As the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts continue its slow segue back from vacation, let’s focus on a relatively easy topic: the alleged hand-in-glove relationship between the U.S. State Department, the International Studies Association [ISA] and American academics.
Let me explain: Earlier this month WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gave an interview to Germany’s Der Spiegel in which he lamented over the failure of academics to exploit WikiLeaks’ release of U.S. diplomatic cables to the fullest:
[W]here were the young professors stepping forward trying to make sense of it all? Where is the new Michel Foucault who tries to explain how modern power is exercised? Absurdly, Noam Chomsky was making some of the best comments and he is now 86….
I worry most about academia and the particular part of academia that is dealing with international relations. WikiLeaks has published over 2 million diplomatic cables. It is the single largest repository for international relations of primary source materials, all searchable. It is the cannon for international relations. It is the biggest dog in the room. There has been some research published in Spanish and in Asian languages. But where are the American and English journals? There is a concrete explanation: They act as feeder schools for the US State Department. The US association that controls the big five international relations journals, the ISA, has a quiet, official policy of not accepting any paper that is derived from WikiLeaks’ materials.
Now this last allegation is a blatant falsehood. The executive director of the International Studies Association flatly denied Assange’s claims, as Ben Norton reported on his blog, Furthermore, Norton discovered at least a few articles in ISA journals that have cited the WikiLeaks cables.
But he didn’t discover a lot of articles. Which leads Norton to wonder:
In short, there may not be an explicit rule against the citation of WikiLeaks cables in ISA-run journals, but, although slightly incorrect in his insistence that the ISA “officially” bans the use of WikiLeaks records, Assange does has a point: It is indeed striking how few articles in these major US academic journals have cited any of the over two million diplomatic cables in “the single largest repository for international relations of primary source materials, all searchable.”
Is this evidence that the ISA unofficially censors some scholarly articles that rely on documents released by WikiLeaks, even if it sometimes lets a few get by? This is hard to say; there is not enough evidence to know.
No there isn’t, but hey, let’s just throw that baseless allegation out there and see if it sticks.
As a dues-paying member of the International Studies Association, as well as a professor at a school that really is something of a feeder for the U.S. government, here’s my reaction to the suggestions of Norton and Assange:
First of all, as a frequent attendee of ISA meetings and conferences, the notion of that organization cozying up to the United States government is pretty funny. Compared to, say, the American Political Science Association, ISA has a more global membership and is far more sympathetic to constructivist, postmodernist and critical scholarship. As an association, the ISA’s collective membership is more critical of American foreign policy than APSA.
Second, a quick scan of Google Scholar keywords suggests that it’s not just ISA journals that are not exploiting WikiLeaks’ diplomatic archive. Pretty much the entire global academy that is not citing WikiLeaks all that much. Even when they are, the citation count suggests that not many people are reading such articles.
There are two possible conclusions one could draw from this. One possibility is that the structural forces opposing WikiLeaks are so powerful that a constructivist Norwegian scholar who wants to write a piece exposing U.S. perfidy in the Middle East for Third World Quarterly chooses not to do so because of a fear of being blackballed. I suspect that is the inference that Assange and Norton want us to draw.
There is another possibility, however: the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables are not nearly as significant as Assange believes. As I noted when the diplomatic cables were first released:
Assange [and Manning] seem to think that these documents will expose American perfidy. Based on the initial round of reactions, they’re in for a world of disappointment. Oh, sure, there are small lies and lies of omission — Bob Gates probably didn’t mention to Dmitri Medvedev or Vladimir Putin that “Russian democracy has disappeared.” Still, I’m not entirely sure how either world politics or American interests would be improved if Gates had been that blunt in Moscow.
If this kind of official hypocrisy is really the good stuff, then there is no really good stuff. U.S. officials don’t always perfectly advocate for human rights? Not even the most naive human rights activist would believe otherwise. American diplomats are advancing U.S. commercial interests? American officials have been doing that since the beginning of the Republic. American diplomats help out their friends? Yeah, that’s called being human. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but it strikes me that these leaks show other governments engaged in far more hypocritical behavior.
Indeed, the effect of WikiLeaks’ cables on American foreign policy was pretty mild — in contrast to, say, Edward Snowden’s revelations. It was so mild that I once had a Fletcher student ask me if Julian Assange was actually a CIA agent designed to bolster America’s image in the world, because it turned out that what U.S. diplomats said privately closely matched what they said publicly.
There’s only one thing that terrifies Assange and his supporters more than the prospect of an American power structure trying to suppress and censor them at every turn: it’s that there actually is no Big Lie:
I’m all in favor of scholars mining the hell out of the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables. But just because something has been written down in a cable doesn’t mean it’s important.
Sometimes a bunch of diplomatic cables are just a bunch of diplomatic cables.