The Age of Transparency

International Relations Without Secrets

Secrets don’t make friends: Edward Snowden appearing from Moscow, September 2015. Andrew Kelly / Reuters

Transparency has long been a rare commodity in international affairs. But today, the forces of technology are ushering in a new age of openness that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. Governments, journalists, and nongovernmental organ­izations (NGOs) can now harness a flood of open-source information, drawn from commercial surveillance satellites, drones, smartphones, and computers, to reveal hidden activities in contested areas—from Ukraine to Syria to the South China Sea.

Over the next decade, the market-driven explosion of surveillance sensors and data analytics will bring an unprecedented level of transparency to global affairs. Commercial satellites will capture daily images of the entire globe, offering inexpensive and automated reports on everything from crop yields to military activity. Journalists, NGOs, and bloggers will increasingly use crowdsourced data to uncover wartime atrocities and expose government hypocrisy. Private security companies will discover the sources of cyberattacks and data theft. Biometric systems will expose the identities of clandestine operatives, and government agencies will struggle to contain leakers and whistleblowers.

Although some secrets will likely remain hidden, ubiquitous surveillance will subject the vast majority of states’ actions to observation. And although governments will also benefit from improved access to information, increased transparency will allow people at home and abroad to better observe and critique what governments do and to hold leaders accountable for their decisions. As a result, governments will find it harder to adopt strategies that require secrecy or violate international norms.


World leaders frequently pay lip service to the ideal of transparency, but diplomatic efforts toward greater openness have yielded limited results. Transparency agreements typically take years to negotiate, lack effective enforcement mechanisms, and focus on narrow issues, such as arms control, where the parties see an advantage, or at least little risk, in trading secrecy for stability. It took the United Nations three years, for example, to negotiate the Register of Conventional Arms, which tracks annual weapons transfers among participating countries. Since the agreement relies exclusively on states’

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