Micah Zenko

The Signal and the Noise

Why subtlety and national security don't mix.

Allison Shelley/Getty Images
Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Before Congress took a well-earned nine day recess, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing to consider the nominations of two generals to lead Central Command and Africa Command. Senator Lindsey Graham asked the Central Command nominee, General Lloyd Austin: "If…we pick a [troop] number in Afghanistan that makes it a high likelihood of failure, that would be sending the wrong signals, do you agree, to the Iranians?" Austin replied: "I would, sir. I would agree with that."

Later, Gen. Austin observed of cutting forces from the Middle East: "Once you reduce the presence in the region, you could very well signal the wrong things to our adversaries." Sen. Kelly Ayotte echoed his observation, claiming that President Obama’s plan to withdraw 34,000 thousand U.S. troops from Afghanistan within one year "leaves us dangerously low on military personnel…it’s going to send a clear signal that America’s commitment to Afghanistan is going wobbly." Similarly, during a separate House Armed Services Committee hearing, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ominously warned of the possibility of sequestration: "Perhaps most important, the world is watching. Our friends and allies are watching, potential foes — all over the world."

These routine and unchallenged assertions highlight what is perhaps the most widely agreed-upon conventional wisdom in U.S. foreign and national security policymaking: the inherent power of signaling. This psychological capability rests on two core assumptions: All relevant international audiences can or will accurately interpret the signals conveyed, and upon correctly comprehending this signal, these audiences will act as intended by U.S. policymakers. Many policymakers and pundits fundamentally believe that the Pentagon is an omni-directional radar that uniformly transmits signals via presidential declarations, defense spending levels, visits with defense ministers, or troop deployments to receptive antennas. A bit of digging, however, exposes cracks in the premises underlying signaling theories.

There is a half-century of social science research demonstrating the cultural and cognitive biases that make communication difficult between two humans. Why would this be any different between two states, or between a state and non-state actor? Unlike foreign policy signaling in the context of disputes or escalating crises — of which there is an extensive body of research into types and effectiveness — policymakers’ claims about signaling are merely made in a peacetime vacuum. These signals are never articulated with a precision that could be tested or falsified, and thus policymakers cannot be judged misleading or wrong.

Paired with the faith in signaling is the assumption that policymakers can read the minds of potential or actual friends and adversaries. During the cycle of congressional hearings this spring, you can rest assured that elected representatives and expert witnesses will claim to know what the Iranian supreme leader thinks, how "the Taliban" perceives White House pronouncements about Afghanistan, or how allies in East Asia will react to sequestration. This self-assuredness is referred to as the illusion of transparency by psychologists, or how "people overestimate others’ ability to know them, and…also overestimate their ability to know others." 

Policymakers also conceive of signaling as a one-way transmission: something that the United States does and others absorb. You rarely read or hear critical thinking from U.S. policymakers about how to interpret the signals from others states. Moreover, since U.S. officials correctly downplay the attention-seeking actions of adversaries — such as Iran’s near-weekly pronouncement of inventing a new drone or missile — wouldn’t it be safer to assume that the majority of U.S. signals are similarly dismissed? During my encounters with foreign officials, few take U.S. government pronouncements seriously, and instead assume they are made to appease domestic audiences.

At the same time, the range of acceptable national security signals is a very narrow spectrum framed by "strong" on one end and "weak" on the other. The former is always characterized as the preferred communication, while the latter is dismissed pejoratively. As a result, the constant need to signal American strength is the overriding justification and/or objective for more — more spending, more troops, more carrier battle group tours, etc. But since only weak or strong can be indicated, officials never ask if some foreign policy activity will signal whether the United States is wise, hypocritical, just, or moral.

Finally, it is ironic that many of the biggest advocates of non-verbally signaling intentions to adversaries also believe that the United States must never actually communicate directly with them. For these policymakers, speaking to an adversary face-to-face is a "reward" that should be withheld, and one that is much less effective than indefinitely stationing tens of thousands of U.S. troops in a neighboring country.

There is little doubt that the United States — due to its military power, range of self-generated global interests, and perpetual state of warfare — is more closely watched and studied than any other state on earth. However, what outsiders think about the United States based on national security debates on Capitol Hill and U.S. foreign policy actions is beyond the control of Washington. There are specific strategies, missions, and tasks that U.S. servicemembers and diplomats are sent abroad to achieve. Signaling, as a justification in itself, should not be one of them given its significant costs and inherent limits — though it might be worth trying.

In 1977, the United States sent two Voyager spacecraft on a mission to "conduct closeup studies of Jupiter and Saturn, Saturn’s rings, and the larger moons of the two planets." Only intended to last five years, both Voyagers are now more than nine million miles from earth, sending back information on an open-ended interstellar mission of discovery. Attached to each are identical gold-plated copper records. The records’ contents, developed by a committee chaired by astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan, included: greetings in 55 languages, various natural and human-generated sounds (including one hour of author Ann Druyan’s brain waves compressed into one minute), music samplings from around the world, 115 images encoded in analog form, and instructions for how to play the record for extraterrestrial life forms.

Sagan later warned, "Many, perhaps most, of our messages will be indecipherable. But we have sent them because it is important to try." Indeed, it was important to try signaling this information to aliens, though notably it was never the primary mission or justification for the Voyager probes, nor done with any expectation of success. Moreover, listening to the golden records — much like listening to signaling claims in Washington — communicates much more about who we are to us, than it ever could to anyone, or anything, else.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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