Roundtable 11-18 on Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics47 min read

Why do states choose to intervene covertly in a conflict, when more overt efforts are likely to be more successful?  Even more puzzling, why do states sometimes treat covert interventions as ‘open secrets,’ where states—even enemies—decide not to recognize the intervention, even when it is common knowledge?  These are the critical questions Austin Carson poses in his outstanding book, Secret Wars.  The answer, he argues, lies in fears of escalation.  On the one hand, by intervening covertly, a state hopes to reduce the risk of escalation by keeping the intervention out of sight from hawkish publics, actors at home that might push for increased offensive action, even at the risk of catastrophic war. On the other hand, a covert intervention can be read as a sign by other states that the action will remain limited and, by keeping the intervention covert, ensure that more hawkish actors abroad will demand an escalatory response.  Indeed, at times, major powers—even entrenched enemies like the United States and Soviet Union—will collude in order to keep the intervention a secret, and reduce the risk of war.

H-Diplo | ISSF Roundtable XI-18

Austin Carson.  Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.  ISBN:  9780691181769 (hardcover, $35.00/ £30.00); 9780691204123 (paperback, $24.95/£22.00).

19 June 2020 |
Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor and Chair: Stacie Goddard, Wellesley University
Production Editor: George Fujii


Introduction by Stacie Goddard, Wellesley University

Why do states choose to intervene covertly in a conflict, when more overt efforts are likely to be more successful?  Even more puzzling, why do states sometimes treat covert interventions as ‘open secrets,’ where states—even enemies—decide not to recognize the intervention, even when it is common knowledge?  These are the critical questions Austin Carson poses in his outstanding book, Secret Wars.  The answer, he argues, lies in fears of escalation.  On the one hand, by intervening covertly, a state hopes to reduce the risk of escalation by keeping the intervention out of sight from hawkish publics, actors at home that might push for increased offensive action, even at the risk of catastrophic war. On the other hand, a covert intervention can be read as a sign by other states that the action will remain limited and, by keeping the intervention covert, ensure that more hawkish actors abroad will demand an escalatory response.  Indeed, at times, major powers—even entrenched enemies like the United States and Soviet Union—will collude in order to keep the intervention a secret, and reduce the risk of war.

Each of the reviewers in this roundtable applauds Carson’s book, agreeing that it is, in Jessica Weeks’s language, an “impressive and fascinating book that will change how scholars think about covert intervention.” In building his argument, Carson synthesizes theory ranging from domestic-level coalition arguments to the sociological symbolic interactionism.  In its case studies the book is, as John Schuessler writes, “empirically rich, sensitive to historical context” and deploys copious archival evidence to demonstrate its claims.  According to Dan Reiter, this combination of theoretical innovation and empirical rigor allows Carson to provide “something all too rare in the study of war: genuinely surprising insights.”

The reviewers focus on the questions and puzzles that the book does not answer.  Weeks, for example, argues that Carson’s work generates questions about the role of covert intervention in democracies.  As she notes, covert intervention in democracies is especially dangerous for leaders, because if “news of the covert intervention reaches the public, voters could feel that the leader subverted checks and balances, even if they ultimately might support the intervention.” For this reason, democratic leaders are likely to be wary of intervention, weighing “whether the risk of escalation is more politically damaging than the risk of seeming weak on national security, or the risk of being exposed as subverting democratic norms.” Likewise, Schuessler notes, there is a tension in Carson’s theory: while escalation “has to be so costly and risky that all major powers prefer to avoid it” at the same time it has to be enough of a risk that states are willing to keep the war a secret.” He pushes Carson to consider the role of moderate interests in driving covert interventions, noting that that there are “these are conflicts that major powers can afford to lose, which is why they wage them in secret rather than out in the open.”

Finally, Reiter’s overall positive assessment of Carson’s book raises two critical questions.  The first is what counts as a “covert” intervention.  As Reiter notes, this is not as easy to determine as one would think.  Carson takes as a given that that relevant actors understand a certain action as covert; this is what prevents escalation, after all.  But these “covert” actions are not objectively covert; rather, actors utilize certain conventions, such as using “volunteers” rather than official soldiers, to signal that the intervention should be understood as covert.  Why these conventions exist is left unexplored.  Moreover, Carson’s book raises the question of why “the fig leaf of public denial so important?  Public denial often comes along with what might be called a diplomatic ‘wink;’ everyone knows what it going on, but the perpetrator still won’t admit it.” All of this suggests that a complex background story, involving the social and psychological context of signaling, is an unexamined question at the heart of Carson’s work.

Of course, the really good books are the ones that raise puzzles that lead to new research programs, and overall, the reviewers concur that that this is an outstanding book, one likely to produce a vibrant research program in the years to come.


Austin Carson is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago.  His research addresses the role of secrecy and intelligence in International Relations theory, international conflict, and global governance.  He is the author of Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics (Princeton University Press, 2018) and Secrets in Global Governance: Disclosure Dilemmas and the Challenge of International Cooperation (Cambridge University Press, 2020), with Allison Carnegie.  His research has been featured in International Organization, American Journal of Political Science, Security Studies, and other outlets.

Stacie Goddard is professor of political science and director of the Madeleine K. Albright Institute at Wellesley College.  Her most recent book, When Right Makes Might: Rising Powers and World Order was published by Cornell Studies in Security Affairs in 2018.  Her articles have appeared in International Organization, International Security, International Studies Quarterly, International Theory, and Security Studies and her first book, Indivisible Territory and the Politics of Legitimacy: Jerusalem and Northern Ireland, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2010. Other writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

Dan Reiter is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Political Science at Emory University.  He is the award-winning author or coauthor of Crucible of Beliefs: Learning, Alliance, and World Wars (Cornell, 1996), Democracies at War (Princeton, 2002), and How Wars End (Princeton 2009), and the editor of The Sword’s Other Edge: Tradeoffs in the Pursuit of Military Effectiveness (Cambridge, 2017).

John M. Schuessler is Associate Professor in the Department of International Affairs and Academic Director of the Albritton Center for Grand Strategy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University.  Previously, he taught at the Air War College.  Schuessler received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago.  He is the author of Deceit on the Road to War: Presidents, Politics, and American Democracy (Cornell University Press, 2015).

Jessica Weeks is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her research has appeared in journals including the American Political Science ReviewAmerican Journal of Political ScienceJournal of PoliticsInternational Organization, and World Politics.  Her book, Dictators at War and Peace, explores the domestic politics of international conflict in dictatorships.  Weeks was the 2018 recipient of the International Studies Association Karl Deutsch Award, recognizing the most significant contribution to the study of International Relations for a scholar under 40.  She has served on journal editorial boards including International OrganizationAmerican Journal of Political Science, British Journal of Political Science, and Foreign Policy Analysis.



Review by Dan Reiter, Emory University

Austin Carson’s Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics provides something that is all too rare in the study of war: genuinely surprising insights.  He draws out from the shadows the practice of secret intervention during war, develops an insightful conceptual framework for understanding it, and provides insightful and novel case studies.  Though there is past and ongoing work on secrecy in foreign policy, especially covert action circumventing public constraints on democratic foreign policy[1] and covert foreign imposed regime change including electoral interference,[2] Secret Wars is the first study of covert intervention in shooting wars. Such secret intervention in wars happens much more frequently than many assume, ranging from Norway’s secret dispatch of a token military force to the Vietnam War to the much more substantial Soviet military aid to China in its war with Japan in the 1930s.[3] Perhaps needless to say, in an era of “little green men” sent from Russia to fight in Ukraine and an array of secret American counterinsurgency actions around the world, it is a scholarly area of very high policy relevance.

In this short essay, I will make four points about the book, each in the spirit of building on the book’s highly promising foundations.  First, and perhaps obviously, data collection on secret military operations is often difficult.  A state which desires secrecy at the time of intervention often wishes for secrecy to endure after the mission, and accordingly conceals or destroys the historical record.  Further, there may be systematic patterns to the patchiness of evidence, as the available evidence may be thinner for newer and smaller interventions, as well as those launched by authoritarian governments.  Hence, we need to recognize the sometimes patchy nature of the historical record, as the book admirably does in its cases. This is apparent in one of the book’s more fascinating episodes, Soviet intervention in the Vietnam War.  Even a half century later, we lack an official account of Soviet actions, and lack basic information such as reliable estimates of the numbers of Soviet troops involved and fatalities.  We also lack a firm sense of important questions such as what was the balance between more indirect Soviet participation, such as training North Vietnamese troops to operate Soviet-provided surface to air missiles, and more direct participation, such as Soviet troops actually operating missile batteries and flying combat missions. The sketchiness of the record is not a reason to neglect this area, but it does mean sometimes being modest about what we can and cannot infer from the available evidence.  It also means being aware of systematic bias in gaps in the empirical record which may jeopardize inferences from the available data.  One quantitative study, for example, found that we may be underestimating the degree to which democracy reduces terrorism, because authoritarian states are more effective at keeping secret terrorist attacks that occur on their soil.[4]

Second, future work in this area should incorporate a discussion of the combat mission of the intervention.  One of the central questions of the book is what causes states to choose overt versus covert intervention.  However, that choice is driven not only by concerns about escalation control, the central thesis of the book, but also about the combat needs of the mission.  For intervention to remain covert, it needs to be at least somewhat limited in scope; the more troops a third party dispatches to a conflict, the lower the likelihood that this involvement can be kept secret. Accordingly, sometimes intervention can fit a third party’s combat mission needs, and thereby remain covert, if the ally is doing reasonably well in the war, and the third party does not view massive intervention as necessary to prevent the ally from being defeated. The Soviet Union was able to keep its intervention limited and covert in the Vietnam War because North Vietnam was holding its own in a largely guerrilla campaign.  And, sometimes the intervener does not have very strong preferences over who wins, and so can accept more limited intervention, such as the German, Italian, and Soviet interventions in the Spanish Civil War.

Conversely, consider Chinese intervention in the Korean War.  In October 1950, North Korea itself had been conquered by UN forces, and U.S. forces at the North Korea-China border directly threatened China.  Covert Chinese action in the Korean War would have had to have been smaller in scale, but smaller intervention was not going to accomplish the key Chinese goals of liberating North Korea and entirely sweeping U.S. forces off the Korean peninsula.  The only option was massive intervention, even though such intervention had to be overt and risked escalation to direct U.S. attacks on Chinese territory.  There are similar dynamics to U.S, intervention in the Vietnam War; U.S. ground intervention to help South Vietnam had to be massive in order to have a chance at defeating Viet Cong and North Vietnamese ground forces, and could not have been covert.

Third, choosing “between” covert and overt intervention needs to be a multi-dimensional scale, and not categorical.  States are making grayscale choices, not either covert or overt ones.  The book certainly recognizes this and codes cases accordingly.  However, these kinds of choices can be even more grayscale and multidimensional than the book allows.

For example, consider the issue of calling an intervention force ‘volunteers,’ which is one way of maintaining plausible deniability, and overlaps with covertness.  On one end of the scale is massive, overt intervention with regular army troops that are labelled ‘volunteers,’ such as Chinese intervention in the Korean War, as the book discusses.  In the middle is a moderate-sized intervention in which the government sponsors the intervention but makes genuine efforts to keep it secret.  A good example is Germany in the Spanish Civil War, another case from the book.  Next down the scale is a government allowing volunteers to join another country’s military, such as Spain’s Blue Division fighting on the Eastern Front in World War II, but with less overt government support.  Then there are cases where individuals volunteered for another army without government sanction, like Americans volunteering in the World Wars before official U.S. entry, or the Lincoln Battalion serving in the Spanish Civil War.  These grayscale issues aside, sometimes there is overt and covert intervention at the same time in the same war.  For example, in the Vietnam War, there was massive U.S. overt intervention as well as significant covert actions, including the secret bombing campaigns of Cambodia and Laos.

Fourth, the book gets at deep behavioral issues, perhaps even deeper than the book allows.  A key behavioral question is: Why is the fig leaf of public denial so important?  Public denial often comes along with what might be called a diplomatic ‘wink;’ everyone knows what it going on, but the perpetrator still won’t admit it. The book develops a nice argument about how in the context of intervention in wars such public denial can provide (sometimes mutual) benefits of escalation control, but this dynamic is nested within more general patterns of human social behavior.  Why does it matter for everyone to pretend something doesn’t exist, when it is common knowledge? On a personal level, why are social interactions sometimes eased when individuals tacitly agree to ignore the “elephant in the room”?  Building on this book, next steps would be to expand the behavioral microfoundations of the social, psychological, and interpersonal implications of public silence about common knowledge, and then from there to build a theory which incorporates these behavioral insights with political incentives and dynamics. Such a theory would help us understand a broad range of domestic and international political phenomena, such as the ability of a leader’s political supporters to look past her personal scandals, as long as she continues to deny their existence.

Secret Wars is an important book, and I look forward to the fecund research agenda that will grow from it in the years to come.


Review by John M. Schuessler, Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University

Austin Carson’s Secret Wars is a true original.  Readers will find that it is theoretically innovative, rigorous in research design, empirically rich, sensitive to historical context, and chock full of insights with broad applicability to international politics and beyond.  The book is a considerable achievement.  More importantly, it is interesting!  In the opening pages, the reader is introduced to the “conspiracy of silence” (2) surrounding Soviet involvement in the air war over Korea.  Remarkably, the Soviet Union covertly deployed an estimated 40,000-70,000 personnel in air combat and anti-aircraft roles during the Korean War who took part in every major air battle from late 1950 until spring 1953.  Soviet records report that 1,097 enemy aircraft were downed by Soviet crews.  Soviet involvement in the air war was quickly detected by American intelligence, and yet a deliberate choice was made to keep knowledge of the intervention under wraps—in effect to collude with the Soviets.[5]

Collusion between adversaries is the very definition of puzzling behavior and cries out for an explanation.  Carson provides a compelling one in Secret Wars.  In brief, he emphasizes escalation control.  Namely, the desire to keep war limited can motivate states to intervene covertly up front, to collude after detecting covert intervention by others, and to persist in non-acknowledgment of a covert intervention that has been widely exposed.  Extended case studies of the Spanish Civil War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Afghanistan War bear these claims out, with each war containing multiple interventions and thus multiple opportunities for covertness and collusion.  Carson’s escalation-control logic performs strongly in the case studies, getting 12 of 16 interventions right in terms of both outcome and process (285).  At the same time, Carson is admirably forthright when the evidence for his claims is mixed or weak.

In the rest of this review, I focus on two areas of particular interest: the contribution that the book makes to the secrecy and deception literature and the book’s treatment of escalation.  I conclude with a brief word on the importance of open secrets.

Secrecy and Deception: Implications for Democracy and War?

As Carson notes, the study of secrecy and deception is at last getting its due in International Relations (IR) (7).  Carson pushes the literature forward by developing a distinct logic for secrecy, one focused on escalation control.  He pits this logic against what he considers the two prevailing understandings of secrecy in the literature.  The first, the operational security logic, treats secrecy as yet one more means that states use to compete against one another in anarchy.  If secrecy yields an operational advantage in wartime or peacetime, states will use it.  The second, the domestic dove logic, treats secrecy as a means that democratic leaders use to get around the domestic political constraints posed by dovish domestic audiences.  If leaders are more hawkish than their publics, secrecy enables them to act without incurring domestic political punishment.[6]  Both prevailing logics have difficulty explaining collusion, argues Carson.

Having focused on the way that leaders get around dovish constraints in my own work, I think that it is to Carson’s credit that he highlights the opposite phenomenon: leaders using secrecy and deception to get around hawkish constraints.[7]  As he correctly points out, distinct lines of research on nationalism, audience costs, and rally effects all emphasize the domestic political constraints that dovish leaders face when confronted with strong hawkish sentiment at home (50-51).  In the case at hand, the specific threat is to escalation control in contexts where limited war is in the national interest.  Importantly, domestic hawks can pose a threat to escalation control in both democratic and non-democratic settings, meaning that the incentive to intervene covertly and collude with other covert interveners transcends regime type.

What Carson does not address is the composite picture of democratic politics that is left when the domestic dove logic is placed side-by-side with his escalation-control logic.  If secrecy and deception can serve two purposes, to mobilize a reluctant public for war in peacetime and sideline a belligerent public in wartime, where does that leave us in terms of our larger understanding of democracy and war?  After all, the domestic dove logic does not come from an idiosyncratic place theoretically.  One of the foundational assumptions of the liberal tradition is that leaders tend to be more hawkish than their publics and are thus constrained by democratic institutions that give publics more of a say in when the state goes to war.[8]  Carson qualifies this claim, arguing that in the limited war scenarios he examines, hawks—and not doves—are the more pressing political challenge (52).  What, then, is the composite picture of democratic politics that we are left with?  Perhaps classical realists such as George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau were on to something when they characterized the public as too dovish in peacetime and too hawkish in wartime.[9]  This would make sense of why secrecy and deception are used to solve one political problem in peacetime and its opposite in wartime.

Escalation: Counterproductive and Yet Difficult to Control?

Carson’s limited-war theory of secrecy is constructed with great care, but there is a tension at the heart of it.  Namely, for the theory to work, large-scale escalation has to be both “universally counterproductive and difficult to control” (44, emphasis in original).[10]  In other words, large-scale escalation has to be so costly and risky that all major powers prefer to avoid it, but at the same time a real enough possibility that major powers prioritize escalation control when intervening.  How can this be?  To square the circle, Carson emphasizes two threats to escalation control: domestic hawks (discussed above) and miscommunication among adversaries, specifically over the willingness to fight a limited war.  Neither threat, I would argue, fully resolves the tension at the heart of the theory.  Simply put, would domestic hawks enjoy the political cachet that they do, and would communication among adversaries be as difficult as it is, if large-scale escalation was as universally counterproductive as the theory suggests?

The moderate interests at stake in proxy conflicts seem to be doing important, but unacknowledged, work in the theory. When the stakes are high enough to justify direct conflict between major powers, what is to be done when large-scale escalation cannot be avoided? What if it is the difference between victory and defeat?  At some point, don’t the stakes of a conflict become high enough that there is nothing worse than losing, even large-scale escalation?  If the answer to the latter question is yes, moderate interests suggest why we see secret war dynamics in proxy conflicts like the ones Carson examines: These are conflicts where major powers cared enough about the outcome to intervene, but not so much that victory was imperative.[11]  In other words, these are conflicts that major powers could afford to lose, which is why they waged them in secret rather than out in the open.  Importantly, secret war dynamics would not apply in a future conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan, where the stakes are high.[12]

A Final Note on Open Secrets

One of the most intriguing findings in Secret Wars is that of “open secret” (48) interventions, which remain officially unacknowledged even as they are widely exposed to outside audiences.  Why keep up the pretense of covertness when one’s cover has been blown?  Carson points to the signaling value of non-acknowledgment (60). Refusing to acknowledge the obvious reinforces how committed the intervener is to limited war.  In retrospect, I saw something comparable in my research on deception in the run-up to war, although I did not have the conceptual vocabulary at the time to capture or explain it.  Namely, when presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, and George W. Bush claimed that they did not want war and were being pushed into it against their will, did key domestic audiences believe them?[13]  I have always been uncomfortable with the notion that the answer was an unambiguous yes.  Especially at the elite level, where the information asymmetries between leader and audience are less marked, it seems more accurate to say that there was tacit collusion to maintain the fiction that war was a last resort.[14]  The open secrets concept allows us to make sense of cases like this where leaders cling to plausible deniability in the face of the facts.  It also forces us to ask whether hypocrisy is to be preferred to candor when the latter would mean an open break with norms that are worth preserving.[15]


Review by Jessica Weeks, University of Wisconsin–Madison

In this outstanding book, Austin Carson examines how and why states choose covert military action, and why they sometimes even collude to help other countries conceal their military interventions.  Until now, scholars have focused primarily on when countries keep their own interventions covert, typically arguing that leaders choose secrecy in order to hide unpopular actions from a critical domestic public.[16] According to that conventional wisdom, leaders choose secrecy to sidestep the objections of domestic doves.[17]

Carson argues, however, that leaders may keep even potentially popular interventions covert, in order to reduce the risk of unwanted escalation. Intervening covertly reduces the risk that hawkish publics—both at home and abroad—will pressure their governments to up the military ante, leading a war to spiral out of control.  Moreover, Carson argues, other major powers almost always detect covert intervention, but sometimes collude with the intervener to keep the war secret.  Why would a country help shield a hostile country’s intervention from the public eye?  Again, Carson argues, the answer lies in escalation control: keeping wars contained by limiting the degree of open provocation.

This is an impressive and fascinating book that will change how scholars think about covert intervention.  One particularly important contribution is its highlighting of a previously underappreciated rationale for why states might choose to intervene covertly: the fear that a relatively minor intervention will snowball into a regional or even global war.  Another is to reveal that governments sometimes collude to keep other country’s interventions quiet, for the same reason.  Secret Wars is persuasive in demonstrating that escalation is an important concern for leaders and in showing when and why major power collusion occurs.  It will be, and deserves to be, an influential piece of scholarship.

As someone who thinks a lot about the domestic politics of war, the book did leave me with two sets of questions about the domestic political pressures influencing leaders’ decisions about secrecy.  First, I feel that the book’s depiction of the domestic political calculations that leaders face might have sidestepped some countervailing dynamics that could undermine leaders’ incentives to choose secrecy, particularly in democracies.  Carson’s implicit model is of leaders whose primary concern is their country’s national interest.  Leaders, in his story, weigh decisions about whether to keep conflict covert purely in terms of the consequences for national and international security: whether intervening overtly will lead to dangerous escalation, and whether covering up another country’s intervention will make the world more peaceful.

This depiction of leaders as largely selfless and national-security seeking clashes with a large literature that portrays leaders as caring most deeply about their own political survival and the opportunities for power and enrichment that office provides.[18]

From that perspective, the decision to choose secrecy is more problematic for leaders, particularly in democracies, than Carson suggests.  Leaders who conceal a foreign intervention risk being portrayed as weak on national security.  Carson explicitly limits his scope to interventions in ongoing wars in which major power security interests are at stake, and in fact assumes that in these cases “domestic views tilt toward support for firmness, retaliation, and even outright war” (53). Thus, in Carson’s theory, democratic leaders who intervene covertly rather than overtly must act as though they are staying out of a conflict that the public would actually support.  Issue publics, interest groups, and members of the opposition would surely sound the alarm if it appeared that the leader were asleep at the wheel.  In turn, if the public believes that the leader is remaining passive in the face of major threats, it could perceive the leader as weak or incompetent, a risk few leaders want to run.  Carson’s portrayal seems more realistic when applied to autocracies because the leader does not depend as much on public support, and key supporters within the domestic elite will know what the leader is doing even it remains hidden from the public eye.

In addition, democratic leaders who intervene covertly run the risk that news of the intervention could leak, with damaging domestic political consequences.  Carson argues that foreign major powers almost always learn of covert interventions, and news could leak from internal sources as well.  If news of the covert intervention reaches the public, voters could feel that the leader subverted checks and balances, even if they ultimately might support the intervention.  Thus, democratic leaders need to weigh whether the risk of escalation is more politically damaging than the risk of seeming weak on national security, or the risk of being exposed as subverting democratic norms.  This calculation is not so clear.  (Again, in autocracies, these issues do not seem as problematic).

Perhaps for these reasons, the book discusses few cases of covert intervention on the part of democracies.  When a democracy did intervene covertly (the U.S. in Korea, Laos, and Afghanistan), it tended to be as part of a larger intervention with an overt component allowing the leader to take a hawkish public stance.  In fact, the book’s only case of a significant free-standing covert intervention by a democracy is U.S. intervention in Afghanistan starting in 1980, a time period when the war-weary U.S. public had relatively little appetite for war and therefore was unlikely to pressure the leader into conflict. Given these considerations, both theoretical and empirical, future work should explore the domestic political pressures that could undermine Carson’s escalation-management logic, particularly in democracies.

The second area where I was left with questions about leaders’ calculations in choosing secrecy is in the book’s exploration of why states sometimes prioritize secrecy while at other times opting for public intervention.  Carson argues that the key source of variation is the “severity of escalation risks” (65) posed by a given intervention.  For example, the book argues that leaders are more likely to intervene covertly when they plan an intervention that could involve a great-power clash or when the intervention will widen the geographic scope of the war (65-66).

The challenge is that the factors that Carson identifies as affecting escalation risks are in part a product of the leaders’ own choices, i.e., are endogenous to leaders’ previous decisions.  This raises both theoretical and empirical issues.  On the theoretical side, the reader is left wondering why leaders sometimes plan risky military interventions, and other times do not, given that is what leads to the behavior of interest (the decision to go covert).  In that sense, the theoretical discussion may be sidestepping the true underlying explanation: when do leaders choose the kinds of escalatory foreign policies that make secrecy so attractive?

The fact that leaders choose the level of escalation risk could also pose difficulties for the empirical analysis, especially if the same features that cause a leader to widen a war are also associated with covert action.  For example, earlier I alluded to one feature that could vary across the cases: regime type.  Many scholars consider nondemocratic leaders to be more belligerent because they face fewer domestic political consequences for fighting or losing wars.[19] This lack of domestic political constraint could not only encourage a leader to widen a war, but could also, as I argue above, make it easier to keep an intervention secret. If so, part of the correlation between escalation risk and covert action that we observe could actually be due to the leader’s regime type. Non-democracies might be both more likely to undertake risky actions and choose covert intervention, while democracies might be more averse both to escalation and to secrecy.  In other words, regime type, not escalation risk, would be what ultimately predicts secrecy.  This particular example seems like less of a problem for the within-case analyses, but one should still recognize the difficulty of drawing inferences about whether escalation risk causes covert action given that the leader has agency over both factors.

The challenge of identifying the true causal variable also arises in the analysis of when states decide to collude in helping other major powers keep their intervention secret rather than exposing the country’s actions.  Carson argues that leaders are more likely to choose collusion over exposure when other actors do not expose the information, either.  In other words, in order to know when one country will collude, we need to know whether other countries are colluding. But what factors cause other countries to collude?  While these are the key factors explaining collusion since they are not the focus of the theory or empirical analysis one is left wondering when countries decide to coordinate on that outcome.

These issues, however, should not detract from the conclusion that Secret Wars is, overall, a very impressive and persuasive book.  The idea that leaders intervene secretly, and even collude, in order to avoid wider escalation is in an important one that will influence future scholarship not only about covert intervention, but about domestic and international conflict more broadly. Carson’s insights both illuminate the historical record and open a variety of areas for future research into secrecy in foreign policy.  Future scholarship can and should take up the task of further developing the domestic political dynamics behind managing hawkish public opinion, and understanding the interdependent decisions that lead states to sometimes coordinate on covert action and other times wage war openly. Carson’s book blazes the trail for that fascinating research agenda.


Response by Austin Carson, University of Chicago

I am grateful for the careful attention each reviewer has given my work.  It is an enormous privilege to have the chance to reflect on writing Secret Wars and engage with some of the leading scholars in the field.  I am especially grateful for Stacie Goddard’s efforts in organizing the roundtable and the editorial team at H-Diplo for providing this venue to me and others.  They do an incredibly valuable service to our field.

I had several goals in writing Secret Wars.  One was to encourage the field of International Relations (IR) to devote more dedicated attention to studying secrecy and related processes.  The book reflects my belief that states invest tremendous amounts of energy to strategically managing their image on a daily basis.  Secrecy—used individually and in a tacit or explicitly coordinated way—can shape the optics surrounding individual leaders, national governments, and the situations they confront.  A growing literature on secrecy, deception, covert state behavior, and leaks is moving the field toward a richer and more nuanced understanding of the politics of information manipulation.[20]

In what follows, I respond to and build on the comments in each review.  The generous and thoughtful comments by Daniel Reiter, John Schuessler, and Jessica Weeks identify a number of very promising directions for future research. My response clarifies several aspects of argument in Secret Wars and extends their ideas for future research.

Domestic politics

One of the two forces that can propel leaders to escalate conflict in Secret Wars is domestic politics.  Once war starts, I argue that leaders of all kinds—democrats, autocrats, and those in between—often fear pressure from elite or the mass public to defend their country’s interests and honor with retaliation.  Such a climate can encourage a tit-for-tat escalation cycle that can make a small war much larger.  One part of escalation control, then, is attending to the domestic political environment on both sides.  Two of the reviewers, Schuessler and Weeks, raise important questions about the relationship between domestic politics and war, especially in cases of democracies.

Citing his own work and that of others, Schuessler rightly points out that other research shows that secrecy can often be useful when leaders face a domestic mood opposed to initiating war or in favor of de-escalating its scope.  How, then, do we make sense of the same tactic being used to address both hawkish and dovish domestic constraints surrounding war?  What is, in his language, the “composite picture of democratic politics”?

Schuessler’s observation highlights what we might be call the Swiss army knife principle of secrecy: it is useful for addressing all kinds of political problems.  Leaders may conceal civilian deaths from a drone strike on Monday and conceal the role of a regional power in sponsoring a militia on Tuesday.  The former may be used to avoid criticism from more dovish factions while the latter might hope to reduce hawkish demands for direct retaliation against the regional power.  In this sense, theories of secrecy’s multiple uses in war are not competitive.  Rather, they illuminate the ways democratic leaders in particular are pulled in several directions—and may seize on information management to cope.

I find much to like about Schuessler’s suggestion that the timing of war matters a great deal for whether dovish or hawkish domestic pressure is more severe.  My theory was scoped to address secrecy dynamics once a crisis or conflict was already in motion.  Especially early in war, before geographic and other behavioral limits have been settled, democratic and non-democratic leaders may fear the political damage from acting restrained.  Schuessler’s work and that of others—which focuses on pre-war peacetime domestic constraints—illuminates how secrecy and deception can help nudge the domestic mood toward accepting mobilization, intervention, or war.[21] In the extreme, secrecy can help manufacture or exaggerate incidents that justify starting a war. These claims are consistent rather than mutually exclusive, and our understanding of both secrecy and domestic politics is only richer in pairing them.

Weeks’s review makes two important points about domestic politics.  First, she asks whether my theory realistically captures the incentives leaders have in war, citing leader survival models that highlight their value for personally staying in power over defending the general national interest.[22] Second, she identifies a potential problem in the logic of the theory. Why doesn’t a leader opting for a covert form of intervention invite punishment by hawkish audiences?  Is hard-to-see activity in war an invitation to appearing weak?

Weeks’s first point is well taken.  My theory assumes that leaders seek to avoid large-scale escalation and that domestic voices calling for retaliation or war expansion may care less.  By highlighting a conflict outcome, the theory downplays scenarios in which a leader’s individual hold on power leads her to accept bad outcomes for their country.  There is clearly more complexity to leader incentives than my theory admits.

However, my guess is that it is very often the case that political survival and plunging one’s government into large-scale escalation are incompatible.  The key here is ‘large-scale.’ My theory does not assume leaders generally oppose escalation.  It specifically argues that, in the modern system, covert intervention and collusion reflect a shared desire among adversaries to avoid regional or global conventional (or nuclear) conflict.  Leaders prioritizing survival may well resort to saber-rattling or incremental acts in a bid to preserve their hold on power while still seeking to avoid such broader escalation.

Weeks’s second point rightly notes that resorting to a covert form of military intervention can create a mistaken impression of inaction.  This is a downside to covert intervention that I do not develop at length and is a promising direction for future research.  Weeks insightfully points out that this may explain why some leaders pair covert intervention with overt intervention.  A more restrained overt role can provide tangible proof of a leader’s response while secluding more risky aspects of involvement to the war’s “backstage” can help control escalation.  This is exactly the course the United States took in Vietnam under President Lyndon Johnson, where overt operations in South and North Vietnam were paired with covert operations in Laos (see chapter 6).

But what about covert interventions that have no overt companion?  Weeks’s observation points to the importance of thinking carefully about exposure and offers a new view of the strategic implications of legislative oversight.  On exposure, Secret Wars analyzes several cases of open secrecy—such as the U.S. role in Afghanistan under President Ronald Reagan—where broad media coverage followed covert intervention.  Such coverage reduces (but does not eliminate) escalation control features but also helps reassure hawkish domestic observers that a leader is responding to threats.  Weeks’s point also suggests a new spin on executive-legislative communications.  A closed-door briefing on a covert cyber retaliation to an intelligence oversight committee of Congress, for example, does more than follow statutory reporting requirements.  It also can be an excuse to show more hawkish legislators that the president is being more proactive than he appears to be.  The point is that ‘covert’ does not mean ‘uniformly and perfectly secret’ and various scenarios of exposure can influence the impression of weakness at home as well as escalation and other dynamics.

Finally, it is important to contextualize the domestic politics mechanism of my theory.  Domestic dynamics are only half the story.  I also point to a second dynamic that is often triggered within the secret side of war, and often under the radar for domestic audiences, that helps leaders control escalation.  Backstage maneuvers and secrecy-related collusion are often visible to rival major powers.  Seeing a rival carefully manage the optics of a crisis or war communicates a message.  Episodes in the past year between Iran and the United States demonstrate how covert reactions to provocations can be seen as reflecting a desire to deescalate while overt responses are seen as inviting an expanding conflict. This signaling process can operate regardless of the domestic mood on each side.

Secret Wars and Conflict-Related Data in IR

Switching gears to more methodological concerns, Reiter’s review addresses some important implications of the secret side of war for conflict-related data in IR.  First, he reflects on the difficult issues raised by the book regarding data collection.  Covert conflict behavior complicates the process of collecting data, forcing scholars to consult different sources (i.e. archival rather than news accounts) and encouraging them to admit more uncertainty about coding decisions like which states participate in a given war observation. Widely used datasets like Militarized Interstate Disputes and Correlates of War have wrongly portrayed who fought, when, and with what consequences, if one believes the findings in Secret Wars.[23]

Archival research is as popular as it has ever been in IR.  We need to continue reflecting on best practices in using such material.[24] We also need to think carefully about how to preserve space in our top journals for the kind of work that draws from archives.  Reiter and his colleagues are to be commended for starting the difficult process of refining our data to reflect covert activity.[25] Other scholars, such as Lindsey O’Rourke, have shown the promise of drawing on archival war-related material to build datasets on covert behavior.[26]

Theorizing Intervention and Escalation

A third focus of the reviews is the forms of intervention and dynamics of war escalation.  Weeks, for example, raises questions about why leaders make earlier decisions that raise the risk of escalation and then act to prevent escalation later.  She points out that the escalation fears I theorize once a war has started are at least partly endogenous to earlier leader choices.  A deeper cause (for Weeks, differences in risk aversion due to regime type) might explain both early actions that create the possibility of escalation and later choices to respond to escalation via of secrecy.[27]

I see two possible complications with this logic.  First, the premise that escalation risks are fully endogenous to earlier leader decisions is too simplistic.  The process of escalation is not unilateral or even dyadic.  It is a k-adic process; third parties matter along with the two primary antagonists.[28] A given leader’s earlier decisions can put her in a position of high escalation risk, but her opponent’s response and decisions by outside powers will further shape the escalation future. Even if we assume that some kinds of leaders—say personalistic dictators—are risk acceptant, we need to hold seats at the theoretical table for their interaction partners.

Second, regime type is not a convincing “deep cause” for the broad empirical patterns I find in Secret Wars.  I am careful to point out that secrecy has many customers.  Covert interventions are used by personalist dictators (i.e. Adolf Hitler), single-party autocrats (i.e. Leonid Brehznev), and democrats (i.e. Harry Truman).  Collusion in response to a detected covert intervention was exercised by Nazi Germany as well as American leaders during the Vietnam War.  If domestic institutional differences were driving early steps that raise escalation risks and later escalation control tactics, why would we see such variety in the kind of leaders drawing on these tools?

Schuessler’s review addresses related topics when he notes a tension between the destructiveness of large-scale conflict escalation and my claim that it is hard to control.  He wonders why leaders are unable to find ways to avoid or unwind tit-for-tat processes that can result in a regional or global conflict.  Here the distinction between inadvertent and intended escalation is critical.  Since the time of Thomas Schelling’s work, scholarship on limited war and escalation dynamics has highlighted the risk of unintended retaliatory steps which propel an escalation cycle forward.[29] When large-scale escalation is a plausible risk, leaders grasp for tools and tactics that can restore control over a process which can appear frighteningly fragile.

Finally, Reiter raises related concerns about the form of military intervention and the feasibility of acting in secret.  He suggests that certain kinds of combat missions do not lend themselves to secrecy, such as wars which require large numbers of ground combat units.  This is almost certainly true:  the logistics of different kinds of military operations influence the feasibility of effective secrecy.  Related to these logistics, I address how technology affects the potential for secrecy in intervention in Chapter 3.

Yet interventions with ground troops can draw on the tools of (im)plausible denial.  In Secret Wars, I highlight cases in which intervening governments use of the label “volunteers” (32).  I suggest the distinction between acknowledged and unacknowledged interventions (39) to make sense of visible-but-denied military activity.  Reiter’s comment points to the promise of future work that draws on this distinction.  Other scholars might better assess how blended overt/covert interventions and variations in the scale of “volunteer” interventions affect processes like as conflict escalation.

Looking Forward

Where might research go from here?  Secret Wars looks at secrecy in one of its most likely contexts:  active military combat.  There is considerable promise in taking studies of secrecy, exposure, and collusive behavior to new areas of our field.  My collaborative work with Allison Carnegie, for example, has turned to analyzing global governance institutions, where attempts to integrate sensitive information like intelligence are creating state-like secrecy functions in international organizations.[30]

A second turn may be to the individual level of analysis.  Reiter’s review makes an intriguing and timely suggestion: How might we explore the microfoundations of secrecy, open secrets, and deniable state behavior?  There are especially promising directions for future work which marries secrecy dynamics with the behavioral-experimental turn in recent years.[31] Moreover, much of the inspiration for my own theoretical claims is at the level of microfoundations.  A long tradition of research in social psychology, for example, has analyzed hypotheses about everyday social interaction embedded in Erving Goffman’s impression management framework.[32] One can imagine adapting such designs to international politics scenarios or conflict escalation dynamics to understand how elites and the public react to covert versus overt options, the open secret activity of other leaders, and so on. Doing so would provide new opportunities for combining archival and experimental evidence to better understand the many dimensions of secrecy in IR.



[1] David P. Forsythe, “Democracy, War, and Covert Action,” Journal of Peace Research 29 (1992): 385-395; Dan Reiter and Allan C. Stam, Democracies at War (Princeton: Princeton University Press), chapter 6.  On the related question of whether elected leaders can deceive their publics, see John J. Mearsheimer, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); John M. Schuessler, Deceit on the Road to War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015); Dan Reiter, “Democracy, Deception, and Entry Into War,” Security Studies 21 (2002): 594-623.

[2] Lindsey O’Rourke, Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018); Michael Poznansky, “Feigning Compliance: Covert Action and International Law,” International Studies Quarterly 63 (2019): 72-84; Johannes Bubeck and Nikolai Marinov, Rules and Allies: Foreign Elections Interventions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

[3] On Soviet intervention in the China-Japan War, see the data appendix to Dan Reiter, Allan C. Stam, and Michael C. Horowitz, “A Deeper Look at Interstate War Data: Interstate War Data version 1.1,” Research and Politics (October-November 2016): 1-3.

[4] Konstantinos Drakos and Andreas Gofas, “The Devil You Know But Are Afraid to Face: Underreporting Bias and Its Distorting Effects on the Study of Terrorism,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 50 (2006): 714-735.

[5] Carson provides a detailed treatment of this episode, along with a broader discussion of various instances of covert intervention in the Korean War, in chapter 5.

[6] Carson references China’s use of secrecy when entering the Korean War to illustrate the operational security logic.  He references secrecy’s role in facilitating American intervention in the Vietnam War to illustrate the domestic dove logic (35).

[7] John M. Schuessler, Deceit on the Road to War: Presidents, Politics, and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015).

[8] Michael W. Doyle, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs,” in Michael E. Brown, Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Steven E. Miller, eds., Debating the Democratic Peace (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996): 3-57, here 24-25.

[9] George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy, Expanded Edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984) and Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, Brief Edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc, 1993).  On this issue, the classical realists were influenced by scholars such as Gabriel Almond and Walter Lippmann who saw public opinion as volatile and incoherent.  On the rise and fall of the Almond-Lippmann consensus, see Ole R. Holsti, Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), chapters 2-3.

[10] Carson defines large-scale escalation as “a war that has spread to a regional or larger scope and/or features direct, large-scale, and publicly acknowledged combat among major powers” (29).

[11] The theory applies “to ongoing local conflicts with some major power involvement that have not escalated to a large scale” (16).  My point is that the interests at stake can only be so substantial for a conflict to have these properties.

[12] In the Taiwan scenario, scholars are focusing on the risk that a conventional war between the United States and China would escalate to the nuclear level.  See Caitlin Talmadge, “Would China Go Nuclear?  Assessing the Risk of Chinese Nuclear Escalation in a Conventional War with the United States,” International Security 41:4 (Spring 2017): 50-92.

[13] On these cases, see Schuessler, Deceit on the Road to War, chapters 2-4.

[14] On the elite politics of using force, see Elizabeth N. Saunders, “War and the Inner Circle: Democratic Elites and the Politics of Using Force,” Security Studies 24:3 (2015): 466-501.

[15] This is exactly the line of criticism that Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore have taken against President Donald Trump: he has not been nearly hypocritical enough, undercutting American soft power.  See Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore, “Trump’s No Hypocrite.  And That’s Bad News for the International Order,” Foreign Affairs Online (30 May 2017) and Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore, “Hypocrisy is a Useful Tool in Foreign Affairs.  Trump is too Crude to Play the Game.” Washington Post/Post Everything (5 November 2018).

[16] See, for example, Bruce Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); David N. Gibbs, “Secrecy and International Relations,” Journal of Peace Research 32:2 (1995): 213-228; John M. Schuessler, Deceit on the Road to War: Presidents, Politics, and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015).

[17] For other perspectives departing from the “circumventing domestic doves” explanation for secrecy, see, for example, Alexander B. Downes and Mary Lauren Lilley, “Overt Peace, Covert War?: Covert Intervention and the Democratic Peace,” Security Studies 19:2 (2010): 271-272 and Lindsey A. O’Rourke, Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018).

[18] See, for example, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randall Siverson, and James Morrow, The Logic of Political Survival (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003); Giacomo Chiozza, and Hein Erich Goemans.  Leaders and International conflict (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Sarah E. Croco and Jessica L.P. Weeks, “War Outcomes and Leader Tenure,” World Politics 68:4 (2016): 577-607.

[19] Bueno de Mesquita et al.; Dan Reiter, and Allan C. Stam, Democracies at War.  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002); Jessica L.P. Weeks Dictators at War and Peace (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).

[20] See, for example, Shuhei Kurizaki, “Efficient Secrecy: Public Versus Private Threats in Crisis Diplomacy,” American Political Science Review 101:3 (2007): 543-558; Alexander B. Downes and Mary Lauren Lilley.  “Overt Peace, Covert War?: Covert Intervention and the Democratic Peace,” Security Studies 19:2 (2010): 266-306; Keren Yarhi-Milo, “Tying Hands behind Closed Doors: The Logic and Practice of Secret Reassurance,” Security Studies 22:3 (2013): 405-435; and David E. Pozen, “The Leaky Leviathan: Why the Government Condemns and Condones Unlawful Disclosures of Information,” Harvard Law Review 127 (2013): 512-635.

[21] John M. Schuessler, “The Deception Dividend: FDR’s Undeclared War,” International Security 34:4 (2010): 133-165; Schuessler, Deceit on the Road to War: Presidents, Politics, and American Democracy.  (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015).  See also John J. Mearsheimer, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Dan Reiter, “Democracy, Deception, and Entry into War,” Security Studies 21:4 (2012): 594-623. Strategic misrepresentation in the war-as-bargaining framework is a specific example of this.  See James D. Fearon, “Rationalist Explanations for War,” International Organization 49:3 (1995): 379-414.

[22] See, for example, Bruce Bueno De Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson, and James D. Morrow, The Logic of Political Survival (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).

[23] See

[24] Sean M. Lynn-Jones, Sean M., and Steven E. Miller, Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists, and the Study of International Relations (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001); Christopher Darnton, “Archives and Inference: Documentary Evidence in Case Study Research and the Debate over US Entry into World War II,” International Security 42:3 (2018): 84-126.

[25] Dan Reiter, Allan C. Stam, and Michael C. Horowitz.  “A Revised Look at Interstate Wars, 1816–2007,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 60:5 (2016): 956-976.

[26] Lindsey A. O’Rourke, Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018).

[27] Jessica L. Weeks, “Strongmen and Straw Men: Authoritarian Regimes and the Initiation of International Conflict,” American Political Science Review 106:2 (2012): 326-347.

[28] Paul Poast, “(Mis) using Dyadic Data to Analyze Multilateral Events,” Political Analysis 18.4 (2010): 403-425.

[29] Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960); Richard Smoke, Controlling Escalation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977; Barry R. Posen, Inadvertent Escalation: Conventional War and Nuclear Risks (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).

[30] Allison Carnegie and Austin Carson, Secrets in Global Governance: Disclosure Dilemmas and International Cooperation.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2020).

[31] See, for example, Rachel Myrick, “Why So Secretive?  Unpacking Public Attitudes towards Secrecy and Success in U.S. Foreign Policy,” Journal of Politics: forthcoming.

[32] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City: Doubleday, 1959).