Rahul Sagar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. His primary research interests are in the field of political theory. He has written about a range of topics in ancient and modern political theory including executive power, moderation, tyranny, and political realism. We published his first book Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy last year. Reviewing the book in the New York Review of Books, David Cole said “Rahul Sagar’s Secrets and Leaks sheds important light on the question. In carefully argued and lucid prose, Sagar, a professor of politics at Princeton, argues that secrets are inevitable, as are leaks–and that leaks have an important if precarious part in checking secrecy abuse.”
Now, on to the questions!
Why did you write Secrets and Leaks?
I had an epiphany when I was writing my undergraduate dissertation at Oxford. The question I was examining at the time was whether India’s decision to test nuclear weapons was justified. As part of my field work I went to the Ministry of External Affairs to interview a senior bureaucrat. The bureaucrat held up a file—bound by a red band—and said to me, “everything you need to know is in here, but I can’t share it with you.” I came away from the meeting thinking to myself, if I can’t see what’s in that file, then no one else can, so how then does one conduct oversight? I ended up writing the dissertation on the conundrum that secrecy posed for democracy; I concluded that there was, in effect, no way for outsiders to know if India was justified in developing nuclear weapons. Shortly afterwards, I arrived at Harvard to do my PhD. I started three days before 9/11. Within weeks the Bush Administration’s ‘War on Terror’ was underway, and I realized there would be continuing interest in the topic, and that, curiously, very little had been written on it. And off I went, spurred on in particular by the fact that leaks played such an important role is revealing the contours of this secretive war.
If I can’t see what’s in that file then no one else can, so how then does one conduct oversight?
What is the book’s most important contribution?
I think its most important contribution is to draw attention to the limits of democracy. It is widely believed that the “problem” that secrecy poses—that secrecy may be used to cover up wrongdoing—can be “solved” through careful institutional design. Appoint a suitable committee or court to oversee the President, the argument goes, and you will lessen the risk of abuse. But this way of thinking does not make much sense—for what is to stop the members of this committee or court from disclosing information or keeping it secret as and when suits their interests?
The same conundrum appears when we rely on the press to oversee the President. The defenders of the First Amendment assume that the press will always act in the public interest. But reporters, editors, and publishers have interests of their own. Since they are able to keep their dealings with their sources confidential, how do we know that they are publishing classified information for the right reasons, i.e. not to bolster their sales?
What these conundrums reveal, I think, is that discretion is inevitable. Here we have reached the limits of what law and institutions can do. This in turn means that state secrets will be kept or disclosed for the right reasons only if ‘the Establishment’ is populated by men and women who are decent.
What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing Secrets and Leaks?
I learned about the value of time. In particular I learned how important it is to reflect on a question for a very long time. I rewrote the manuscript not once or twice, but three times. All said and done I spent nearly five years on the book. In part this was because I spent a lot of energy trying to make the text accessible. The more important reason for the prolonged writing period is that my views evolved—I became increasingly skeptical of those who depict state secrecy as evil and the press as the ‘champions’ of American democracy. In retrospect I am very glad I allowed my views to evolve. There was a great deal of hysteria about an ‘imperial Presidency’ in the wake of 9/11 and time gave me the chance to see this reaction as short sighted and self serving. It allowed me to write a book that I am truly satisfied with, and that I feel no need to revisit or revise for the foreseeable future.
Who do you see as the audience for this book?
I hope the book is read by government officials, both those who wish to keep secrets and those who wish to disclose them.
I wrote the book with a broad audience in mind. Obviously I wanted to make a theoretical contribution. I hope political theorists and students of American politics see the book as an exemplar of realist political theory—that is, theorizing that is attentive to the constraints that politics poses on democratic theory. But I never wanted to write a book solely for my discipline or indeed for scholars alone. I hope the book is read by government officials, both those who wish to keep secrets and those who wish to disclose them. I hope it tempers the actions of both sides. Above all I hope it is read by lawyers and journalists—the most powerful people in America! If a judge or two or a retired Vice-President happens to read it, I certainly won’t complain.
What are some of the books that have greatly influenced you?
Machiavelli’s Prince and Discourses, followed closely by Aristotle’s Politics, Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Publius’ Federalist Papers, and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. What these books have in common is that they are concerned with what I consider the most important question in political life, namely, what is the best possible regime that we can have.
What are you reading right now?
This week I’m reading Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape. I’ve assigned it for a class on politics and public policy where we are examining what can be done to help peoples that trapped in failed or failing states. The Great Escape provides a valuable counterpoint to scholars that call for military intervention and/or international aid. It identifies the smaller, concrete steps that can be taken to help peoples escape the impoverished circumstances that foster oppressive regimes.
What is your next project?
Thus far I have been interested in executive power in modern democracies. In particular I have studied what makes democratic leaders act responsibly even when their actions cannot be overseen by others. My next book project examines executive power in regimes that are not fully liberal or democratic. The great bulk of political regimes in the world fall into this category, yet contemporary scholars hardly study these regimes. My book project, tentatively titled Have You Been to Kazanistan?: The Case for Decent Regimes, evaluates what I term ‘decent regimes’—i.e. regimes that may not be fully liberal or democratic but do much to enhance the living standards of their citizens. What should we make of such regimes, I ask? Given that the Arab Spring has shown—once again—that it is difficult to “export” liberal democracy, I ask whether it would be more reasonable to coax regimes to be ‘decent’ than to goad their populaces to rebel—a policy that has led to the spread of ‘illiberal democracies’.