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Diplomacy and spying: ye olde chestnut

Published on 25 June 2013
Updated on 06 March 2023

Governments have been caught spying on each other. So what else is new? Before taking informed decisions, governments weigh benefits and costs of action. To this end they gather – by hook or crook – as much contextual and social information as they can afford. After that, they’ll be ready to compromise and bargain, i.e. to act rationally. In international relations, trusting the rational approach is welcome, in my view. Spying may be part of this.

Governments acting on moral fervor[1] are unlikely to spy – the do not need to do so. Prisoners of some self-inflicted ideology, they live in a phantasy world (of their own making) where “right” and “wrong” are transparently different and instantly recognizable, where there is no compromise and no concession, no ambiguity and no uncertainty. Such entities need no further knowledge. In their approach, (their) truth is self-evident and self-executing. Such governments are dangerous, in my view, for they are beyond the reach of reason.

Long live spying, if it reflects commitment to realism! I did not say, however: long live diplomats spying. Diplomats who spy, annoy me – mildly, for such behavior is bad manners. Governments grant one another’s diplomats privileges and immunities in order to facilitate certain job-related tasks. Moonlighting as a spy is not one of them. Should my government catch a diplomat abusing the compact that granted him privileges, I’d gladly slap him in jail and throw away the key. Snowden should go to jail in Switzerland for spying and abusing his diplomatic status, not for what he revealed.

The most recent hullabaloo over spying at the G8 Meeting in London is about governments being governments. Diplomats were not involved. No “line between diplomacy and intelligence gathering was blurred and trust was undermined – all of this with potential serious consequences.” Wikileaks in general did not reveal diplomats spying as much as diplomats thinking.


I see nothing in all this excitement undermining the essence of diplomacy as defined conventionally. What is at stake is a different matter altogether: the need of a state for a “private sphere” in order to function. This is worth a longish reflection.

Life – and social life even more – is knowledge. Seeking knowledge in order to survive is a natural thing to do. Life observes – if it is done surreptitiously, one may call it spying. Prying begets counter-measures and deceit. Culture increases by orders of magnitude humanity’s ability to adjust in complex terms to the context. Culture magnifies the challenge of observation accordingly. Complexity breeds uncertainty. Spying may clear the impenetrable underbrush of uncertainty and make decisions manageable. Reciprocal transparency may be a better solution than haphazard spying.

Concomitantly with the emergence of consciousness in the natural world, the “private sphere” emerged. Nature shielded consciousness and rational thinking from prying regards. As far as we know, thinking has always been silent The interface to the surrounding world is mediated by willful action: speech.[2]

As always in nature, there are no definite lines. While requiring privacy for consciousness, we seem to have a general predisposition to “read someone’s mind” from exteriorities – in jargon it is called “theory of mind” (TOM), or “folk psychology”.[3] TOM’s realm is mainly the gestural, and more generally the sensory (smells, colors), and is mostly unconscious. It may lead us to introspection: we then impute or project our own interpretation of situation and motivation on the other (sometimes we are grievously wrong in doing so). TOM is what makes social relations go round: in most ordinary situations we “get it” from others without the need for cumbersome verbalization. TOM allows us to influence others swiftly, and assuredly. TOM is so central to our civilized existence; we learn to “use” a technique by sheer watching before we “understand” it – in fact, in most cases we never do raise it to the conscious level and verbalize it.

Consciousness, autonomy, and privacy go together. Privacy, I’d argue, is at the core of the personality. Take privacy away, and we literally have “no clothes”: the social environment is so strong that we succumb to it. Without privacy, autonomy would be out of the question. And without autonomy there is no self-affirmation – and there would not be a personality. Privacy, furthermore, is intimately linked to delayed-return activities, be it in the realm of production (e.g. agriculture) or in the social sphere. Privacy allows us to plan and act for the future. Civilization is built on privacy.

The state needs privacy

The need for a sphere of privacy and autonomy is a universal. As a social institution, the state also needs privacy. Within this sphere the state would be allowed to reflect, to weigh options, to elaborate positions, strategies and tactics without having to answer for his thoughts, or reveal them.[4]

This right, however, is under threat. There are calls and moves to make the state “transparent”- to rob him of privacy. The threat comes from two directions: public opinion, and other states.

The scourge of public opinion

Public opinion is clamoring for more control of government. Secrecy is condemned, for it renders the control more difficult.

The attacks come in two flavors. The more conventional one is based on the Latin adage: qui custodiet custodes? Politicians will abuse the system, either for themselves or their cronies, so controls are needed. The sovereign tasks laws and courts to do so. Public opinion feels that this is not enough: it must supplement these efforts by watching out for alleged malfeasance. Unfortunately, smarter laws beget smarter politicians. Just as in ecology, the system coevolves relentlessly. At best we get a “good enough” system. Failing that, elections are meant to break the competitive cycle. Contrary to legal judgments, where specific malfeasance needs proving, elections are an incontestable act of the sovereign providing closure.[5]

Public opinion is hardly sophisticated in its judgments: it tends simplistically to equate control with the verification of consistency. Consistency is a poor guide to vetting policy, however, for it elides context and personalities.

The more dangerous attack is grounded in fashionable political theory that views the state as a teleocracy. According to this view, the state is our guide in our Long March toward eutopia – the City on the Hill.[6] Teleocracy is a secular version of theocracy, you may note. The shape of such a eutopia is set out in self-evident truths: the doctrine of natural law: “there are absolute principles in the conduct of affairs which all men, when they are sincerely and lucidly rational, will agree to be self-evidently true; These principles are the terms of the good life for human beings is this world.”[7]

If indeed, politics is a Long March toward the “truth”, we must spot deviations from the right path at once, and call for correction. Transparency is meant to purge not just malfeasance, but ideological “error” at once. Nothing should stay in the way of the “truth”. Until “truth” emerges triumphant, relentless struggle – Gandhian or otherwise – is indicated.

Transparency as reciprocity between states

We may be more modest in our views, and posit that the state is not a teleocracy. It is simply an ens cogitans: when it encounters problems or situations, it resolves them by calculating how best to deploy available resources. On the other hand it will try to take hidden consequences or long-term consequences into account. To do so, the state, just as an autonomous human being, requires privacy.

When two such ens cogitans meet, and interact, they may decide on reciprocal total transparency in their dealings with each other. Or they may effect such a condition trough reciprocal spying.[8] Whether such consensual transparency is useful remains a pragmatic, not a moral or principle decision: are states better off squaring off under conditions of transparency?

Indeed, we do have a successful instance of “sectorial” transparency. After WWII, defeated West Germany rearmed in order to help the West contain the Soviet Union. Germany’s General Staff was integrated into NATO.[9] In this way the French were able to monitor German intentions in the military field. This example highlights my core point: transparency limits autonomy. In the military field Germany was not autonomous.

Transparency, whether by stealth or agreement, may reduce complexity and enhance previsibility in state behavior. Better legibility is a good thing, but only up to a point. Transparency between states would soon tend to flatten their reciprocal relations to the banality of administration. Administration is banal, for state behavior is codified and fully legible. Transparency would essentially bring diplomacy to stasis. Banality de facto is the loss of autonomy.

My great worry is international relations becoming banal, predictable, and “consistent”, and degenerating to the humdrum of administration. When vital interests – the survival of the state – were at the center of diplomacy, matters were clear and simple. These times are gone. Conquest is a thing of the past – as the failed American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan attest. Diplomacy has become an intricate and never-ending game of weighing benefits and costs, where foresight and detail is of the essence. Creative solutions are the way forward, not staid analogies from the past administered unthinkingly. Creativity requires privacy.

Diplomats as their master’s public voice

Diplomats are the public voice of government. They live at the boundary between the private realm of governmental reflection and the public realm of policy promotion. Their position is inherently ambiguous. Our tongue knows more than it lets transpire. We do not begrudge our tongue its silence. We should not begrudge diplomats their skilled silence either.

Diplomats are participants in the private sphere of government. Thinking for their government should be allowed. That the thinking takes place in a host country capital rather than, say, in Foggy Bottom, is incidental. Their communications should be sacrosanct not because they are diplomats, but because they are part of the private process of reflection.

When true diplomats spy, they soil their image. In the long run it does not help them carry out their principal task. Division of labor is of the essence in my view. Let others do the spying, and hang for it. Spies masquerading as diplomats (as Snowden did) are inadmissible.

“Diplomacy is built on trust.” It sounds like a deepity to me (DENNETT invented this term to signify words having a veneer of deep truth). I would not trust trust – I’d only trust rationality. In international relations, this may be “good enough”.

[1] I owe this apt term to F. G. BAILEY (1996): The civility of indifference. On domesticating ethnicity. Oxford University Press, NewDehli. I’ll revert to it in another blog.

[2] I’m aware of the fact that verbalization helps thinking. This is a subaltern issue in this context.

[3] Daniel C. DENNETT (2013): Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking. Norton, New York. I like neither term, but so be it.

[4] I’m aware that much of the purported need for state secrecy actually is just a front for politicians’ desire not to lose face. This is a complication I might suppress in order to elucidate the core message.

[5] Marginal improvements in this system might be possible. If voters become disenchanted with this set-up, however, they may opt for direct democracy, where they retain the right to review all major political decisions (the representatives, however, and the government do not resign should the people reject any measure).

[6] I owe this thought to Michael OAKSHOTT (1993): Religion, politics, and the moral life. Religion, politics, and the moral life. Yale University Press, New Haven. I’ll revert to this in a later blog.

[7] OAKSHOTT (1993). Op. cit. Pg. 113.

[8] I assume equality of transparence for simplicity. If spying is asymmetrical, we have asymmetry of information. The outcome can quickly be squewed.

[9] Robert COOPER (2003): The breaking of nations. Order and chaos in the twenty-first century. Atlantic Monthly Press, New York.

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