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Covert Positive Incentives as an Alternative to War

  • James Pattison


Although often overlooked, positive incentives can play a key role in tackling aggression, human rights abuses, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. In this essay, I focus on one form of positive incentives: covert incentives. First, I argue that covert incentives are preferable to overt incentives since they enable policymakers to eschew the shackles of public opinion and avoid worries of moral hazard and the corruption of international society. Second, I argue that covert incentives are often more justifiable than covert force since they do not involve problematic methods and do not make it easier to undertake military action. Accordingly, I conclude that there is a prima facie duty to employ covert positive incentives as opposed to overt incentives and covert force.



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I would like to thank Eamon Aloyo and Cécile Fabre for very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.



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1 Flynt Leverett, “Why Libya Gave Up on the Bomb,” New York Times, January 23, 2004.

2 “Robert Gates Advocates Carrot-and-Stick Approach to North Korea,” Euronews, September 16, 2017; and Harry G. Broadman, “Time to Try an Economic Carrot Approach with North Korea,” Forbes, September 30, 2017.

3 Note that I will focus largely on the issues specific to covert incentives; I consider the general case for positive incentives in Pattison, James, The Alternatives to War: From Sanctions to Nonviolence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 135–66, including worries that they are coercive.

4 Notable exceptions include Baldwin, David, Economic Statecraft (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985); Cortright, David, ed., The Price of Peace: Incentives and International Conflict Prevention (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997); and Nincic, Miroslav, The Logic of Positive Engagement (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2011).

5 Geoff Thale, “Incentives and the Salvadoran Peace Process,” in Cortright, The Price of Peace, pp. 181–204.

6 Blanchard, Jean-Marc F. and Ripsman, Norrin M., Economic Statecraft and Foreign Policy: Sanctions, Incentives, and Target State Calculations (Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2013), pp. 3749.

7 Maley, William, “Quiet and Secret Diplomacy,” in Kerr, Pauline, Sharp, Paul, and Constantinou, Costas, eds., The SAGE Handbook of Diplomacy (London: Sage, 2016), pp. 451–61.

8 Andrew Buncombe, “US Army Chief Says Iraqi Troops Took Bribes to Surrender,” Independent, May 23, 2003.

9 Pattison, The Alternatives to War, pp. 135–66.

10 Nincic, Miroslav, “The Logic of Positive Engagement: Dealing with Renegade Regimes,” International Studies Perspectives 7, no. 4 (2006), p. 338.

11 Haass, Richard N. and O'Sullivan, Meghan L., “Conclusion,” in Haass, Richard N. and O'Sullivan, Meghan L., eds., Honey and Vinegar: Incentives, Sanctions, and Foreign Policy (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), pp. 178–79.

12 Grant, Ruth, Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 116.

13 Kibbe, Jennifer, “Covert Action,” in Marlin-Bennett, Renée, ed., Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies (Oxford University Press and the International Studies Association, 2017).

14 Adam Taylor, “What We Know about the Shadowy Russian Mercenary Firm behind an Attack on U.S. Troops in Syria,” Washington Post, February 23, 2018; and Neil Hauer, “Russia's Mercenary Debacle in Syria: Is the Kremlin Losing Control?” Foreign Affairs, February 26, 2018.

15 See Pattison, James, The Morality of Private War: The Challenge of Private Military and Security Companies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); and Pattison, James, “The Ethics of Arming Rebels,” Ethics & International Affairs 29, no. 4 (2015), pp. 455–71.

16 The existence and content of the duty also depends on the justification of the sender's holdings. For instance, an incentive might be unjustified because the sender should be offering more to the receiver since it owes rectification after past rights violations. On such issues, see Fabre, Cécile, “Conditional Sale,” in Gross, Michael and Meisels, Tamar, eds., Soft War: The Ethics of Unarmed Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. 6376; and Fabre, Cécile, Economic Statecraft: Human Rights, Sanctions, and Conditionality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2018).

17 Wood, Allen, “Exploitation,” Social Philosophy and Policy 12, no. 2 (1995), pp. 150–51.

18 Blanchard and Ripsman, Economic Statecraft and Foreign Policy. Note that this objection would also apply to overt incentives.

19 Pattison, James, “Representativeness and Humanitarian Intervention,” Journal of Social Philosophy 38, no. 4 (2007), pp. 569–87.

20 Beitz, Charles R., “Covert Intervention as a Moral Problem,” Ethics & International Affairs 3, no. 1 (1989), p. 58.

21 Thompson, Dennis F., “Democratic Secrecy,” Political Science Quarterly 114, no. 2 (1999), pp. 181–93.

22 Ibid. Also see Luban, David, “The Publicity Principle,” in Goodin, Robert E., ed., The Theory of Institutional Design (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 154–98.

23 However, this might only be helpful as a rule of thumb for most—but not all—cases because, for instance, first-order secrecy may occasionally require second-order secrecy (as Thompson, “Democratic Secrecy,” p. 185–90, notes).

24 Davies, Graeme A. M. and Johns, Robert, “The Domestic Consequences of International Over-Cooperation: An Experimental Study of Microfoundations,” Conflict Management and Peace Science 33, no. 4 (2016), pp. 343–60. To be sure, this still places a notable constraint on policymakers since, first, the incentive may be opposed until it is successful and, second, the probability of the incentive being successful may be low or unclear.

25 See Lee, Seyoung and Feeley, Thomas Hugh, “The Identifiable Victim Effect: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Social Influence 11, no. 3 (2016), pp. 199215.

* I would like to thank Eamon Aloyo and Cécile Fabre for very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.


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Covert Positive Incentives as an Alternative to War

  • James Pattison


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