What is the use of the study of intelligence in international relations

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What is the use of the study of intelligence in International Relations?
Within the context of international relations, intelligence is significant, as it is an instrument that can
be used to save lives but if used irrationally can also cost lives (Gill and Phythian, 2006, P. 172). This
essay will attempt to analyse the importance of intelligence by using an international relations
theory framework. Initially, the essay will examine the realist approach to intelligence by observing
its main themes of state centrism, anarchy, rationality and power. Subsequently, the liberalist
perspective will be investigated; the essay will explore contemporary intelligence behaviour due to
the international system subscribing to the liberalist liberal world order. The final perspective this
essay will inspect is Marxism, a perspective that is overall in scrutiny of internationalism. Like
realists, Marxists are in scrutiny of internationalism; however, their ideas on intelligence could not
be more different. These theories aid the comprehension of the importance of intelligence in
international relations theory. This text will create a comprehensive analysis of each approach, that
will determine their position on intelligence and will help to understand its relevance within the
contemporary international realm.
Realism is one of the most prevalent schools of thought within international relations. The theory’s
central theme is power preservation in the name of state security. Realism assumes that the state is
the central actor amongst international interactions. Intelligence can be used as a tool to understand
realism in detail due to the matters it emphasises which include state centrism, anarchy, rationalism
and power (Antunes and Camisao, 2018). Realists like Morgenthau developed the state centrism
approach to global politics, as ‘there are no universally agreed set of moral principles’ (Morgenthau
in Burchil, 2001, p. 79). Due to the absence of an ‘agreed set of moral principles’, states formulate
values that complement their personal aims, legitimising the state centrism notion perpetuated by
Morgenthau. The conversation of morality was used to shroud the use of intelligence in order to
achieve these principles of national interest. From this it can be concluded that realist view the state
as the most important actor within the global system, and through the use of intelligence a state
could potentially determine the outcome of international activities. Obtaining information from
other actors can put a state in an advantageous position. Overall, this suggests intelligence within
realism is used to preserve the state and the more information the state collects make this
preservation easier.
Global politics lacks order and authority, leading realists to believe we exist within an anarchic
society. This alludes to the unpredictability of global affairs; disputes, conflict and disagreement can
arise randomly, and hierarchal world authority is absent to resolve these issues. Realists, reiterate
the importance of intelligence, through the notion of anarchy. As stated previously the attainment
of intelligence, can give a state the upper hand within the unstable environment they operate
within. Through the use of intelligence, actors can gain information about the intentions of other
actors. This can help states predict certain events and also prepare them for the potential rigors of
the future. The information collected can also help states manage resources, budget and military in
order to support the security of their nation, in the event of possible conflict (Powell, 1994). Realists
explain that intelligence is one of a few ways in which states can have some control and insight into
the chaotic global political system. Alongside this, they point out that information found through
intelligence is often the most valuable. As intelligence exposes the activities and potential future
intentions of other international actors, this can supply a sense of comfort for a state, as this allows
the state to monitor other states. Due to the insight intelligence provides, extraordinary actions will
be acknowledged immediately, and measures can be put in place to reduce threat.
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Rationality is another theme within the realist approach to international relations. Actors are aware
of the international system, and they operate in order to survive and adapt (Mearsheimer, 2001).
International espionage can act as a way of assistance for states, in order to help them acclimatise to
the volatile international sphere. Espionage is a tactical and discrete method that can expose the
undisclosed mechanisms of a state, and by observing these other states they can adopt behaviour
which would make them a more efficient actor when engaging in international politics. Alongside
this, the benefit of monitoring states covertly reveals how a state acts when they are unaware of
observation, therefore espionage is the most efficient way to entirely understand the operation
within a state.
The final theme that will be explored within the theory of realism is power. Ultimately realism is
centralised around the conflictual reality of international relations, therefore meaning that this
ideology alludes to the inevitability of war. Realism incorporates a micro perspective, which assumes
individuals are atomistic and selfish, with a craving for power and authority. Analysing the micro
evaluation of the realist ideology, can help the comprehension of its application on a global scale.
Intelligence can play a significant role when maximising state power. With the more information
obtained concerning the international community the increased influence the actor has globally.
Overall, the concept of power can bind the realist perspective on intelligence together, as all the
themes discussed all involve the element to maximise power.
The ideology of liberalism within international relations, emphasises the importance of collaboration
in order to achieve mutual benefits, liberty and peace, unlike the realist isolative approach. Currently
it is said that we live under a liberal world order, and therefore it could be argued that liberalism is
the method of conducting surveillance today. International organisations have an enormous impact
on ensuring the promises of liberalism are met, and this section of the essay will examine the
relationship between international organisations and intelligence.
An example of surveillance under liberalism is the effort to tackle terrorism. Counterterrorism is
achieved through collective global action, which involves the cooperation of numerous International
Organisations and state governments. In the current circumstance of the Liberal World Order,
terrorism is taken very seriously as it directly threats the central elements of liberalism, like liberty,
international stability and growth. Governments spy on a domestic level, to uncover terrorism
threats from within (Kreissl, 2016). If the intelligence discovered, may be of use to other states,
governments may share this information directly to other governments or international
organisations like the EU or UN. For instance, in 2016 an Iraqi spy manged gain access within ISIS, the
information he obtained was reported back to Iraq’s National Intelligence Agency. Iraq’s
counterterrorism Intelligence unit later shared this information with other national governments
and international organisations. The spy helped locate Islamic State leaders and exposed the
terrorist organisations plans and attacks (Coker, 2018).
Surveillance can also be used for infection prevention and control. This is topical due to the recent
COVID-19 pandemic. Like counterterrorism, infection prevention and control surveillance, is done on
a domestic level and shared internationally through international organisations. An article, which
studied the COVID-19 outbreak in South Korea demonstrated the importance of this type of
surveillance. As the recent pandemic was unprecedented and unaccustomed, medical staff at St.
Mary’s Hospital, Seoul, where the study took place, experimented with methods to reduce the
spread of the virus. The hospital drew up new guidelines, which outlined the most efficient methods
to control the virus, these included ‘patient screening and triage, personal protective equipment
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(PPE) usage, hand and respiratory hygiene, equipment reprocessing, environmental cleaning,
management of medical waste, and social distancing’ (Yoon Choi et al, 2021). This research was
forwarded to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and these guidelines were used as a template
and similar guidance was implemented across the globe. This instance displays that overt
surveillance can be as useful as covert oversight, with the the pandemic it is crucial to be transparent
as this openness may potentially save lives. Alongside this, the sharing of information reflects the
ideas of liberalism; working collaboratively in order to solve a global crisis.
However, many argue that mass surveillance encroaches on individual civil liberties. A study carried
out by Amnesty International draws attention to this. Amnesty International highlights the intrusive
nature of surveillance technology, and how they impact both civil society and human rights. They
suggest that the surveillance technology government and non-governmental actors are utilising, are
both unnecessary and ultimately unlawful. The organisation highlights the absence of sufficient
safeguards and frameworks, with the lack of these elements, it is unclear of the extent agencies are
lawfully allowed to spy. Alongside this, the organisation also mentions the lack of judicial oversight,
meaning that when an agency is unlawfully using spyware, and is unlikely they will be brought to
justice. To avoid these infringements, the document recommends ways in which to prevent this.
They advise for revision of the European Union’s Dual Use export regulation, their recommendations
would reduce the likelihood of surveillance technology being exported to agencies or governments
with insufficient human rights records (Amnesty International, 2019).
Marxism within the international realm, is unlike other prominent theories. It takes a more critical
approach to international interactions unlike realism and liberalism. Therefore, due to the critical
nature of the Marxist theory of international relations it provides an alternative perspective on the
use of surveillance. Marx himself was not an internationalist and didn’t mention much about
internationalism in his work, however Marxist theories have adapted his concepts in ways that can
be interpreted within the international sphere. Shoshana Zuboff uses the Marxist approach to
formulate the idea of surveillance capitalism, which exposes the surveillance techniques carried out
under capitalism in attempts to acquire intelligence that will ensure the dominance of the current
international economic system (Zuboff, 2019). This section of the essay will use key themes from the
Marxist theory, which include exploitation, alienation and accumulation and analyse their
relationship with intelligence.
Alienation can also be used to understand the importance of intelligence, when studying
international relations. Capitalism promotes the separation between humans and the products they
create. As capitalists have created this environment of alienation, they view all human interactions
as potentially profitable. Therefore, with the absence of control humans have combined with
surveillance, this gives international businesses and the owners of the means of production immense
power. Under Zuboff’s surveillance capitalism, big corporations like Google and Facebook, view the
data an individual produces online with a price tag (Zuboff, 2019). These businesses use individual
data, and collective data to create new products to put on the market. This idea reiterates the
notion that humans are separate from what they produce. Also, this is an incredibly effective way of
using intelligence to create a new product; it is bound to be successful if individual data and online
actions are used, as it complements human behaviour. Furthermore, humans do not receive the
fruits from the product that they helped to come into fruition. Another aspect of alienation is the
dispatchment between uses of the platforms and the owners of these firms. Due to the distance
between these groups these businesses have little interest in the environment they have created on
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these platforms but instead fixate on the data collected and ways in which it can be used to further
expand their company, whilst also keeping shareholders content.
The concept of alienation and exploitation overlap; the idea of exploitation can be used to build
from the theory of alienation. A reoccurring theme that is common throughout the Marxists
explanation of exploitation is the lack of choice, which is an idea that is inferred within the alienation
explanation. The liberal world order has established this environment in which individuals have little
choice but to comply, as compliance makes it easier to integrate socially with less risk of
marginalisation, this provides the foundation to understand exploitation and surveillance. As
mentioned previously, big corporations use data harvested from individual and collective online
behaviour to create successful new products that essentially make them more profitable. Humans
aren’t naïve to this, however, have little choice, as it provides them with interconnectivity and
reduces the chances of isolation. Actors that benefit from the current economic system, capitalise
off the lack of choice, therefore exploit humans by using online interactions as a profitable
Finally, accumulation can also be used to further understand the idea of intelligence within Marxian
theory. When analysing the relationship between accumulation and surveillance it is relevant to
observe digital data accumulation. To reiterate, Marx hasn’t not experienced the recent
technological revolution, but his political and economic explanations can be applied. Mass
accumulation of intelligence is made possible due to the boom in interconnectivity online and the
increased willingness of individuals to share information. This therefore produces substantial
amounts of data; the more data, the more valuable. When surveillance actors obtain more
intelligence, it makes their research more comprehensive, therefore, they are more likely to produce
precise predictions about future human behaviour. The prediction of behaviour is beneficial for
states as they can understand the normal trends of online behaviour and recognise the uncommon
patterns that could threaten the stability of the state. However, the prediction of behaviour is also
beneficial to companies, as it helps create a commodity that will be successful on the market or
estimate how successful a product will be before its placed on the market. The idea in which
companies use online behaviour to develop new products, to guarantee profit is a reoccurring
theme throughout the Marxian explanation (Zuboff, 2019).
In conclusion, this essay demonstrates the importance of the study of intelligence within
international relations. By analysing international relations theories individually, it provides an
opportunity to compare the differing perspectives to understand the similarities and differences
between them. This approach reveals that intelligence has a diverse importance and meaning
among these theories. To summarise, realists view intelligence as a tool to ensure individual state
security, which is driven by the anxiety of the reality and inevitability of war. Unlike realists,
liberalists reject this notion of conflict inevitability and instead use intelligence as an instrument to
maintain the peace and harmony within the international system. However, the Marxian approach is
completely unalike the liberalist and realist perspective. Both liberalists and realists view intelligence
as a positive entity, in differing ways. Conversely, Marxists believe intelligence is ultimately
exploitative, as it is only used to keep the liberal world order in tacked whilst generating as much
profit as possible. But one idea that all theories draw on is that nation states use intelligence to
some extent for personal interest or individuals aims, and this essay has displayed that this can be
achieved individually or through collective effort. Overall, intelligence is paramount to
understanding interactions between international actors in more depth and analysing the
significance of these interactions.
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Reference List
Amnesty International, 2019., The Surveillance Industry and Human Rights. Amnesty International.
Available at:
RNATIONAL.pdf. [Accessed on 7th February 2022].
Antunes, S. & Camisao, I. 2018. Introducing Realism in international Relations Theory. E-International
Relations. Available at: https://www.e-ir.info/2018/02/27/introducing-realism-in-internationalrelations-theory/. [Accessed on 09 December 2021].
Burchill, S., Linklater, A., Devetak, R., Donnelly, J., Paterson, M., Reus-Smit, C. & True, J., 2001.
Theories of International Relations. Palgrave. [E-Book]. Available at:
http://lib.jnu.ac.in/sites/default/files/RefrenceFile/Theories-of-IR.pdf [Accessed on 28 January
Choi, U. Y., Kwon, Y. M., Kang, H. J., Song, J. H., Lee, H. Y., Kim, M. S., Kahm, S. H., Kwon, J. Y., Kim, S.
H., Lee, S. H., Choi, J. H., & Lee, J. 2021. Surveillance of the infection prevention and control practices
of healthcare workers by an infection control surveillance-working group and a team of infection
control coordinators during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of infection and public health. Available
at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7847193/. [Accessed on 7th February 2022].
Coker, M., 2018. The Iraqi Spy Who Infiltrated ISIS. New York Times. Available at:
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/12/world/middleeast/iraqi-spy-isis.html. [Accessed on 4th
February 2022].
Gill, P., & Phythian, M. 2006. Intelligence in an Insecure World. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Kreissl, R., 2016. Terrorism, Mass Surveillance and Civil Rights. Vicesse. Available at:
https://www.cepol.europa.eu/sites/default/files/26-reinhard-kreissl.pdf. [Accessed on 4th February
Mearsheimer, J. J., 2001. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. W W Norton & Company. [E-Book].
Available at: https://www.bxscience.edu/ourpages/auto/2015/12/17/46553148/Mearsheimer%20%20Tragedy%20of%20Great%20Power%20Politics.pdf. [Accessed on 2nd February 2022].
Powell, R., 1994. Anarchy in International Relations Theory. International Organization. Available at:
http://rochelleterman.com/ir/sites/default/files/Powell%201994.pdf. [Accessed on 1st February
Zuboff, S., 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Public Affairs: New York.

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