Assessing the intentions of adversaries: implications for diplomacy and signalling

Two articles caught my eye this morning, and each bears on the other.

First, the latest International Security has a fascinating article by Keren Yarhi-Milo, In the Eye of the Beholder: How Leaders and Intelligence Communities Assess the Intentions of Adversaries (PDF).

It argues that “individual perceptual biases and organizational interests and practices influence which types of indicators observers regard as credible signals of the adversary’s intentions” – intelligence organisations prefer measures of material capability, but civilian decision-makers “often base their interpretations on their own theories, expectations, and needs, sometimes ignoring costly signals and paying more attention to information that, though less costly, is more vivid”. So:

Those decisionmakers with relatively hawkish views, such as Robert Vansittart and Zbigniew Brzezinski, were quicker to read early Nazi German and Soviet actions, respectively, as evidence of malign intentions. Some clung to their original beliefs and interpreted all incoming information through the prism of those beliefs. Thus, Caspar Weinberger did not revise his beliefs about the expansionist nature of Soviet intentions even when faced with costly reassuring actions. Similarly, Cyrus Vance interpreted Soviet actions in the Horn and in Afghanistan consistently with his existing belief that the Soviets were merely opportunistic. Second, consistent with the selective attention thesis, British and American decisionmakers repeatedly and explicitly relied on their personal insights to derive conclusions about their adversary’s intentions. They monitored and responded not only to what the adversary’s leader promised or threatened behind closed doors, but also to how he delivered the message: tone of voice, mannerisms, and mood were critical pieces of intelligence in their eyes. (p47)

Moreover, the assumption that the informational value of “costless” (and even private) communication will be discounted does not withstand empirical scrutiny. Leaders explicitly drew on their personal insights about the sincerity and intentions of adversarial leaders. (p50)

In sum, the findings imply that any study on the efficacy of signals that fails to consider how signals are perceived and interpreted may be of little use to policymakers seeking to deter or reassure an adversary. (p1)

This seemed relevant, though only ambiguously applicable, in considering the recommendations made in a recent NYRB article, For a New Approach to Iran, by former diplomats William Luers and Thomas R. Pickering, and MIT’s Jim Walsh:

Arriving at such an agreement [with Iran] will require that the White House begin now to lay the groundwork. The sequence would likely entail the following steps, each of which would be politically difficult and complicated by mutual wariness and domestic politics in both countries:

A brief, private message of congratulations from President Obama to the new president of Iran on his taking office in August. The letter might express hopes for the prosperity and advancement of the Iranian nation without making specific requirements or proposals and without recalling past failures and frustrations.

The administration would, through friendly states, indicate that it would be open to a meeting between Presidents Obama and Rouhani, perhaps even as early as during the September UN General Assembly. Such a meeting could take place as a side conversation or even a simple greeting during a scheduled multilateral session at the UN; it might be preceded and prepared by a meeting of foreign ministers.


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