Secrecy has long been central to international politics. For decades, however, serious scholarly work on secrecy-related topics was rare. Even as theoretical models drawing on “private information” and “incentives to misrepresent” changed the field, there has been less attention to how states misrepresent, what they keep private, and why image manipulation is an ever-present feature of international politics. I’ve written two award-winning books that attempt to change this.

My research begins with the basic insight that governments care about, and therefore strategically manage, wider impressions of themselves and their interactions. Optics often trump practical and operational considerations. My research has explored secrecy’s role in controlling the size and scope of modern war and in shaping how states cooperate and how international organizations function. Most recently, I have turned to using declassified intelligence material to understand leaders, bureaucracy, and perceptions. For more on my research and background, see my CV. A good overview of my thinking and research on secrecy-related issues is in this podcast episode.

Overall, my research falls into three areas:
Secrecy, war, and escalation
Secrecy, cooperation, and global governance
New projects: intelligence, leaders, bureaucracy


Secrecy, war, and escalation

Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics. Princeton University Press, Princeton Studies in International History and Politics. 2018.

The book analyzes the covert side of five major 20th century conflicts, introducing a new theory of secrecy linking its use to states’ efforts to limit the scale and scope of conflict in an age of industrialized warfare and nuclear weaponry.  The theory is built, in part, on adapted insights from Erving Goffman about secrecy and the “back stage collusion” we use in everyday life to define our social encounters and avoid crises.  I analyze covert military intervention before, during, and after the Cold War. The book builds on the award winning article “Facing Off and Saving Face” (IO, 2016) and features case studies of the Spanish Civil War, Korean War, Vietnam War, the 1980s war in Afghanistan, and Iraq after 2003.

Related articles and manuscripts

Facing Off and Saving Face: Covert Intervention and Escalation Management in the Korean WarInternational Organization, 70 (1), 2016, pp. 103-131. [PDF]  
–Winner, Best Security Article Award, International Security Studies Section, International Studies Association 2018.

Covert Communication: The Intelligibility and Credibility of Signaling in Secret (with Keren Yarhi-Milo), Security Studies, Vol 26, No 1, 2017, pp. 124-156. [PDF]

Secrecy, cooperation, and global governance

Secrets in Global Governance: Disclosure Dilemmas and the Challenge of International Cooperation. With Allison Carnegie. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Studies in International Relations Series. 2020.

What makes cooperation in the international system so hard? How do international organizations (IOs) help states overcome these barriers?  Scholars have long argued that IOs act as agents of transparency to help states monitor compliance with international rules. Secrets in Global Governance introduces and theorizes the opposite institutional function, showing how international organizations are using confidentiality systems — secrecy by another name — to access sensitive information and better identify violations.

From nuclear proliferation to international trade, investigating compliance increasingly requires access to sensitive kinds of disclosures, such as the intelligence that governments collect or the exclusive internal documentation of firms. The dilemma? Disclosing helps identify violations but risks real commercial or national security harm. We show that IOs can integrate sensitive disclosures by states and firms and ease such “disclosure dilemmas.” If an IO develops a confidentiality system and the trust of information suppliers, it can better assess question about violations of everything from laws of war to bilateral investment treaties. We develop this unique role for IOs — and the normative and practical challenges it often generates — in chapters on war crimes, trade disputes, nuclear nonproliferation, and foreign direct investment arbitration.

  • Winner, Best Book Award, APSA’s International Collaboration section, 2021
  • Book website at Cambridge University Press
  • Sample: Chapter 1

Related articles and manuscripts

The Spotlight’s Harsh Glare:  Rethinking Publicity and International Order (with Allison Carnegie), International Organization, 72 (3), 2018, pp. 627-657. [PDF] [Appendix]
–Winner, Robert Keohane Award, Best Article by Untenured Scholar, 2018.
–Honorable Mention, Best Article Award, International Security Section, American Political Science Association, 2019.

The Disclosure Dilemma: Nuclear Intelligence and International Organization (with Allison Carnegie). American Journal of Political Science, 63 (2), 2019, pp. 269-285. [PDF]
–First article to undergo AJPS verification & transparency for qualitative research. Related: Jan Leighley, “Celebrating Verification, Replication, and Qualitative Research Methods at the AJPS,” March 20, 2019. Allison Carnegie and Austin Carson, “Our Experience with the AJPS Transparency and Verification Process for Qualitative Research,” May 9, 2019.

Reckless Rhetoric? Compliance Pessimism and International Order in the Age of Trump (with Allison Carnegie), Journal of Politics, 81 (2), 2019, pp. 739-746. [PDF]

The Power in Opacity: Rethinking Information in International Organizations (with Alexander Thompson). In International Institutions and Power Politics: Bridging the Divide, eds. T.V. Paul and Anders Wivel, Georgetown University Press, 2019.

UN Peacekeeping After the Pandemic: An Increased Role for Intelligence (with Allison Carnegie). Survival 63.2 (2021): 77-83.

New Projects: Intelligence, Leaders, Bureaucracy

A new set of work addresses leaders and bureaucracy.

One new article analyzes the long-forgotten tactics used by American leaders to prevent elite criticism of the United Nations as a window into leader-elite dynamics in the shadow of international cooperation.

Carson, Austin, and Matthew J. Conklin. “Co-Optation at the Creation: Leaders, Elite Consensus, and Postwar International Order.” Security Studies 31.4 (2022): 634-666. [Ungated PDF]

Another new article analyzes how old age is perceived in foreign policy leaders. When are Biden and others seen as senile rather than wise?

Byun, Joshua, and Austin Carson. “More than a Number: Aging Leaders in International Politics.” International Studies Quarterly 67.1 (2023): sqad008. [Ungated PDF]

Other papers build on a unique corpus of declassified documents: the President’s Daily Brief (PDB). The PDB Project is a data collection effort which uses declassified daily intelligence summaries tailored to each of four presidents in the 1960s and 1970s to understand a range of issues, including how information flows from bureaucracy to leaders, the role of racial bias in intelligence analysis, how maps inform leader perceptions, and the evolving linguistic patterns in national security material.

This effort is possible because of a special declassification review by the Central Intelligence Agency completed in 2016. This review declassified each PDB delivered to the president from 1961 to 1977. The PDB serves as a kind of “greatest hits” summary of the previous day’s developments, simplifying a complex foreign landscape and interpreting new developments. A research team has extracted text and maps from each PDB and coded PDBs, maps, and individual items for a variety of features. Several article manuscripts are in development from this project. For more information, see the project webpage.

I am also in the early stages of a book project on the intelligence infrastructure that served as a foundation for America’s rise as a global power. This builds on a now-concluded joint project with Ruth Bloch Rubin on “Infrastructures of American Hegemony” funded by the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society.