Conspiracy and Foreign Policy

The spectre of conspiracy looms large in politics and international affairs. We hear of covert Russian interferences in the 2016 US Presidential Elections or of renewed intrigue surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy over half a century ago. Intelligence dossiers, anonymous sources, secret meetings and suspicious connections make up the political world we live in.

By Christopher DOMBRES [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Conspiracies, in short, are a common aspect of international relations.  They feature in the rise and fall of governments and the pursuit of diplomatic negotiations.  Conspiracies have triggered wars and are at the centre of of many security issues.  Take, as a prominent example, the secret plotting and hidden networks behind terrorism, as well as the clandestine actions deployed to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks.

While common to world politics, conspiracies are, at the same time, often seen as paranoid perceptions about far-fetched scenarios.  Of all the ways an idea can be discredited, labelling it a ‘conspiracy’ ranks amongst the most effective. Images of delusion and irrationality immediately come to mind.Which conspiracies are real and which are paranoid?  And who decides? Answering this question is not as obvious as it seems. Yes, some claims about conspiracies are difficult to take seriously. Take the alleged involvement of the US government in 9/11. Other claims are less controversial, such as Al Qaeda’s many conspiracies to commit a terrorist act.

But the division between legitimate and far-fetched conspiracies is not as straightforward as it seems. In a new article in Security Dialogue, we show how the legitimacy of a conspiracy claim is closely linked to questions of power. Focusing on multiple conspiracies associated with 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror, we show that the publicly perceived credibility of a conspiracy narrative is primarily linked to the authority of the actor advancing it and the context in which it is advanced.

On the one hand, US officials identified a range of conspiracies and presented them as legitimate and rational, even though some, such as Iraq’s supposedly covert development of Weapons of Mass Destruction or the alleged secret alliance between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime, are now widely considered false. On the other hand, conspiracies circulating in the Arab-Muslim world were dismissed in US policy circles and media commentary.  They were presented as irrational and pathological, even though some, like those concerned with the surreptitious operation of US power in the Middle East, were based on credible concerns.

Our analysis demonstrates that conspiracies and the narrative that surrounds them lie at the heart of foreign policy.  Identifying a phenomena as a conspiracy is an act of power: it can either present a situation as in need of a robust policy response, or it can delegitimize and dismiss a set of concerns that might otherwise be seen as credible and important. This is why analysing how some conspiracy narratives are positioned as paranoid, while others are taken as common sense, provides insights into the relationship between power, legitimacy and foreign policy.

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