16 Oct 2023
Intelligence diplomacy an underrated tool of statecraft
By Chris Taylor
You didn't read about it in the Australian media but back in August the Director-General of the Office of National Intelligence (ONI) Andrew Shearer and Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) Director-General Kerri Hartland met Timor Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao in Dili.
According to the Timor-Leste Government they discussed "various security-related matters, covering national and regional issues". Furthermore, the "Prime Minister highlighted the importance of maintaining close collaboration with Australia to address common challenges in regional security and expressed his gratitude for Australian support in strengthening security and intelligence institutional capacity".
Shearer and Hartland then accompanied a parliamentary joint standing committee on intelligence and security delegation to meet with the New Zealand government, including the Defence Minister and the Opposition Leader.
This is intelligence diplomacy in action - using intelligence actors and relationships to conduct, or substantially facilitate, diplomatic relations. Indeed, intelligence diplomacy is a potent tool for statecraft; useful in specific circumstances to either enhance conventional diplomacy or create subtler lines of communication.
Intelligence diplomacy is growing in importance as we move into a period of greater strategic complexity and with the variety of communication channels increasing.
As ASPI's statecraft and intelligence centre outlines in its latest report, intelligence diplomacy is a valuable but little appreciated or understood component of the intelligence community's work.
Equally, governments need to understand the limitations of intelligence diplomacy and that, with this increasing utility, comes potential hazards. Agencies themselves, meanwhile, need to make the necessary investments to ensure they can carry out this important work when they are called upon to do so.
In recent years Australia's intelligence chiefs have spoken in general terms of intelligence diplomacy's strategic value. Interviewed in 2020, then ASIS director-general Paul Symon described "a role for intelligence diplomacy", adding that sometimes "messages are better delivered by intelligence chiefs rather than diplomats".
Australia is not unique in pursuing intelligence diplomacy. In July 2023 CIA Director Bill Burns confirmed he had "sought to quietly strengthen intelligence channels with China, including through my own travels". And Burns' efforts have not been confined to the Indo-Pacific. In November 2022 he met his Russian counterpart, SVR Director Sergei Naryshkin, to warn of possible consequences of the use of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war.
This followed Burns' unsuccessful attempt a year earlier to dissuade a Russian invasion of Ukraine, including in discussion joined by President Vladimir Putin. Burns has since acknowledged his broader role in engaging with undesirable interlocutors - including the Taliban - on behalf of the Biden administration.
Governments turn to intelligence diplomacy when the nature of the interlocutor, the relationship, the issue or the international political context means that intelligence officers or relationships are particularly advantageous. In such moments, governments might assess that intelligence capabilities are effectiveness can help.
The often (but as we have seen, not always) secretive nature of intelligence diplomacy makes assessing its value in the conduct of statecraft challenging - but in an Australian context we can see clear hits and misses. Nick Warner's visit to Honiara in 2017, as ASIS Director-General, preceded Honiara's decision to sign on to joint development with Australia of an underwater telecommunications cable, in lieu of a previously agreed Chinese proposal.
Conversely, a joint visit to the same capital in April 2022 by Symon and Shearer did not stop the signing of a security agreement with Beijing. More positively, Warner's engagement with the Iranian Government, as ONI Director-General, helped secure release of Australian prisoner Kylie Moore-Gilbert.
Intelligence diplomacy is an important complement to more typical diplomacy and to broader intelligence work, but it is not a substitute. Use of intelligence actors and relationships can extend diplomatic engagement's reach into circumstances which might otherwise be impossible. Although, the Solomons undersea cable case demonstrates just how much an outcome can hinge on deployment of a broad range of tools - including policy initiatives and resources.
Nonetheless, intelligence diplomacy is subject to the same limitations applying to other "back channels". Early breakthroughs risk becoming substitutes for real, substantive negotiations, and secret agreements, no matter how successful, must typically take some overt form to be implemented.
Governments should use intelligence diplomacy selectively and purposefully, in concert and collaboration with other arms of policy, and with robust, agreed policy objectives and parameters. As the CIA Director described his engagement with the Chinese: "An important means of ensuring against unnecessary misunderstandings and inadvertent collisions, and complementing and supporting policymaking channels, such as Secretary [of State] Blinken's recent visit to Beijing."
Additionally, governments should be conscious of not falling into use of intelligence diplomacy by habit or for reasons of self-interest (either on their part or their agencies). They should also be wary of over-use, for the effective utility of intelligence diplomacy depends in part on prudent and selective application.
For intelligence agencies themselves there is value in appreciating that intelligence diplomacy is an important part of the contribution they can make to national outcomes. As such they should make appropriate investments in related enabling capabilities, including lessons learned, formal training for relevant staff, and exercising.
For politicians, policymakers and the interested public, understanding the important role intelligence diplomacy can play in international relations provides a fuller sense of what it is that intelligence agencies actually do in their name.
Judiciously used, appropriately resourced, and sensibly balanced with other channels, intelligence diplomacy can be a vital tool for achieving Australia's strategic interests in the world.