The Garrison State Project: Tracking the Growth of Consensus on National Security

by David Sylvan

Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies

In the three years since Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, it has become clear in one country after another that such surveillance is carried out by each country’s own agencies, that the surveillance has been going on for some time, and that it is on a wider scale than had previously been suspected. In spite of this realization, the majority reaction among political elites has been that although some correctives may be needed, the world is simply too dangerous to forgo these tools. Thus, in the after-Snowden period, surveillance powers have been maintained or expanded in the US, France, the UK, Germany, Japan, and even Switzerland.

Moreover, in spite of the numerous controversies raised about the NSA’s activities in other countries, cooperation between the agency and its foreign counterparts has ended up being either resumed or strengthened. That cooperation was extensive, covering some 38 states with whom the NSA had ongoing relationships. Although comparable data for the present day are of course unavailable, country-specific news stories suggest that the political fracas did not seriously interrupt either bilateral or multilateral forms of signals intelligence cooperation. Of course, this persistence of cooperation in the face of condemnation—to be specific, the apparent surprise at the extent of surveillance, the carefully worded condemnations, the eventual return to the status quo ante, and the legislative thumbs-up to even more extensive and intrusive actions—extends well beyond surveillance to myriad forms of security-related activities. A case in point is drone strikes, which have been acquiesced in by numerous countries, regardless of who is in the White House.

The short-lived controversies over surveillance and drone strikes suggest two things: that security-related activities of this sort are becoming increasingly ubiquitous by states acting both unilaterally and multilaterally; and that those activities are strongly backed by the majority of legislative elites in the countries carrying them out. Indeed, there is a close tie between these two points since it is the support of those elites which makes it possible for legislation to be passed, budgets to grow, and controversies to be avoided or short-circuited. Thus, counterterrorism budgets in Western countries have increased massively over the past 15 years with very little political opposition, and even earlier domestic security agency scandals such as the discovery of COINTELPRO (the FBI), the Finucane affair (MI5), and the Canard Enchaîné bugging (DST) failed to stop the upward trajectory in funding and activity. Arguably, there is a long-term trend toward larger and more active national security apparatuses in a number of democratic countries, with this trend being enabled and strengthened by a growing consensus among legislative elites. This claim is the starting point for the presentation and the research project on which it serves as a progress report.

The structure of the talk is as follows. I begin with a discussion of the central claim, situating the part of that claim about a long-term trend within the scholarly literature, articulating mechanisms which conduce to the trend, and elaborating its theoretical and substantive significance. Since that literature arguably began with Harold Lasswell’s seminal 1941 article, “The Garrison State,” about the way in which democratic countries can gradually come to be marked by an ever greater political role played by “specialists on violence,” the project is thus named after Lasswell’s evocative term. In this regard, it is striking that the creation, growth, and expansion in the scope of activities of security-related agencies is something which considerably antedates the 9/11 attacks. Already the early years of the cold war were marked by such growth, growth which was accelerated by other factors such as decolonization and membership in alliances, and which was only slowed to a slight degree during the post-cold war/pre-9/11 period.

I then turn to the second half of the claim (about growing legislative elite consensus in democratic countries), discussing not only its theoretical import but the way in which it points to a concrete research design through which the trend part of the claim can be assessed (since of course many actions of security-related agencies are secret as are, notoriously, their budgets). The remaining sections of the paper concern a specific methodological issue: how to use speeches in parliamentary debates as indicators of elite consensus. Speeches are arguments of various sorts, and so I address precisely how speeches can be coded in order to abduce those arguments. I then briefly discuss the issue of analyzing arguments in order to determine consensus, and conclude with some preliminary results from earlier debates. Those results, and a less systematic account of other debates in other countries, suggest that, unfortunately, Lasswell was indeed correct, and that Western democracies have for decades gradually been transforming into garrison states.

NB: The Garrison State Project website URL is

David Sylvan is professor of international relations / political science, and director of research, at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. He obtained his Ph.D. at Yale University and before coming to Geneva, taught at Syracuse University and the University of Minnesota. Among his other works, he is the coauthor of U.S. Foreign Policy in Perspective: Clients, Enemies and Empire; and of A Rationalist Methodology for the Social Sciences. In addition to the Garrison State Project, his current research revolves around the development of formal methods for the study of diplomatic conversations and elite interpretations of news items; social relationships, such as conflict, deference, and subordination, between states; and “buddy” relationships between civilian cadres and military officers in authoritarian regimes.

SPIRe Seminar Series
This blog was written to accompany a seminar in the SPIRe seminar series. Dr. David Sylvan (The Graduate Institute, Geneva) on The Garrison State Project: Tracking the Growth of Consensus on National Security (Discussant  Prof. Ben Tonra): Wednesday, Nov. 1st, 14:00-15:15

The full schedule for the SPIRe seminar series semester 1 can be found on our website.




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