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Role of Intelligence in Foreign Policy Formulation: An Overview


Assimie, Monima Opiriba

Department Of History and Diplomatic Studies

Ignatius Ajuru University of Education

Port Harcourt


Kingdom Orji

Department of History and Diplomatic Studies

Ignatius Ajuru University of Education

Port Harcourt

GSM: 08034623541


Interdependence and globalization are two concepts that have continued to redefine international politics. Transactions that transcend national boundaries are increasing by geometric progression; we are confronted daily with issues on cyber-crime, narcotics, drugs, terrorism, refugees, migrants among others. Consequently, policy-makers are saddled with variety of issues that are not known decades ago. But, how do we make sense of all these phenomena; ranging from a mere diplomatic state visit to formulating long range foreign policy objectives? This paper is based on the framework that the international community is anarchic, and actors don’t get what they deserve. But, the international system is not necessarily chaotic and conflictive, so actors get what they bargain for. On this corollary, what nations get depends on their foreign policy thrust. Further, it is heartwarming that in foreign policy formulation, several organs of government play roles according to the tenants of statecrafts. In this write up, we focus on one such organ namely: “intelligence”. The paper looks at: the concept and practice of intelligence as a statecraft, foreign policy as an instrument for the advancement of national interest, and the role of intelligence in foreign policy making; arguing that intelligence will continue to be an integral part of foreign policy making. Therefore, greater attention should be paid in future studies on foreign policy- intelligence connection. Further, studies in the subject matter should lean on the culture of the people to avoid misconceptions.  We have adopted the primary and secondary data collection methods in our field work.


KEY WORDS: Intelligence, Foreign policy, International System, Statecraft, National Interest.



The international arena constitutes the stage on which the units of international politics act, though there are diverse actors in the world stage in recent times, it would appear that, state entities have continued to occupy a central position in the international system. However, the goals, needs, attributes, aspiration, latitude of choices and actions are significantly influenced by the overall distribution or structure of power in the international system, and by its standard of rules, codes of conducting relations between states, and by transnational values. In spite of this, one common phenomenon is the increase in activities that transcends national borders. Today, the shorthand for internationalization of world politics is “interdependence” not just events but also ideas, institutions, and decisions. It is a phenomenon that draws societies, and particular groups within societies closer together, with both positive and negative consequences. Position of scholars differs about the precise implication of interdependence and the policies that states should pursue. They differ, for instance, about whose interests (those of corporations? of states? of particular classes? of persons?) interdependence ought to serve, and about the ways that the various interdependent factors relate to one another. But that interdependence is the central new ingredient in world politics, is now a widely settled fact. However, this does not render the international scene less anarchic and a jungle ruled by national interest.  Take for instance; in a recent survey on World Wide threat Assessment; Coats (2018) reports that increase in cross border activities has placed several nations in different continents at risk including America and her interest. It behoves states in the circumstance to collate relevant information, covertly or overtly to assist in the right kind of foreign policy. In the British Foreign Ministry, the Home Office Department is mainly responsible for the collation of information abroad that will aid policy matters. This underscores the place of intelligence in foreign policy making.


But, how do we make sense of all the phenomena that transcend national borders, ranging from mere sending of a diplomatic note to formulating long range foreign policy objectives? They are ideas or actions designed by policy makers to solve a problem or promote some changes in the policies, attitudes, or actions of another state or states, in non-state actors, in the international economy or in the physical environment of the world. Further, it would appear that, what amounts to foreign policy is a mixed bag of diverse interest of nations and the scope varies. Take for instance, there appears to be a world of difference between sending a single diplomatic note to a friendly state, depicting a specific action, and defining what a state seeks to achieve throughout the world in the long run. Further, what are the instruments necessary for influencing the foreign policy choices of state entities, since nations must continue to interact in the world stage? Still no nation, no matter how endowed can be totally self-sufficient, the objectives, desires or goals of a nation cannot be achieved within the restricted borders of states. This means that, it is as important as it is necessary that all nations should harness resources and needs both domestically and outside their national boundaries. This makes internal and foreign policy a sine qua non for actors in the world stage. Thus, any goal and aspiration of the state that cannot be achieved within the confines of the state must be formulated, designed and pursued through deliberate policies, geared towards achieving same across national borders. This is the major thrust of foreign policies. Therefore, it will be safe to say that foreign policy is meant to harness interest derivable from across national boundaries. (Orugbani, 2004).


To achieve sound foreign policy however, a state witnesses the interplay of several basic tenets of statecraft, as there are processes involved. This paper examines one of such elements namely’ intelligence’ and the role of same in foreign policy making. The paper is divided into three parts via: The concept and practice of intelligence as statecraft, Foreign policy as an instrument for advancement of national interest, and intelligence as a veritable tool for foreign policy formulation and implementation. While no pretense is made to try to cover all aspect of ‘intelligence’ and foreign policy in a paper like this, attempt is made at presenting the nexus and overview of intelligence and foreign policy practice. Though, we are aware that because of its very nature, scholarship in the area of intelligence as a statecraft is a road less travelled, we intend to piece together information from available literature on the subject, with elements in the training manuals of intelligence operatives. Our immediate purpose is to present an exposée on the aspects of intelligence that burdens on statecraft which aid the making of foreign policy. (Barston, 2013).


Foreign Policy as an Instrument for Advancement of National Interest

Several scholars, among them Holsti (2003), Ofegbu (1980), Wilberforce (1986) and Orugbani (2004), have variously defined foreign policy and indeed, such definitions are not lacking.  But for the purpose of this paper we shall settle for the description of the concept as actions designed by a nation towards the external environment with the aim of achieving some national interest as well as national prestige within the international community. (Rourke, 2009), Zartman (1994). Foreign policy is a product of deep-seated reflection, deliberation and systematic foresight of policy makers about the external milieu, based on copious information obtained through diverse sources as the realities towards which foreign policy is formulated. Further, foreign policy must be geared towards attaining some valued objectives and desired goals. It follows that policy makers are charged with the responsibility of choosing from policy alternatives and from a variety of options, hence the position they take is a product of their perception and views that will best achieve set goals. This is why in formulating sound foreign policy the place of the right type of information and the activities of intelligence operatives are of uttermost importance.


Before arriving at this position, several assumptions were made: first, that no nation is an island unto itself, and that, no matter the level of endowment no nation is “all sufficient” therefore, the objectives, goals and desires of a nation that cannot be mustered within the restricted boundaries of a nation must be acquired from the international arena, through negotiations, treaties and agreement. This makes it imperative that nations should harness needs from within and without the confines of their national boundaries. Thus, nation are at liberty to have both internal (domestic) and foreign (external) policies. This is because the goals and objectives that cannot be actualized within the internal borders of a nation must be pursued, formulated, designed and directed through properly articulated foreign policy.


The process of foreign policy formulation is not the same in all nations within the international space. This is largely because of differences in type of government, policy thrust, citizenry, financial resources available among others. What appears to be common feature amongst nations are: the orientation and policy objectives of a nation towards another, the main objective they strive to achieve in their relationship and dealing with another country, and resources at the disposal of the nation to push through the foreign policy objectives. Variations exist in a nation’s foreign policy in responses to changes in the international arena. However, a country’s choice to respond or react to development within the international system is determined strictly, by the afore-mentioned features. (Hoffman, 1981).


Concept and Practice of Intelligence as Statecraft

In its pristine and purest sense, the concept “intelligence” is the product of an analytic process which evaluates information collected from diverse sources. Further, when such bits of information are scrupulously and thoroughly evaluated, they are then integrated into a cohesive whole to produce an estimate about criminal or other phenomena detrimental to the state. This will further lead to informed conclusion by using scientific approach of problem solving. In this sense intelligence becomes a synergistic product intended to provide meaningful and trustworthy direction to decision-makers in the area of: criminal activities, extremist, terrorists, risk and other cross border activities that might be injurious to the states Coats (2018).


The immediate purpose of intelligence is to have comparative advantage in an anarchic international system. This may include in the area of prevention of acts injuries to the well-being of the state and her interest everywhere. Prevention here involves gaining and developing information related to threat, crime and risk among others, which may lead to the arrest of offenders, discovering harden targets, and flash-points among others that will eventually provide assess to vulnerability, and mitigate threats. Intelligence aid development; by providing information to foreign policy makers on: the changing nature of threats, characteristics and methodologies of threats, and emerging threats where they exist. Information assists policy makers in developing response strategies, reallocating resources – human and material, a process known  as Strategic Intelligence Network. Further, to get copious information which precedes intelligence entails some levels of extrapotation. Information in this regard is defined as pieces of raw, unanalyzed, data that identifies statistics on persons, events, evidence or other processes. This could be through persons or technological sources. Intelligence could therefore be defined as the combination of credible information and qualitative analysis. This points to information that has been evaluated, and from which conclusion can be drawn. It includes collection and analysis of information to produce an end product designed to inform decision makers at both the tactical and strategic levels. Further, intelligence entails stepping further than immediate evidence by not only drawing meaning from facts, but taking information collected in the course of an investigation from external and internal files, and arriving at something more than what was evident. This act amounts to adding value to information and data through analysis, and extrapolation. In this case, intelligence must be based on analysis performed on available information before it is classified as one. In other words, a linking thread must be established  Further, information flow is both vertically and horizontally among ciphers in Diplomatic Missions abroad, and agents in the Foreign Ministry.


Why Nations Need Intelligence To Manage Foreign Policy.

It is trite to state that, we live in a world without a supra-national authority, a world without a central government, therefore an anarchic international system. There is therefore the need for nations, among other things, to guide their sovereignty, and to do this effectively, National Security Intelligence (NTI) is a sine qua non. Nations are in dire need of information to guide appropriate policy formulation and military actions where the need arises. Collection and analysis of information concern a state relations with other states, organization and persons with regards to political and economic factors and the maintenance of sovereign principles. In this direction, national security intelligence encompasses diplomatic and military intelligence, that will enhance appropriate and informed action in relationship and homeostasis of the state with foreign powers (C.I.A. 2017).


The theory of intelligence function follows the principle that information that is provided by intelligence analysis is objective and decisions based on the intelligence are grounded in objectivity. Intelligence may therefore be viewed as a tool for foreign and defense policy of a nation, while some see it as having a role in domestic security or a mechanism of state oppression. According to Ferris (2003) “…intelligence is a means through which the use of power is guided. It fosters understanding of our environment, how to apply force or leverage and on to whom. In this sense, intelligence becomes the judgment of political leaders and their grasp of the value and limitation of its use.”


Sources of Intelligence

Assessments on intelligence are often drafted based on the combination of open and secret sources of information. Open source information is often drawn from materials acquired and processed by other agencies such as: media and other non-governmental sources. These areas are not strictly defined as intelligence activities. The essence of intelligences lies at the level of analysis and assessment. The next is the secret sources of information. This is also referred to as Covert Action (CA). It involves deliberately seeking and collecting bits and piece of information clandestinely to fill in gaps, or to provides the linking thread in a chain of occurrence, that will invariably make sense. Covert Action is intelligence-driven, and offer supplementary support to policy-makers in the context of coercive bargaining. Secret source materials foster more indept analysis of emerging evidence that in most cases reveal more than what superficially comes to the eyes. It involves encoding and decoding messages, reading signs and under-hand encryptions, among others.


Historical Antecedence And Evolution of Intelligence

Man’s quest for comparative advantage in the intercourse with other groups not only predates recorded history, but would appear to be innate to man. It could therefore be said that from the moment man began to live in organized groups, when functions were not defined for individuals or groups in pristine societies, covert actions that will give groups comparative advantage over others exist. In traditional African societies, various methods and processes were employed to gather information, and have an insight into the inner workings of other groups that will give such a society an edge in making an informed decision and position in the intercourse with other groups. In fact, according to Stempel (2007) “… from the earliest organized government, when functions were not yet sufficiently differentiated, clandestine operation were standard practice in international relations.”


The organization of intelligence as part of government was developed to a very high degree beginning with the Chinese and the Achaemenid Persians between sixth and fourth centuries B. C. This was later copied by Arabs, Afghans, Turks, Mongols, and Hindus over the following centuries. Activities such as: spying in the court through the king’s councilor, or mistress, assassination, paramilitary support for insurgence and propaganda were not new. However, until the ninetieth and twentieth century little or no distinction was made between what is “intelligence” and “covert Action”. Essentially, the idea of intelligence in the contemporary sense developed in the west, with the evolution of Westphalian Diplomacy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Stempel (2007).


There has been a tradition of reluctance to discuss intelligence matters, especially those related to foreign policy issues, as a result, while foreign policy has long been an issue of academic discussion, sustained academic works on intelligence actually began as recently as the late 1950s, after the World Wars and got under way seriously in 1975 in the after math of the Watergate commission. Andrews and Noakes (1987) has opined that, this was even largely as a fall out of inquiries into certain aspects of the World Wars. Earlier works done in the area concentrated on countries and their intelligence operations during the World Wars, or at best biographies of principal actors. In fact, books that directly dealt with intelligence and foreign policy began to emerge only since 1980. Codevilla (1992), Bozeman (1992) Breckinrigate (1986), Howard (2002). Criticism that tailed the abysmal performance of the US intelligence in the lead up to the Iraq invasion in 2003 has raised questions about the relationship of intelligence to foreign policy. Bamford (2004), Risen (2006).


Both European and Asian countries woke up to reality in professional development of intelligence and foreign policy before the United States. This was largely because the US concentrated on domestic policies aimed at consolidating her independence for a period of about a century. Yet, most American intelligence gathering and effort at foreign policy were piece together on demand and for each event. This trend was to continue even after the US resumed diplomatic activities at the end of the 19th century with the 1898 Spanish-American war. What was seen as serious and continuous involvement in diplomacy began after World War I, and the creation in 1924 of a professional foreign service. Ameringer (1990). However, America remained in limbo, in the area of intelligence until the eve of World War II, when President Roosevelt created the office of strategic service. Career intelligence service as we know it today come only with the creation of the CIA by the National Security Act of 1947. Breckinridge (1986), Richelson (1995). This is not to say intelligence operations never existed at least with the Ultra, SIGINT, the Contras, and many more.  But, this marked the beginning of coordinate intelligence.


National Interest, Intelligence And Foreign Policy

One common phenomenon that permeates the actions and inactions of sovereignties would appear to be National Interest. Take for instance; using this parameter to weigh actions of statesmen, it will be highly improbable for a leader of a state to declare to the citizens that he/she has taken a decision in the interest of the world that is essentially not based on “National Interest”. Even if such an aberration occurs, it is not likely that such a leader will survive in office any longer. It is therefore, banal to state that one propelling factor of leaders and their agents at the world stage is national interest. Several scholars, among them, Bozeman (1992); Hamilton and Langhorne (1995); Berridge (2005) have stated based on empirical studies that, since the beginning of recorded history, and organized government; intelligence and foreign policy have been intertwined, confirming the position of Stempel (2007) that in the earliest period, these two functions were not differentiated since they were performed by the same people. This position however changed as governments began to become more complex. Historically, the belief in intelligence and foreign policy for the survival of the units were not subjects to ethical codes dominated behavior until the organization of Westphalian Diplomacy after the end of the Thirty Year War in 1648. As hinted earlier, the distinction between intelligence as information seeking and Covert Action as clandestine behavior to affect policy did not evolve until much later. This was to be further enhanced by the response to democratic notions of statecraft, and during the further evolution of public diplomacy in the post-World War I period. (Olson, 2006).


Intelligence as Veritable Tool for Foreign Policy Formulation

From the FOREIGN POLICY stand point, the mission of intelligence was to provide information about the activities, intentions, and behavior of other entities, groups and individuals so that foreign policy makers could estimate the strength and intentions of allies and possible adversaries, Howard (2002). This is largely as a fall out of the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Consequently, focus on organized intelligence, especially the American Intelligence has centered on warning on impending danger or attack as in the case of the just concluded worldwide threat assessment of  2018. Thus, became the principal Cold War task of all major powers from the 1950s to the mid-1990s, Berth (2007) as powerful nuclear weapons and instantaneous delivery times became the norm. Therefore, with the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. and the actual reduction in arms, many believed that intelligence operations will greatly diminish, but this was not to be as the work of intelligence has continued in the political sphere of the international system. Infact, considering the political aspects of the intelligence-foreign policy connection started way back in 1922, zeroing in on the defects of USA intelligence and the inadequacy of policies during World War 1, including those related to intelligence gathering and its impact on diplomacy. Studies were carried out on the details of the interplay between intelligence and policy making. This form the nucleus of the link between intelligence and foreign policy making.


The function of the intelligence community in statecraft is three fold via: collection, and analysis of information (which are broad in nature), and Covert Action, which is a special operation and under the prerogative of the presidents or his agent.


An additional function however, is counter intelligence which is an integral part of the entire intelligence process. Let’s add that while the functions of collection and analysis of information are generally understood and accepted, there is less acceptance of covert actions and since this work dwells on the intelligence and foreign policy, the work will limit itself to “intelligence” properly so called. We shall now take a closer look at some of the processes:


  1. Collection of Information

As a function of intelligence, collection of information appears to be a straightforward thing, and as such, to its necessity no much contest, if any. Intelligence Agencies collect information through diverse sources; information about foreign places, persons, events and activities that are needed by policy – makers that cannot be obtained through available sources or diplomatic contacts. Numerous and complex processes are involved in practice. Take for instance; cryptanalysts need publicly available information to performed analysis, identify missing links in what is known, and to task the “men-on-the-field” – the intelligence collectors. It is a rather cumbersome process because the intelligence officer plunges in to the process without being sure of what is in there for them. The uncertainties are many, but because of foreign policy making, and for the dire need of copious information, the intelligence community must be continuously out there.


There are some principal information collection disciplines via: signals intelligence (sigint), imagery intelligence (IMINT) and human intelligence (HUMINT). Further, there is a network of Collection Management System for each discipline to ensure validated priorities and requirements. Finally, these intelligence professionals and other representatives from the policy agencies attempt to weigh competing requirement, assess the availability of relevant open source materials, and address issues of uncertainties in the process. As hinted earlier, two classes of information exist. Publicly available information and the secret source of information obtained through intelligence analysis. In a recent study, George (2017) has observed that intelligence gathering should consider the culture of the people. We lean strongly on this position because without culture base model misconceptions are bound to occur.


Analysis of Information

This is another intelligence function that causes similar practical issues. In the analytical stage, all information gotten from all other intelligence discipline are combined with information from the publicly available source, and produce source analysis for the final consumer. This is normally marked “classified” since it contains analysis of information obtained by intelligence sources. Further, it should be noted, that unlike collection, analysis could be done in adhoc basis between analysts and the consumer. The efficacy of foreign policy of a nation demands to large extent, on the analysis and filtering of information from intelligence sources. However, intelligence collection and analysis must be weighed in terms of the overall state Foreign Policy interest.


Finally, clandestine and covert actions which might include but not limited, to espionage, spying and other sharp practices are not international best practices.



Intelligence as a statecraft has continued to be a veritable tool in foreign policy making; and the role of the right kind of intelligence and the influence of same in sound foreign policy formulation is well established. However, evidence are mounting from available literature on the study of Intelligence-Foreign Policy connection that Europe, Asia and the United States are taking the lead in studies and practice of the concepts. The African continent, as of yet, is not in the equation. Where some Africans are involved not much premium is placed on intelligence based on African cultural heritage. Ofegbu (1989) writes about intelligence practice, and the role of same in diplomacy but, the work leaned heavily on foreign scholars whose works are based on different culture and milieu.


Since a place of prominence is accorded to Intelligence in the achievement of Policy objectives, scholars of diplomacy should domesticate and adapt same to the African experience, if nations will benefit from the intelligence- foreign policy connection.


Further, properly domesticated intelligence will assist the content to counter the activities of counter-intelligence operatives who have made African nations easy prey. Efforts should be made not only to access the impact of culture on intelligence gathering and perception, but better attention should be paid on intelligence operatives and diplomats to include qualitative estimates on information.  Finally, it is strongly advocated that studies in intelligence – Foreign Policy connection should be stepped up, given the proven importance of intelligence in foreign policy making and implementation.



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