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Democracy Declassified: The Secrecy Dilemma in National Security, Michael P. Colaresi

Reviewed by Sebastian Rosato



If democracies are to conduct effective foreign policies, they must be able to simultaneously keep secrets and secure public consent. U.S. foreign policy successes from Operation Overlord during World War II to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 relied on secrecy. At the same time, argues Michael P. Colaresi, they were possible because the U.S. government had broad public support. These examples notwithstanding, it is not easy for democracies to achieve this balance. Indeed, they confront a dilemma: secrecy is vital for foreign policy effectiveness, but it is also an impediment to generating widespread and enthusiastic consent because publics cannot be sure governments are acting in their best interests.

Colaresi suggests that the key to ameliorating the secrecy dilemma lies in retrospective oversight. Several democracies have instituted rules and procedures, including legislative committees and freedom of information laws, that are useful for evaluating foreign policy performance after the fact. When such arrangements are in place, secrecy and consent can coexist. Executives are not expected to reveal their current thinking, decisions, or actions, so the secrecy crucial to effective foreign policy can be maintained. Meanwhile, publics are inclined to furnish their leaders with the material and political support they need, safe in the knowledge that th

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