Breaking the Silence on Secrecy

16 May 2018

Secrecy is an essential component of diplomacy. “As long as states continue to speak the language of interests for their people, of sovereignty, secrecy will remain an essential complement of their relations,” claims Professor Thierry Balzacq. The question then is how much secrecy?

Balzacq, a visiting fellow at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, recently published a co-authored article in the journal_ West European Politics_ on ‘the economy of secrecy’. Together with co-author Benjamin Puybareau, Balzacq sought to understand the broader spectrum of the role of secrecy in the contemporary world. To do so, they looked at why states have tended to react differently to different breaches of secrecy. Balzacq spotlighted three salient cases: Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and the extraordinary renditions – government sponsored abductions – of the US. As a group, Europe and the US were mostly united in opposition to the Wikileaks revelation of state secrets. However, the leaks of Edward Snowden polarised states in their reactions by revealing the extent of US surveillance programs, causing some countries to feel played. “What used to be a very strong group actually fragmented,” Balzacq says.

Not least, he finds that public opinion also determines how states react to secrecy breaches. If the Snowdon case hadn’t received so much public exposure would Germany and France have been so critical? Balzacq thinks maybe not – and that power imbalances have a lot to do with it.

In mapping out how secrecy works within diplomacy, Balzacq also pushes back against what he describes as normative arguments that secrecy is always bad. It’s arguments like those, he notes, that have stifled the study of secrecy within diplomacy. As he puts it, “public opinion should not be fighting for some kind of full transparency.” It’s a degree of openness that could ultimately be bad for states. That’s because states – like people – need privacy too. They need it in order to protect their interests, to protect themselves – with checks and balances to temper any overreach. It’s a hard argument to make when secrecy is seen as so taboo. But secrecy, to Balzacq, can be seen as so much more: as a field of power, as performance, or as a normative ground. More than enough reason to reconsider its role in modern diplomacy.

Read the full journal article - The economy of secrecy: security, information control, and EU‒US relations

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