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.

My work hopes to change this. It 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. In two book-length research projects, I develop secrecy’s role in controlling the size and scope of war and in helping international organizations better address transnational problems. For more on my research and background, see my CV. A good overview of my thinking and research on these issues is in this podcast episode.

Overall, my research falls into three areas:
Secrecy, war, and escalation
Secrecy, cooperation, and global governance
Intelligence and U.S. presidents


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]

Amity Lines and Escalation Ladders:  Schmitt, Schelling, and the Limited War Tradition (with Eric Grynaviski

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, arguing that global problems increasingly beg for international institutions that can protect sensitive information from wider dissemination.

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? Sharing 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.

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.

Intelligence and Presidents: The PDB

A third area of interest is in intelligence and the presidency. The President’s Daily Brief (PDB) Project is a data collection effort which uses declassified daily intelligence summaries to understand how information reaches leaders, leader intellectual style, and the divergence between private and public perceptions of foreign affairs.

The project draws on a rare corpus of intelligence material. In 2016, the Central Intelligence Agency completed a special declassification review of the intelligence summary delivered daily to the president from 1961 to 1977. The PDB serves as a greatest hits of the previous day’s developments, simplifying a complex foreign landscape for every US president since Kennedy. My research team is coding each PDB for a variety of features to chart change over time as a window into how leaders perceive threats, prioritize regions of concern, and understand diplomacy and other issues. For more information on the PDB and the project, see the project webpage.