Top Secret Is Not Always the Best Approach

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Everybody loves to hear exclusive and classified information -- including CEOs of major corporations, editors of the largest newspapers and presidents and prime ministers, as well as ordinary citizens. For them, academic research that is obtained from open sources seems to carry little weight compared with a report compiled with the help of backroom informants. So often, analytical reports carrying the stamp "top secret" are perceived as more substantive than information that is available for general public -- especially in matters concerning national security.

Sometimes we can infer the contents of such classified reports by examining the actions of our leaders, for whom these reports served as the basis for adopting certain policies. It is frightening to even consider what Kremlin officials might have read in the report on Ukraine's Orange Revolution, considering that they sent thousands of riot police armed with water cannons, truncheons and shields to counter a few hundred demonstrators, most of them middle-aged and mild-mannered intellectuals, at the Dissenters' March.

One might plausibly argue that it is impossible to build a comprehensive model involving wide-scale political struggles, mass movements and the influence of foreign governments. This is at least partly true, and it explains why there can be no secret political science or economics research, at least when it comes to economy-wide issues. Any predictions or conclusions on these matters become authoritative and meaningful only as a result of open discussion. Any political economist's thesis has practical value only if it stands up to thorough analysis and criticism by other professionals in the same or a related field.

Still, modern social science can employ advanced statistical methods to make conclusions about much-discussed issues such as a country's intervention in another nation's affairs. Two political scientists from New York University, Shanker Satyanath and Daniel Berger, and one economist, William Easterly, used historical data from the Cold War-era to measure how a country's development of democratic institutions is negatively affected by a superpower's intervention into that nation's domestic affairs. The most serious challenge was not in determining if some type of intervention occurred (declassified CIA and KGB documents provide this data), but in establishing a cause-and-effect relationship between such interventions and the level of democracy in these countries. And because diplomats and members of the intelligence services love to exaggerate the role they played in historical events, including those in which they did not take any active part, researches had to make a very close study of the hard facts available to them.

The results of the research are clear and straightforward. A superpower's intervention significantly lowers the level of democracy in those countries that are targets of interference, and the negative effect endures over an extended period of time. This is not surprising. Either for the purposes of establishing a regime similar to that of the superpower, or simply for realpolitik reasons, the superpower would want to have a authoritarian ruler rather than a leader with a wide political legitimacy. Perhaps more surprisingly, the devastating effect of intervention on the development of democracy was practically identical when instigated by the democratic United States as it was when it was directed by the communist Soviet Union.

But in political economy, even the most advanced statistical methods do not guarantee conclusive results. Do they strike you as improbable or unreasonable? Do they contradict something you read elsewhere? Political economists, as opposed to backroom informants and secret government advisers, have nothing to hide. That is why their analyses are more interesting and useful.

Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the New Economic School/CEFIR, is a columnist for Vedomosti.