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In December 1917 British imperial troops occupied Jerusalem,
ending four centuries of Ottoman rule. Earlier that year, the British
Empire also took control of Baghdad, and was advancing
across the middle east
. In Asia and the West, the British
government spread the message that they were bringing a new age of
national freedom to the Arabs. Unfortunately for Whitehall, however, the
newly installed Bolsheviks in Russia had their own message to tell the
world. A couple of weeks before General Allenby, the chief of British
forces in Palestine, made his official entrance on foot through the
Jaffa Gate of the old city of Jerusalem, the Bolsheviks published the
secret agreements that they had just discovered in the Russian archives.

This was the first major leak of international diplomatic documents,
the scale of which has never been surpassed. If Julian Assange and his
associates had access to the inner sanctum of the White House and the
Pentagon, they might get close to documentation that was of similar
significance. Pride of place amongst the material published by the
Russians was a plan by the British and French governments in 1916 to
carve up the middle east between themselves after the war. The Sykes-Picot
, as it was known, divided west Asia into British and
French spheres of influence. Thrust into the public domain, this
document showed without any doubt that the British had been up to their
old imperialist tricks. Their championing of Arab nationalism appeared
to have been nothing but Machiavellian posturing.

contemporary equivalent would be a leaked document proving that Britain
and the US conspired to invent the threat of Iraqi WMD. The
tittle-tattle of US diplomats revealed by Assange & co. is small fry
in comparison. Nonetheless, the WikiLeaks files are damaging to the
Obama administration because they confirm that the old world of
political intrigue behind closed doors is alive and well. This will
inevitably hamper Obama’s effort to portray his administration as
heralding a new chapter in international politics. But the real harm to
the power of the United States in the world comes not from the leaking
of problematic documents; it lies instead in the disconnect between its
rhetoric and the reality of its political actions in the world.

long-term impact of the publication of the Sykes-Picot Agreement on the
British Empire is instructive. There is no doubt that the unveiling of
secret imperialist ambitions in the middle east posed a serious
challenge to Britain. Unsurprisingly, Britain’s enemy in the middle
east, the Ottoman Turks, made as much of the leaked agreement as they
could. The loyalty of Britain’s principal Arab ally, Sherif Hussein of
Mecca—the leader of TE Lawrence’s Arab
— was thrown into doubt. It was feared in Whitehall that the
whole edifice of the Anglo-Arab alliance could collapse as a result. As
well, the Agreement flew in the face of the principles of the powerful
US president, Woodrow Wilson, who had been arguing that secret diplomacy
and imperialism were the root cause of the War. According to Wilson,
national self-determination had to be the order of the day.

British response to all this was not to change its policy in the middle
east— though that had been extremely vague anyway. Instead, the British
accelerated in the same direction in which they were already heading.
Their aim was to dominate the middle east whilst portraying themselves
as the principal champion of nationality. The government hoped to
combine a modern-looking commitment to nation-building with the old
imperial aim of political domination.

In the long-run, this
project undoubtedly failed; but this wasn’t because of the publication
of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. That agreement continues to this day to be
a powerful symbol of British, and indeed Western, perfidy in the
collective memory of west Asia. But it would have been long forgotten if
it were not for Britain’s actions in the region over the following
three decades and their violent legacies. The image of Britain as the
champion of Arab freedom was demolished by the meteoric rise
of Zionism
under British auspices in Palestine in the 1920s and
1930s, support for anti-democratic elites across the middle east, and,
above all, the determined effort to direct the politics of the region.

Similar to the British in 1917, the United States government talks
of a new international politics, of a commitment to openness, freedom,
and the greater good. But at the same time, realpolitik and
old-fashioned assessments of the national interest continue to rule the
roost in Washington. This national interest may (eventually) have
positive outcomes that fit with the rhetoric, such as serious peace
negotiations in Israel/Palestine. But it will also lead to the backing
of authoritarian and corrupt regimes when it is thought to be expedient,
and an ongoing effort to shape the political landscape wherever it has
the will and the way.

The leaks are doing a good job of chipping
away at the thin veneer of the Obama administration’s public image. But
they only reveal what is already plain to see in the actions of the
United States in the middle east and elsewhere. The real threat to US
power in the long-term is not the freedom of Julian Assange; it is the
stubborn attempt to conduct foreign policy as if we still lived in the
19th century world of imperialism and great power politics. As the
British started to discover ninety years ago, those days are over.

This article has been republished from openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence. James Renton is Senior Lecturer in History at
Hill University and the author of The
Zionist Masquerade: The Birth of the Anglo-Zionist Alliance, 1914-1918