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Speak Out: Fewer Secrets, Fewer Wars?

Early this year, one of the world’s most secretive regimes systematically slaughtered 300 unarmed members of the Hazara ethnic group, a Shi’ite Muslim minority group viewed as hostile to Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban regime. Though the area has been closed to foreign journalists, we know about the massacre—and by we, I mean any interested person with a modem. We know because of the news media. We know because of sophisticated nongovernmental organizations with global networks of informers. We know because information technologies allow us to share information quickly and cheaply. We know because it is becoming harder and harder for regimes like the Taliban to hide.

This is the new reality of global politics, sometimes deemed “the end of secrecy.” In this world, anyone with a credit card can purchase high-resolution satellite pictures of the world’s most secretive sites, a privilege once reserved for the world’s richest spy agencies. Nongovernmental organizations distribute camcorders to previously powerless individuals to document—and then publicize—human rights abuses. And democratic governments give the global public more information about their policy making than at any prior point in history.

This “age of transparency” holds great promise for those seeking international peace and security. For one thing, some governments are likely to behave better if they know they are being watched—a phenomenon known as regulation by revelation. For another, transparency is likely to aid preventive diplomacy, allowing diplomats to head off crises before they get out of hand. Theoretically, transparency could also make war less likely by reassuring governments about their opponents’ intentions and limiting the chance of surprise attacks.

Some observers have even higher expectations. Former Citibank CEO Walter Wriston, for example, has argued that transparency will empower citizens “to watch Big Brother” instead of the other way around, unleashing “a virus of freedom, for which there is no antidote” that will be “spread by electronic networks to the four corners of the earth.

These are heady claims, which undoubtedly contain some truth. But, unfortunately, the age of transparency is unlikely to end—or perhaps even significantly reduce—international conflict. Here’s why:

Early warning does not guarantee early action. Just because transparency helps us to foresee crises before they get out of hand does not mean that governments will be able to summon the political will to respond. If statements by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are any guide, the United States will intervene less frequently in the affairs of other countries. This is especially true for interventions that can be classified as “nation-building.”

Not all conflicts result from misunderstandings. One common hope for transparency is that leaders will not start wars because they either 1) misperceive an opponent’s intentions and enter a conflict neither side wants or 2) underestimate an opponent’s strength and start a conflict they wrongly think they can win. However, not all conflicts are caused by misunderstandings that transparency can help to clear up. Wars also result from conflicting goals, which may only get worse if differences are illuminated.

Transparency can incite conflict. Occasionally, transparency undermines efforts to negotiate solutions to conflicts. Publicizing negotiations allows interest groups to pressure negotiators in ways that limit their freedom to make concessions in pursuit of a final deal. This fact is widely acknowledged in tricky peace negotiations, which is why Israeli/Palestinian peace negotiations often occur under a news blackout. And lest we blame this phenomenon on CNN, recall the 1898 Fashoda Crisis, which brought the democratic governments of France and Britain to the brink of war. The fact that each side could clearly observe the belligerent rhetoric in each other’s parliaments and newspapers only fanned the flames of conflict.

Transparency can be misleading. Just because policy makers have more information about other governments doesn’t mean that they will understand them better. Such miscalculations can pave the way to conflict. Take, for example, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Before the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam observed relatively weak Congressional and public support for President Bush’s threat to forcefully repel Saddam’s troops from Kuwait and boasted that the United States did not have “the stomach” for a costly war. Ten years later, the economic cost of his misunderstanding of American politics is enormous.

Revolutions don’t all lead to democracy. Even if the authority of repressive governments is undermined by transparency—a questionable assumption on its own since information technologies can be used for oppression as well as learning about a better way of life and organizing resistance—they won’t necessarily be replaced by democracies. Far from creating more peace and security, such power transitions could create more conflict, not less.

Transparency is a means, not an end. Optimists often argue that transparency will lead to peace. But, it may very well be that peace—or at least the desire for peace —leads to transparency and creates a virtuous cycle. The implication is this: because transparency may be an effect of peace rather than a cause, it could disappear quickly if the world becomes more dangerous. Governments could become more secretive. Information technologies could be restricted. The global media could see its access limited. International organizations could be ignored. In sum, the benefits of transparency could be ephemeral.

These concerns do not mean that transparency isn’t, on balance, good for international politics. It is. Transparency forces governments to be more accountable and often gives the weak and oppressed more weapons against the strong. It may help prevent international conflict in some cases. But it won’t solve all our problems, and it is unlikely to be an easy route to peace.

Kristin Lord is assistant dean and adjunct assistant professor of political science and international affairs in the Elliott School of International Affairs. This article is drawn partially from her new edited book, Power and Conflict in the Age of Transparency (with Bernard I. Finel, New York: St. Martin’s Palgrave, 2000), which contains chapters from three other GW professors.