Looking forward to: Stealing Secrets? Intelligence Theory and the Open Society

Jan 9, 2024 | Associate Fellows, Looking Forward to...., Research Development Projects, Transformations (Issue 11)

Looking forward to: Stealing Secrets? Intelligence Theory and the Open Society (Development Project, Epiphany 2024)

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Professor Robert Schuett (Vienna School of International Studies) and Professor John Williams (IAS Associate Fellow, School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University)

Intelligence gathering is an ever-present fixture of political life, and one which poses serious challenges to the values and principles of an open society because of the necessity for secrecy and the ways that intelligence operations often strain – or break – the limits of national and international rule of law.

These challenges manifest in many ways, and the twenty-first century has seen open societies take markedly different approaches to how to contain the tensions between stealing secrets and other intelligence activities and principles such as the rule of law and democratic accountability. At the start of this century, letting intelligence agencies ‘off the leash’ in a Global War on Terror saw some of those agencies engaged in torture, rendition, targeted killing, and mass surveillance programmes often profoundly at odds with open society values and principles, justified via ‘necessity’ and national security in the context of trans-national terrorism. Shrouded in secrecy and kept beyond the reach of judicial and political scrutiny, whistleblowing and leaking provided crucial mechanisms for obtaining access to these worlds.

More recently, in contrast, intelligence agencies have publicly shared unprecedented amounts of information about the situation in the run up to and since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. That has been strongly connected to supporting Ukraine as an increasingly open society, and connected to political priorities for an international order Western states see as profoundly threatened by Russian aggression and other authoritarian states’ actions and plans.

Given the enduring nature of intelligence as a crucial function for diplomatic, security, and military purposes at home and abroad, we might expect an extensive discussion of how to theorise intelligence. There are rich histories of intelligence agencies and activities, extensive discussion of policy and panning priorities to get the most out of intelligence, and numerous ‘lessons learnt’ dissections of intelligence failures. How technology is transforming intelligence gathering and analysis is also widely addressed.

Yet there is very little intelligence theory and within that there is almost no work on the place of intelligence in an international society importantly shaped by open society principles and built through the leadership of states committed to democratic values in the eighty years since World War Two. Liberal democratic open societies are central to this ‘Liberal International Order’, often portrayed as in ‘crisis’. Those states are prioritising intelligence agencies and capabilities to protect that order, making the need for sustained theorising of the place of intelligence in an open, liberal international order imperative. As well as protecting liberal states, supporting their diplomatic missions, and informing defence and security planning, intelligence is also central to preserving a specific form of international order. This highlights how it is not just state priorities that matter in intelligence – the raison d’état of power politics – but also raison de systéme – what British diplomat and International Relations theorist Adam Watson described as ensuring that it ‘pays to make the system work’.

This Research Development Project centres around a workshop (07 and 08 February 2024) that brings together major UK intelligence studies scholars. It is led by Robert Schuett, who combines decades of working experience in the intelligence arena with academic expertise in central theorists of the open society tradition such as Hans Kelsen, and John Williams, a theorist of international order.

Looking specifically at the long-established and highly prized ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence cooperation amongst the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the workshop will explore how to understand intelligence in the context of cooperation to protect and promote a liberal, international order. Asking questions of the raison d’état theoretical assumptions and resultant policy priorities, the workshop will look at how theorising intelligence as contributing to raison de systéme, alongside diplomacy and other well-theorised functions, changes both an understanding of the nature of intelligence, its relationship to open societies, and its importance to the Liberal International Order.

The workshop will help develop academic writing on this topic and lay the foundations for a network of International Relations scholars, historians, policy experts, and political scientists to develop further activity including funding for a long-term project aimed at both generating novel theorisations of intelligence and a better public understanding of how intelligence functions to make an open international society work for as many of its members as possible.


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