The Unique Challenge of Assessing Partners and Allies


Main Image Credit Exceeding expectations: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Kyiv on 24 April 2022. Image: US Department of State


A new debate on the most suitable processes, products and organisations for assessing partners and allies is needed.

Senior US officials have recently admitted a possible intelligence failure regarding the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian military offensive. The US has underestimated a partner, Ukraine, while overestimating an adversary, Russia. How can this unique challenge of assessing partners and allies be tackled? Are intelligence agencies relevant for it?

Failures in assessing partners and allies are not new. The US, for instance, reportedly overestimated the Afghan Security Forces’ will to fight the Taliban in 2021, although intelligence assessments might have been more accurate than policy ones. US intelligence also reportedly overestimated the Iraqi Security Forces’ will to fight Islamic State in 2014. Further back in history, the US overestimated the Israeli Defense Forces in the face of the Egyptian and Syrian militaries in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, as well as the ability of the Shah’s regime in Iran to withstand a popular uprising in the face of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Overestimation of a partner or ally can be a result of the ‘optimism bias’ or the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy, especially if it is a country supported by the US. This inclination is only natural. Ethnocentrism and a misunderstanding of strategic cultures might also contribute to a flawed assessment, whether an overestimation or an underestimation.

On the one hand, assessments about partners and allies are different from traditional intelligence ones about adversaries. True, international relations no longer abide by the saying that ‘gentlemen do not read each other’s mail’, and the US itself has been accused of spying on its allies. And yet, the main sources of information about partners and allies emanate from direct contacts with them, sometimes augmented by open-source information – not from covert collection of information or from espionage. Analysis of emerging mysteries and puzzles, rather than collection, seems to be the prominent challenge. Intelligence agencies, however, are still accustomed to abiding by the ‘intelligence cycle’ doctrine, where analysis must rely on robust collection – sometimes covert. They are still focused on revealing secrets that adversaries wish to hide.

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Assessments about partners and allies cannot not be conducted solely by intelligence agencies, since diplomatic and policy personnel have unique and crucial relevant knowledge

On the other hand, assessments about partners and allies are not completely outside the scope of the US intelligence community. Intelligence, at least on the strategic level, does not abide by a narrow definition. It is not limited to political-military matters and to knowledge about adversaries. Intelligence analysis is expected to make sense of the external environment – comprising enemies, competitors, adversaries, partners, allies, technology, economies and societies. Intelligence agencies in the US are increasingly exploiting open-source intelligence, adopting a more open culture, and engaging with issues such as climate change and global pandemics.

Moreover, such assessments are subject to similar failures, pitfalls, biases and misperceptions as traditional intelligence ones about adversaries. As in intelligence analysis tradecraft, structured analytical techniques might be useful for minimising the risk of a strategic surprise. Academic intelligence studies have even addressed the issue of intelligence about partners and allies from a broad theoretical perspective.

Assessments about partners and allies blur the lines between a ‘net assessment’, an intelligence one, and a policy one. They cannot not be conducted solely by intelligence agencies, since diplomatic and policy personnel have unique and crucial relevant knowledge. They should be produced through imaginative and critical thinking techniques – such as wargaming, back-casting or scenario analysis – while integrating intelligence and policy perspectives.

This is not just a US problem. In Israel, for instance, the ability of intelligence agencies to work together to meet this challenge has been discussed in the context of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in 2010. In this case, some of Israel’s partners faced internal instability, which had potentially dramatic implications for Israel itself.

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The US, like other countries, must improve its understanding not just of adversaries, but also of partners and allies

The US, like other countries, must improve its understanding not just of adversaries, but also of partners and allies. A strategic assessment regarding these matters is always conducted in an idiosyncratic context, since alliances and partnerships vary depending on the specific situation. Dedicated attention should therefore be given to developing the most suitable processes, products and organisations for assessing partners and allies, acknowledging the uniqueness of the challenge.

Two different schools of thought on the relevance of intelligence agencies for this challenge may emerge. The first would claim that intelligence agencies should contribute some of their methods and tradecraft, while assessments should integrate intelligence and policy perspectives. The second would claim that such assessments are subject to powerful biases, especially since direct contacts with partners and allies do not allow a neutral standpoint based on covert collection. Hence, they should be conducted with great modesty by policy and strategy personnel, and are completely out of intelligence agencies’ scope.

This topic has not received sufficient public attention, due to its alleged political sensitivity. A new debate therefore appears to be in order. The goal of this discussion is to strengthen alliances and partnerships, enabling them to engage in great-power and strategic competitions based on better mutual acquaintance. In current times, this is more important than ever.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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WRITTEN BY

Itai Shapira

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