Projecting Intentions in International Relations

As an addendum to last week’s post on the difficulties in gauging the intentions of other states, I found myself thinking over the weekend that President Barack Obama’s public diplomacy campaign towards the Muslim world is an illustration of how it is sometimes just as difficult to project one’s own intentions to other states. That difficulty obviously grows out of — and subsequently feeds off of — any divergence between strategic communcation on the one hand, and the reality of national policy as experienced by policy actors and citizens abroad on the other.

Not only that, though, some of the Kremlinology that’s sprung up regarding the Obama administration’s policy team demonstrates how it is sometimes just as difficult to gauge the intentions of one’s own government. Right now, can anyone really say for certain what the behind-closed-doors, articulated policy goal of the outreach to Iran is? I’ve read descriptions ranging from an effort to reach a grand bargain to an effort to justify stronger sanctions once it fails. That reflects, too, how intentions are often dynamically contingent on responses to policy.

Then there are policies that are articulated, but suggest other unspoken intentions. The Bush administration’s nuclear courtship of India, for instance, made sense as a way to strengthen a bilateral relationship that is valuable in and of itself. But it also made sense as a way to hedge against China’s growing influence in Asia. From what I’ve read, though, expressing the latter is the quickest way to get the Indians to forego the former. And since, given the nature of the Asian geopolitical equation, the latter is likely to be accomplished by the former whether it is an explicit intention or not, we probably won’t know for sure which one it is until the Bush administration’s NSC records are unsealed years from now, though.

Finally, there are also cases where intentions, as articulated, are simply confusing. A case in point is the Obama adminsitration’s Afghanistan-Pakistan-shhh-don’t-say-it-out-loud-but-India-too strategy. It’s been described as a counterinsurgency approach to counterterrorism. But no one seems to know whether that means we’re trying to build the Afghan state, or simply trying to keep folks from getting pissed off at us as we gun after al-Qaida’s top leadership on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border.

All of which is another way of saying that, before we feel completely certain about other states’ intentions, we should take a second to make sure we know what ours are, first.

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