In his recent article “The Inscrutable Intentions of Great Powers,” Sebastian Rosato argues that it is far more difficult for states to signal their intentions than existing scholarship recognizes. He claims that the various signaling mechanisms proposed in the IR literature — both domestic-level characteristics and international-level behaviors — “at best…allow for marginal reductions in uncertainty” (51). Thus, Rosato supports the ‘offensive realist’ worldview that “great powers focus on the balance of power” and that “self-help is persistent, balancing is endless, the security dilemma is intractable…competition is the norm and cooperation is both rare and fleeting” (88).
How political leaders and their intelligence agencies assess the long-term intentions of their adversaries in international politics, how their assessments change in response to changes in the adversary’s capabilities or behavior, and the extent to which political leaders rely on their intelligence agencies are old questions in the study of international relations. The assessment of long-term intentions is an extraordinarily difficult task, and the development of generalizable theory about the process is equally difficult. Keren Yarhi-Milo’s recent book, Knowing the Adversary: Leaders, Intelligence, and Assessment of Intentions in International Relations, is an enormously valuable contribution to our understanding of these questions. Unlike many studies of intelligence, it is well-grounded in international relations theory, and it effectively builds upon theories of social psychology, cognitive science, and organizational theory. Yarhi-Milo distinguishes herself from many other theorists by emphasizing that the assessment processes of political leaders may differ from those of state intelligence organizations, but at the same time she integrates both within a single overarching theoretical framework. Yarhi-Milo tests her theoretical arguments against leading alternative interpretations in three sets of important and revealing historical cases: British assessments of Germany’s intentions from 1934-1939; and U.S. assessments of Soviet intentions during the years leading to the collapse of détente (1976-1980) and during the end of the Cold War (1985-1988). Yarhi-Milo’s in-depth comparative studies utilize historical archives, published documents, and, for the U.S.-Soviet cases, interviews with key participants.