Intuition vs. Intelligence
“At the end of the day, leaders are human beings, and they are affected by their own intuition. ... Sometimes that has more of an effect than intelligence reports.” — Keren Yarhi-Milo
“At the end of the day, leaders are human beings, and they are affected by their own intuition. ... Sometimes that has more of an effect than intelligence reports.” — Keren Yarhi-Milo
Ricardo Barros

When world leaders fly thousands of miles to meet each other, they seek not only to discuss hot topics, but also to size each other up. Keren Yarhi-Milo, an assistant professor of politics and international affairs, contends that leaders rely heavily on such meetings to determine each others’ intentions — and often ignore their own experts’ evaluations.

In Knowing the Adversary: Leaders, Intelligence, and Assessment of Intentions in International Relations, Yarhi-Milo describes how leaders rely on “vivid” information — such as one-on-one meetings — while intelligence analysts focus on factors such as military capability. She examines the relationships between leaders during World War II and the Cold War, zeroing in on the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Yarhi-Milo’s interest in the subject was sparked by her experience doing intelligence work during her service in the Israeli military before she came to the United States for college.

What did you discover about how world leaders evaluate their adversaries?

At the end of the day, leaders are human beings, and they are affected by their own intuition. So when they sit across the table from another person, they think of themselves as intelligence analysts, in a sense. They are looking, they are probing, they are sizing up the other guy. What I show in the book is sometimes that has more of an effect than intelligence reports. 

Even in the context of allies, the personal relationship does have an impact on policy. Look at the relationship between President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, when Bush came out of a meeting and said he looked Putin in the eye and saw his soul. There are risks of using that method of inferring intention — it’s highly biased. But at the same time, leaders are aware that it’s an opportunity.

Describe the gap between the data that intelligence officials collect and the information that leaders value.

The intelligence community has not done a very good job of explaining its way of thinking to policymakers. Decision-makers have strong intuitions and beliefs, and they treat the question of adversary intentions in a way that’s more emotional, so it’s hard for them to be open to assessments from the intelligence community. There’s this disconnect, and I think the first step to solving it is to acknowledge the biases.

Can you give an example of a time when a leader disregarded information from intelligence analysts?

During Reagan’s second term, the U.S. intelligence community produced reports that indicated Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev was not genuinely interested in cooperation with the United States, that his posture of accommodation was a ploy intended to give time for the Soviet Union to get more powerful. Reagan essentially ignored those assessments, and went on to establish strong personal ties with Gorbachev.

Interview conducted and condensed by Gabriel Debenedetti ’12