Secrecy, Acknowledgement, and War Escalation: A Study in Covert Competition The Ohio State University
Austin Carson  |  December 13, 2018

Why do states use secrecy? Specifically, why do great powers often seem to create a kind of “backstage” area around local conflicts? That is, why create a covert realm where external powers can meddle in local conflicts to pursue their security interests? This project generally analyzes how secrecy is used in international politics and why states are individually and collectively motivated to use it. Existing scholarship suggests states use secrecy to surprise their adversaries or insulate their leaders from dovish domestic political groups. I develop an alternative logic rooted in the desire to control conflict escalation risks. In the context of interventions in local conflicts by outside powers, I find intervening states use covert methods to maintain control over the perceptions and interpretations of outside audiences whose reactions determine the magnitude of external pressure on leaders to escalate further. Intervening in a secret, plausibly deniable manner makes restraint and withdrawal on the part of the intervening state easier. It also creates ambiguity about their role which can give the political space to responding states to ignore covert meddling and respond with restraint. Escalation control dynamics therefore make sense of why states intervene secretly and, more puzzling, why other states – even adversaries – may join in ignoring and covering up such covert activity (what I call “tacit collusion”).