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.
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.
To find out more, visit the Centre for International Policy Studies website: Twitter Conference: Understanding the Five Eyes