Since it has been scrapped a couple of years ago, only very few students who started to study in 2005/2006 are  studying this dwindling degree. Hence, many younger German students, who started with the  international BA/MA-program might do not know anything about it, too. So to say, I compare not only two different national education systems but also generations of academic degrees.

Thus, here a brief explanation of the “Magister-degree”: It has been the traditional degree for students in the humanities and social sciences at most German universities until 2006/2007 (experts for the so-called “Bologna-process” are welcome to correct me, if I am wrong). Depending on where you have applied for it, you choose to study two or three subjects – of which one is the major one. Normally, it takes four and a half years to finish the “course”. However, most students need a bit longer than that, due to side jobs, internships, semesters abroad etc. During your studies, you have to organize almost everything on your own – there are no fixed term schedules or the like. After collecting all the “course-certificates” you need, you apply for the final examinations. They can be divided into two major forms of assessment: 1. The final dissertation, which should have between 80 and 120 pages, i.e.  approximately 30.000 to 45.000 words. You have to write it within the context of your main subject. 2. Additionally, there are three final oral examinations: one in the main subject (45 minutes), and  two in each of the minor subjects (30 minutes). There is no BA in between; you finish with a “postgraduate” degree directly. Hence, the Magister and the Master can be regarded as equivalent degrees. I am quite lucky to have both by the end of next year, as I am very close to finish my “Magister-program” – this winter term I will receive the last certificates, and in June I will hand in my final dissertation in communication science. My two minor subjects are English and History.

So there are a lot of differences rooted in the basic structure of both degree-programs:

1. The composition of the term schedule: Before the semester started, I had to choose  all the courses I wanted to do from a very broad range of seminars. This has certain advantages: You can visit courses on partly very special issues and write essays on topics of your personal interest. Moreover, it allows you to create a schedule which fits your individual capacities. However, the last point can become quickly a handicap, too: Some courses you really need to do might overlap – so you have to choose and skip one for the next term; or you get lazy and postpone one or two courses to the next semester. In both cases you might overstep the recommended time frame for finishing your degree. This does not mean that you get in any way “punished” by the university’s administration – actually, the uni does not really care how long you need to finish your studies. But it is not  really supportive for your future career if it took you too long, especially without any reasonable explanation. It can pretty much diminish your chances on the job market. Besides, it is quite expansive, too, since you have to pay fees each semester. In the UK, the fixed structure prevents in most cases that a student needs longer than the estimated amount of time for his/her studies – along with the enormous costs. Nevertheless, this implies a certain inflexibility, which also delimits the chances to create an individualized academic development. Today, almost all German universities applied a similar system (as I said, I am one of the very last Magister students).

2. Focus vs. Plurality: In my British master-course I studied one subject only – Communication, Culture and Media (an interdisciplinary one, though). Therefore, I had enough space to focus completely on that specific branch of science. At least theoretically, this ensures that each student becomes a true expert of his/her field of study. However, it can also become quite boring and put certain limits to an individual’s horizon. In Germany, I study three subjects: Communication sciences, English, and history. I could have chosen quite different disciplines as well, such as sociology, psychology, political sciences, any  language, cultural studies etc. etc. Each Magister-student could create a very specialized combination of academic expertise by choosing from the whole range of subjects in the humanities. This allowed students to go their very own way through university and to get a pluralistic yet specialized stock of knowledge. For instance, take a look on some of my current seminars:

– “English in Asia” (Varieties of English, forms of language usage, development and distribution etc.)

– “Foucault: Discourse-Power-History” (Discourse analysis, orientalism etc.)

– “European Communism” (History of Marxism/Communism)

– “Marriage and Gender in the Protestant Reformation” (History of gender in the 16th century)

These courses are very interesting and by choosing topics for essays related to the (contemporary) media in each class, I can draw a connection to my main focus of studies. Simultaneously I profit from  perspectives beyond my major subject of communication sciences. Each semester I attended seminars on quite unique topics. But there are also certain disadvantages: Sometimes you cannot attend all the seminars you’d like to and you have to deal with issues completely detached from you personal field of attention. Again, my current curriculum is a good example: Due to schedule problems/overlapping courses, I have to do classes on ancient Greece – just to get the certificates. Don’t get me wrong – the content is very interesting. But still, nothing I learn there has anything to do with my future career. Hence, there is a certain risk to “waste” time on stuff you will never get in touch with again. Moreover, students who are not able to organize their studies themselves effectively could get lost – some never “found” their focus.

There are far more differences and varieties, of which I will write about in another post. And of course, soon there will be articles on media related issues as well – after I have done some of my assignments.