Twitter Conference: Understanding the Five Eyes

Twitter Conference: Understanding the Five Eyes
Photo by Chris Yang on Unsplash

The term Five Eyes typically refers to a unique signals intelligence pooling club of three or four-letter acronymed agencies from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. But FVEY, as it is also known, is now also attached to a large and growing number of “special relationships” and transgovernmental policy networks that bind these five states in virtually all areas of defence, intelligence, and security. 

Strong, Secure, Engaged – Canada’s reigning defence policy document – describes the Five Eyes as a “community,” as do numerous similar documents currently circulating in Canberra, London, Wellington, and even Washington. Viewed from Beijing, however, the Five Eyes is essentially a major anti-China alliance – a view now shared by Chinese Communist Party mouthpieces, Chinese embassies, and Chinese International Relations scholars alike. 

Despite its centrality to many aspects of global politics – from defence diplomacy and emerging technology to the evolving role of major powers –  the Five Eyes alliance remains relatively under-studied. At one level, this has to do with a deeply institutionalized level of secrecy. Indeed, before the Snowden disclosures in 2013, the community was of interest mainly to intelligence scholars and select journalists; for everyone else, the Five Eyes hovered between a known-unknown and unknown-unknown – that is, as an object of inquiry that was either utterly opaque or completely invisible. In fact, this once included the member states’ top leaders. As Desmond Ball and Jeffrey T. Richelson, two Five Eyes Studies pioneers, argued in their 1985 book, The Ties That Bind, it was only in 1973 that Australian prime ministers learned about this alliance – and their country’s participation in it.  

Follow us on Twitter to keep up with CIPS’ groundbreaking Five Eyes conference

Another reason behind the relative lack of scholarship is the object’s informal nature. As politicians and bureaucrats attached the term “security” to more and more “intermestic” issues, Five Eyes transgovernmental and transnational ties in policy, law, technology and science, grew in range and sophistication. But these network forms of organizations remain uncoordinated; the meetings of the “Five Nations Passport Group”, for example, have little to do to the Five Eyes’ defence ministers conferences, and vice versa. Together, however, all these quintuple ties produce powerful dynamics in contemporary security politics – not just in terms of relations between states, as Tim Legrand’s work has shown, but also within states and between non-state actors and assorted socio-technical settings.

The Five Eyes has also long been subject to generally unquestioned assumptions about the positive value of Five Eyes cooperation – assumptions rooted in the collective imagination of the vast majority of the publics in the member countries. So, while Snowden-style crises can and do break this trend somewhat, the “we-feelings” tend to re-establish themselves rather quickly. This, too, might have contributed to the alliance’s relative invisibility. It is therefore only by making the familiar – and the feel-good – strange that we can situate the Five Eyes with the temporal and spatial coordinates of “the Anglosphere,” let alone critically examine the ideological assumptions that underpin some of the categories and discourses we use to talk about these phenomena in world politics.    

This Twitter conference, scheduled for September 30th under hashtag #5EyesCIPS, sets out to explore precisely the most basic questions about the Five Eyes: what it is, how it developed and evolved, and where it might be going next. And given that the object takes multiple forms and touches on so many different subjects, we welcomed proposals that reflected a range of approaches and topics – from Trump, Huawei, and COVID-19 to the “pre-history” of the Five Eyes.  Naturally, this approach has resulted in a wide variety of contributions, ranging across seemingly not directly topics. However, uniting them all are certain reoccurring themes: the community’s co-emergence with the so-called liberal international order; the complexity of its structures; the asymmetries of power; the intensification of transgovernmental ties; the questions of democratic oversight; and the assorted inside/outside dynamics.

Academic Twitter conferences are still mostly experimental, and ours builds on the trail blazed by the Women in International Security Canada (WIISC) Twitter Conferences of 2019 and 2020. Indeed, we remain grateful to Veronica Kitchen and Tanya Irwin for sharing their lessons learned with us. Our gratitude also goes to SSHRC for an Exchange Grant (Knowledge Mobilization) that has allowed CIPS to hire Caroline Dunton, PhD student in the uOttawa School of Politics to assist with the event. 

Our conference did not require all presenters to have a public Twitter account, only that presentations be made “Tweetable” in 6-12 Tweets. Accordingly, some presentations will be Tweeted by the authors themselves, others via the CIPS Twitter account. A brief discussion and question period will follow each panel, to be curated by the panel chairs and myself.

As the conference is taking place during a global health and education emergency, we asked for presentations to be based on past and current research rather than completed papers. That said, we did ask each presented for a short contribution to the CIPS Blog, to be published right after the conference – as indicated in the schedule of presentations below. We will call this “CIPS Symposium: Understanding the Five Eyes.”

As with most experimental forms of scholarly interaction and knowledge dissemination, some hiccups are to be expected. Our hope is that you will nevertheless join us on Twitter to discuss the events and processes that have shaped, and continue to shape, the evolution of this remarkable “network of networks.” 

Conference Schedule and schedual for publication for each blog:

Panel 1 (“Morning”) Chair: Rita Abrahamsen; Discussant: Srdjan Vucetic 

Panel 2 (“Afternoon”) Chair: Caroline Dunton; Discussant: Srdjan Vucetic 

Take a sneek peak out the next blog in this series, From Insularity to Exteriority: How the Anglosphere Is Shaping Global Governance by Tim Legrand (University of Adelaide)

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