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A Pragmatist Take On Covert Action

As a pragmatist, I argue that a state’s self-interest may make covert action necessary and justified in some circumstances. The realities of international relations usually need practical solutions to protect national security and advance national interests, notwithstanding idealists’ claims that the historical record does not support such interventions.

States have utilized covert action on several occasions throughout history to further their objectives. One such case is America’s engagement in the Cold War. During this time, the US carried out covert operations to halt the development of communism, such as those the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out in Guatemala and Iran. The pragmatist outlook that motivated these efforts was that the US believed that containment of communism was necessary for both its own security and the stability of the international order. According to Smith et al. (1987), this process is referred to as containment. It was coined by George F. Kennan in the 1940s as an American policy towards the Soviet Union and all its allies. Therefore, the government’s covert action was to protect international stability and national security against communist influence.

Another noteworthy historical occurrence that supports the pragmatist perspective is the Israeli undercover operation known as Opera. This operation took place in 1981 after a preemptive attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor was launched by Israel, putting a stop to that nation’s nuclear weapons development (Kirschenbaum, 2010). Kirschenbaum (2010) notes that the Israeli government asserted that this clandestine action was required for security and self-defense. Israel was aware that permitting Iraq to obtain nuclear weapons would significantly jeopardize its existence and the peace in the area, necessitating clandestine action.

The practicality of these tactics is frequently shown by the disclosure of covert government acts, such as the declassification of papers. States frequently employ clandestine tactics to further their objectives, as demonstrated by the CIA’s involvement in covert operations like the 1953 Chilean or Iranian coups (Lucey, 2019). These acts were driven by practical considerations based on concerns about national security and pursuing strategic benefits, even though they were questionable.

Idealists argue that international law and ethical concerns should take precedence, while pragmatists recognize that the realpolitik of the international system occasionally needs covert action. According to their argument, as stated by Tezcanlar (2019), they instigate that covert operations frequently transgress moral and legal standards due to their secrecy, which may lead to violations of human rights, national sovereignty, and international law. Idealists believe that the best ways to resolve conflicts and advance national interests are through accountability, diplomacy, and transparency. States must prioritize their interests and safeguard their national security, even if doing so calls for the use of subversive methods. Keep in mind that covert action should only ever be employed sparingly, with clear objectives, and under tight supervision to prevent abuse and negative repercussions. This means that such actions are always not the first option but the last resort, only taken when deemed necessary, all things considered.

As a realist, there are instances in which covert action is both necessary and appropriate. Historical data, such as events like US engagement in the Cold War and Israel’s Operation Opera, is used to support this position. States have employed covert techniques throughout history, driven by neo-nationalism and self-interest. In contrast to idealists who prioritize respect for international law, pragmatics recognize that the realities of the international system frequently demand practical measures to protect and develop state interests.


Kirschenbaum, J. (2010). Operation Opera: An Ambiguous Success. Journal of Strategic Security3(4), 49–62.

Lucey, A. (2019). Iranian Ulama & the CIA: The Key Alliance Behind the 1953 Iranian Coup D’état. History in the Making12(1).

Smith, G., Deibel, T. L., & Gaddis, J. L. (1987). Containment: Concept and Policy. Foreign Affairs66(2), 437.

Tezcanlar, A. M. (2019). The Theory of Covert Action.


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