Tying Hands Behind Closed Doors: The Logic and Practice of Secret Reassurance

Keren Yarhi-Milo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


Private diplomacy and secret agreements among adversaries are major features of international relations. Sometimes secret reassurance has resulted in cooperation and even peace between longtime adversaries. Yet rationalist theories consider private diplomatic communication as cheap talk. How do we explain this gap between theoretical expectations and the empirical record? I offer a theory that explains how, why, and when a leader may convince an enemy that his private reassurances are credible even when they are not costly to undertake. I also account for the conditions under which recipients of such reassurance infer the leader's benign intentions from these secret interactions. I claim that leaders engage in secret reassurance with the enemy when they face significant domestic opposition. The adversary can leverage the initiator's domestic vulnerability by revealing the secret reassurance, thereby imposing domestic punishment on the initiator. Further, by entering into private or secret negotiations and offering their adversary such leverage, initiators generate "autonomous risk" that exists beyond their control. I evaluate this theory against two empirical cases. The first case looks at Richard Nixon's secret assurances to the Chinese leadership in 1972. The second examines the secret negotiations between Israeli officials and the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization that ended with the signing of the Oslo I Accord in 1993.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)405-435
Number of pages31
JournalSecurity Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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