Stealing secrets is routinely seen as the world’s second oldest profession. Combining diverse approaches and interdisciplinary perspectives across politics, security, history, philosophy, and law, the team investigates how best to theorise intelligence in the Liberal International Order at a time of transition, and how an open society perspective can protect core values and principles both in and through intelligence.
Stealing secrets is routinely seen as the world’s second oldest profession. However, despite rich literature on the history of intelligence agencies and operations, and the prominence of intelligence in contemporary politics, intelligence is a Cinderella in international relations theory and efforts to create a distinct theory of intelligence are also limited. This project provides fresh understandings of how to think of intelligence in twenty-first century international relations through sustained engagement with two core issues. Firstly, we will look at where intelligence sits within claims of a crisis of the post-1945 Liberal International Order, asking what roles intelligence still plays – positively and negatively – in diplomacy, war, and great power management of shifting international power distributions. Secondly, and relatedly, following major 21st century controversies over the role of intelligence organisations in the ‘war on terror’, we will focus on intelligence within the specific context of the open society and its ideals.
Western intelligence agencies have been to the fore in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Prior to the war Washington disclosed unprecedented amounts of information about Moscow’s troop build-up and hybrid warfare tactics. London has provided global audiences with daily assessments of the fighting and where the war is headed. This relative openness and the positive response to these initiatives stands in contrast to intelligence agencies’ functions in the 2000s, when covert programmes of ‘enhanced interrogation’, rendition, and targeted killing, plus revelations of wholesale surveillance operations, called into question the role and place of intelligence agencies in open democratic societies.
These controversies have contributed to resurgent interest in why, and how, states steal secrets from one another (Gill & Phythian 2018; Gaspard & Pili 2022) and how they relate to their own societies. Yet, “intelligence about intelligence” (Zegart 2022, p 18) remains limited.
Yet, what is the nature of intelligence? Although we see rising numbers of theoretical and historical studies (Aldrich & Cormac 2021), accounts of intelligence successes or failures (Lomas 2017), legal and moral debates about the use and abuse of spying (Hillebrand 2019), cyber espionage (Buchan 2018; Bellaby 2022) and covert action (Trenta 2021), there is a surprising lack of engagement with what intelligence is from an International Relations (IR) perspective drawing on these interdisciplinary insights. What, if at all, makes intelligence distinctive? Why is there no general theory of intelligence? Bringing together leading UK-based experts from politics, security, history, philosophy, and law, enables scoping how theorising intelligence can advance both IR and intelligence studies at a time of purported crisis in the Liberal International Order. Furthermore, we engage how open societies think of intelligence and espionage to enable effective debate over intelligence. We are experiencing unprecedented uncertainty over disruptive actors and technologies, making both a general theory of intelligence in contemporary international order and an effective framework for its democratic debate exceptionally important.
Dr Robert Schuett (Second Principal Investigator), now a leading figure in political realism in national security (Schuett 2021) and a former civil servant with more than ten years’ experience in intelligence matters, will add a practitioner’s perspective to the project, thereby adding another layer of intellectual and methodological diversity.