Skip to main content
×
Home
    • Aa
    • Aa

Facing Off and Saving Face: Covert Intervention and Escalation Management in the Korean War

Abstract
Abstract

States pursue their cooperative and competitive goals using both public and private policy tools. Yet there is a profound mismatch between the depth, variety, and importance of covert activity and what scholars of International Relations (IR) know about it. This article addresses this gap by analyzing how adversaries struggle for influence within the covert sphere, why they often retreat to it, and when they abandon it. It focuses on secrecy among adversaries intervening in local conflicts and develops a theory about secrecy's utility as a device for creating sustainable limits in war. Drawing on insights about secrecy and face-work from the sociologist Erving Goffman, I show that major powers individually and collectively conceal evidence of foreign involvement when the danger of unintended conflict escalation is acute. Doing so creates a kind of “backstage” in which adversaries can exceed limits on war without stimulating hard-to-resist pressure to escalate further. An important payoff of the theory is making sense of puzzling cases of forbearance: even though adversaries often know about their opponent's covert activity, they often abstain from publicizing it. Such “tacit collusion” arises when both sides seek to manage escalation risks even as they compete for power and refuse to capitulate. The article evaluates the theory via several nested cases of external intervention in the Korean War. Drawing on newly available materials documenting the covert air war between secretly deployed Soviet pilots and Western forces, the cases show how adversaries can successfully limit war by concealing activity from outside audiences. Beyond highlighting the promise in studying the covert realm in world politics, the article has important implications for scholarship on coercive bargaining, reputation, state uses of secrecy, and how regime type influences conflict behavior.

Copyright
Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Elizabeth E. Anderson 1998. The Security Dilemma and Covert Action: The Truman Years. International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence 11 (4):403–27.

Matthew A. Baum 2004. Going Private: Public Opinion, Presidential Rhetoric, and the Domestic Politics of Audience Costs in US Foreign Policy Crises. Journal of Conflict Resolution 48 (5):603–31.

Jonathan N. Brown , and Anthony S. Marcum . 2011. Avoiding Audience Costs: Domestic Political Accountability and Concessions in Crisis Diplomacy. Security Studies 20 (2):141–70.

Michael W. Cannon 1992. The Development of the American Theory of Limited War, 1945–63. Armed Forces and Society 19 (1):71104.

Steven Casey . 2008. Selling the Korean War: Propaganda, Politics, and Public Opinion in the United States, 1950–1953. New York: Oxford University Press.

Renato Corbetta , and William Dixon . 2005. Danger Beyond Dyads: Third-Party Participants in Militarized Interstate Disputes. Conflict Management and Peace Science 22 (1):3961.

Alexander B. Downes , and Mary Lauren Lilley . 2010. Overt Peace, Covert War?: Covert Intervention and the Democratic Peace. Security Studies 19 (2):266306.

David P. Forsythe 1992. Democracy, War, and Covert Action. Journal of Peace Research 29 (4):385–95.

David N. Gibbs 1995. Secrecy and International Relations. Journal of Peace Research 32 (2):213–28.

Kristian Skrede Gleditsch . 2007. Transnational Dimensions of Civil War. Journal of Peace Research 44 (3):293309.

Jeffrey W. Legro 1994. Military Culture and Inadvertent Escalation in World War II. International Security 18 (4):108–42.

Adam Meirowitz , and Anne E. Sartori . 2008. Strategic Uncertainty as a Cause of War. Quarterly Journal of Political Science 3 (4):327–52.

Gregory D. Miller 2003. Hypotheses on Reputation: Alliance Choices and the Shadow of the Past. Security Studies 12 (3):4078.

Alexander Ovodenko . 2007. (Mis)interpreting Threats: A Case Study of the Korean War. Security Studies 16 (2):254–86.

Patrick M. Regan 1996. Conditions of Successful Third-Party Intervention in Intrastate Conflicts. Journal of Conflict Resolution 40 (2):336–59.

Kenneth A. Schultz 2001. Democracy and Coercive Diplomacy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Zhihua Shen . 2010. China and the Dispatch of the Soviet Air Force: The Formation of the Chinese-Soviet-Korean Alliance in the Early Stage of the Korean War. Journal of Strategic Studies 33 (2):211–30.

Richard Smoke . 1977. War: Controlling Escalation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

David Stasavage . 2004. Open-Door or Closed-Door? Transparency in Domestic and International Bargaining. International Organization 58 (4):667703.

Kathryn Weathersby . 1993. The Soviet Role in the Early Phase of the Korean War: New Documentary Evidence. Journal of American-East Asian Relations 2 (4):425–58.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Organization
  • ISSN: 0020-8183
  • EISSN: 1531-5088
  • URL: /core/journals/international-organization
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
×

Metrics

Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 22
Total number of PDF views: 301 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1003 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 29th June 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.