Economic Statecraft
Diplomatic Secrecy in the 21st Century: Why Is It Increasingly Violated?

A degree of secrecy is often considered an inevitable aspect of diplomatic exchange, a process that takes place in a variety of settings, from formal to informal, from public to private, as well as bilaterally and multilaterally. Secret diplomacy is a unique form of diplomatic activity since it frequently involves concealing not only the diplomatic initiative from the public and media, but also from one's own government. As far as publicity is concerned, in the past, the relationship between diplomacy, secrecy, and intelligence gathering has often disagreed with public opinion regarding relations between states. Transparency versus secrecy is a common debate in diplomatic theory and practice. Despite this controversy, states still maintain a certain level of secrecy in their diplomatic practices. As a result, diplomatic secrecy is typically categorized into three types.

First, strategic secrecy refers to agreements between sovereign states that are concealed from other states and the general public, including those of the parties to the agreement. The concept of strategic secrecy encompasses secrecy regarding the contents of negotiations, the contents of agreements, and the fact that agreements have been reached. The principle of strategic secrecy is one of the most fundamental aspects of security alliances, in which information is shared between limited countries with shared interests and mutual trust.

Second, operational secrecy pertains to the everyday relations of diplomats and the intentional concealment of information during other types of diplomatic relations, other than negotiations. The concept of operational secrecy is explained and defended as an integral part of diplomatic practice. In reality, however, it is difficult to define exactly what is being protected or who is being protected when confidentiality is maintained.

Lastly, there is official secrecy, when something is known but not acknowledged as such. It is critical to note that official secrecy is not limited to embarrassment and scandal that must be kept secret. Moreover, it refers to circumstances in which openly acknowledging a situation sets in motion an unintended consequence. Diplomatic relations are subject to the same level of secrecy as other forms of human interaction.

The art of maintaining or disclosing secrecy is frequently employed by diplomats in order to maximise the usefulness of information for the benefit of their countries. As such, international law, particularly the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations contains various provisions on privileges and immunities with the aim to facilitate the preservation of diplomatic secrecy in order to ensure the efficient performance of diplomatic missions and diplomats as representatives of nations. Accordingly, the premises of the diplomatic mission and the private residence of diplomatic agents are inviolable. Searches, requisitions, attachments, or executions are prohibited within the premises of a diplomatic mission, the private residences of diplomatic agents, and their furnishings and other property. Archives and documents of the mission shall be inviolable at all times and in any location. There must be no breach of confidentiality regarding the official correspondence of the mission. Official correspondence means all correspondence relating to the mission and its functions. No diplomatic bag may be opened or detained. A diplomatic agent is not obliged to give evidence as a witness. The mission may use all appropriate means to communicate with the government and other missions and consulates of the sending State, wherever they are located, including diplomatic couriers and encrypted messages.

A receiving State has a special responsibility to take all necessary precautions to protect the mission's premises from intrusion or damage as well as to prevent any disturbance of the mission's peace or impairment of its dignity. For all official purposes, the receiving state should also permit and protect free communication on the part of the mission. 

Today, the changes in the norms and technology of communication may have a substantial impact on the ways in which secrecy is practiced in diplomacy. As a consequence of their domestic legislations requiring transparency and accountability, many countries are likely to reduce significantly their use of diplomatic secrecy as a legal means and shorten the time required for declassification. With the development of modern media and the application of technolocy in communication, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain secrecy. Meanwhile, governments must still work in secret in order to resolve conflicts between nations or combat serious criminals and terrorists. This means that there is a solid foundation for the claim that diplomacy will continue to be a process of making, sharing, keeping, and discovering secrets. In order to maintain the balance and make appropriate use of diplomatic secrecy for the purpose of fostering amicable international relations, it is necessary to act within the legal framework of international law, particularly in relation to diplomatic relations.

In spite of this need, recent development in international relations still indicates that diplomatic secrecy is often used to justify retaliatory actions when relations between states have deteriorated. In this regard, espionage was used as a popular argument for expelling diplomats. Furthermore, as is often the case when the reciprocity principle is applied, once one state initiates an expulsion, the other will follow suit and take similar measures. As a result, secrecy is used as a scapegoat, resulting in diplomatic tensions. As mentioned above, the distinction between diplomacy, secrecy, and intelligence gathering remains unclear and subject to considerable controversy. In this case, therefore, a more appropriate approach would be to conduct a comprehensive international inquiry and provide apparent evidence in support of any alleged espionage activity. It is not appropriate to abuse diplomatic secrecy in international relations, as this would lead to a negative effect on diplomacy, which is the principal method of reducing tension in international relations.


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Christilla Roederer-Rynning & Justin Greenwood, Black boxes and open secrets: trilogues as ‘politicised diplomacy’, West European Politics, 2000

Corneliu Bjola and Stuart Murray (ed.), Secret Diplomacy: Concepts, Contexts and Cases. Routledge, 2018

Corneliu Bjola, The ethics of secret diplomacy: a contextual approach, Journal of Global Ethics, 2013

Huw Dylan & Thomas J. Maguire, Secret Intelligence and Public Diplomacy in the Ukraine War, Global Politics and Strategy, 2022

Nahal Toosi, Spy world wary as Biden team keeps leaking Russia intel, Politico, 2022,

Peter Jones, Ethical Dilemmas of Black-Channel Diplomacy: Necessary or a Secret Foreign Policy?, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 2018

Sanderjin Duquet and Jan Wouters, Diplomacy, Secrecy and the Law, Working Paper No.151, 2015
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