Gauging Intentions in International Relations

Banning Garrett beat me to this topic, which had been rattling around in the cranium for the past few days, with his essay at the New Atlanticist:

There is an all-too-common practice in Washington punditry ofattributing strategic intentions to other countries without anyapparent evidence. . . .

Assessments of strategic intentions are critically important ininter-state relations and should be made carefully and withconsiderable evidence. The stakes in getting it right or wrong can bevery high.

Garrett writes in response to a Dan Blumenthal and Robert Kagan op-ed in the Washington Post discussing China’s intentions vis à vis North Korea.

But I’ve noticed the same pattern of people taking a weaponization intention for granted with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. Significantly, were Iran to comply with its NPT obligations for transparency, intentions would be the only leg to stand on in terms of prohibiting its civil nuclear program.

Intentions are one of the most important elements in international relations, and perhaps the hardest to decipher. It’s far easier to determine how many tanks or missiles a country has than to know what they plan to do with them, and under what circumstances. And not only are intentions subject to more dramatic and sudden shifts than material elements of statecraft, they also come into play with friends and adversaries alike. French intentions in the Middle East and German intentions regarding its Russia policy are often called into question, for instance.

It’s also a problem that isn’t necessarily resolved by communication. Some state and non-state actors are surprisingly clear about articulating their intentions, and we tend to take them at their word, for better or worse. Hezbollah comes to mind in that category. But others, such as North Korea, are just as clear about articulating their intentions, and the intentions themselves remain nonetheless opaque. There are also states, like Iran and China, that clearly express their intentions, but many just don’t believe them. Hamas falls into yet another category, where the organization has clearly articulated its intentions, and yet many — myself included — feel there is some reason to believe they might be influenced to change them.

Then there are others who purposefully promote misguided perceptions of their intentions. Here I’m thinking of Saddam Hussein and his insistence on maintaining the illusion of a WMD ambition, largely as a deterrent against Iran, even in the face of the U.S. invasion that ultimately toppled his regime. The case of Iraq illustrates both the cost of using intentions as a ruse, but also the cost of basing action on misguided assumptions of others’ intentions.

Finally, there are a whole range of factors that render intentions irrelevant — limits on the actual capability to follow through on them, for instance, such as lack of effective command and control over the armed forces.

Garrett suggests that long-term dialogue across the spectrum of the country’s strategic community — i.e., government, academia, policy shops — is a better way to guage intentions than simply using the assumptions that bestsuit one’s argument. It’s hard to argue with him. But perhaps more importantly, we also need to accept the degree to which in some cases intentions will remain impossible to determine with any certainty, and develop ways of addressing policymaking that take that into account.