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The Secrecy Gambit: Explaining Clandestine Arming, Allying, and Informing

Brandon Merrell and Alexei Abrahams

Public signals of strength enable countries to deter threats during crises and obtain more favorable settlements during peace. Despite these benefits, states often forgo credible signaling opportunities by hiding new military technologies and concealing military alliances. This paper provides a consistent rationale for why actors sometimes opt for secrecy rather than publicity. We propose that investments in power—such as the development of new technology or the formation of a military alliance—can yield both immediate and long-term bargaining effects. Countries therefore face a dilemma: although they can obtain an immediate bargaining advantage by announcing their military development, doing so may also provoke a preventive attack from an opponent who seeks to thwart the development effort before its full benefits take effect. The threat of preventive action gives countries an incentive to keep their military investments secret until they have time to mature. We compare the theory to a series of historical cases and show that it generates novel empirical predictions for the study of secret alliances, clandestine weapons development programs, and intelligence sharing between civilians and government forces during civil wars.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2017 APSA Annual Meeting. Copy available upon request.