July 6, 2020

Keren Yarhi-Milo’s research and teaching focus on international relations and foreign policy, with a particular specialization in international security, including foreign policy decision-making, interstate communication and crisis bargaining, intelligence, and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Yarhi-Milo will teach her first class at SIPA this fall, having left Princeton a year ago to join Columbia’s faculty as a professor of political science and international and public affairs. On July 1 she also became the new director of the Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies and the Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of War and Peace Studies.

She recently spoke with SIPA News about her background, her work, what’s in store for Saltzman, and more. Read the complete version of this interview below, or see an abridged version here.

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Keren Yarhi-Milo became director of SIPA's Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies on July 1, 2020.
Keren Yarhi-Milo became director of SIPA's Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies on July 1, 2020. [Photo by Shahar Azran]

On her ties to Columbia

I graduated from the School of General Studies in 2003. One could say that I fell in love with international relations here at Columbia. I especially remember taking classes with Robert Jervis, who was my undergraduate adviser, and War Peace and Strategy with Richard Betts. These courses had a huge impact on my interest in studying international security. I even enrolled in the joint GS-SIPA program and completed the first year, which was my senior year of college. And then I had to make a decision to stay for a fifth year and graduate from SIPA, or pursue a PhD immediately. It was a difficult decision but I chose the PhD route, at UPenn.

Honestly, I didn’t really understand what it meant to write a dissertation or have a career in academia, but I knew I wanted to learn more about political science theory, and produce foreign policy-relevant work that was grounded in original theoretical thinking. I needed that for myself before I was comfortable writing policy papers. But even when I was at Penn, [Jervis] sat on my dissertation committee and I visited Columbia often. I was living in New York by my third year, and then as a Princeton professor I basically wrote my second book while on sabbatical at Saltzman. So I’ve had a long relationship with Columbia, and I have always considered this place my academic home. You can imagine, then, how special it is to now be here officially and to work with some of the very people who are truly responsible, for better or worse, for getting me into this business in the first place!

On her academic specialization

Overall I focus on topics of international security. I’ve worked on a variety of topics within the field, but one thing I’m most known for is my study of decisionmaking processes—how leaders go about making foreign-policy decisions about the use of force.

I incorporate insights from behavioral economics, psychology, and organizational theory, so my work kind of pushes against a pure rational choice model of decision-making. In addition to crisis decision-making, I write about the psychology of leaders, intelligence and foreign policy, the use of secrecy and deception in world politics, and face-to-face diplomacy. 

I always start with an empirical puzzle that does not sit right with what standard theoretical expectations would lead us to observe. And then I try to use this puzzle to generate a theory that is generalizable, rigorous, and to the extent possible, parsimonious. I aim to really think about how these puzzles are part of a larger pattern: if you look creatively to the right places, you will find the similarities across time and space. In terms of methodology I love going to presidential and national archives and using primary documents and historical material to get insight firsthand. What were leaders thinking? What were they saying? But I use really a combination of methods to test the theories I put forth —I look at diaries and the records of NSC meetings, but I also conduct statistical analysis, and even survey experiments.

What I care most about in my work is that both the questions that I ask and the answers that I offer have clear and important policy implications. I love engagement with the policy and intelligence community, and I get satisfaction from learning how and why they find my work useful to them. I cannot do academic work that is divorced from policy, and I cannot do policy work without engaging in true academic research first.

On her nonacademic experience

I’m from Israel originally. I think the peace process made the topic of international relations very fascinating to me. I eventually served in [Israeli Defense Forces] intelligence—let’s say it’s not hard for me to see the connections between what I did in intelligence and what I study as a scholar.

When I took classes with [Robert] Jervis and topics about signaling and perception came up, my worlds connected in a way I didn’t anticipate. From that moment on I just knew what I wanted to explore, and with time, I was able to find my own unique way of adding to our understanding of signaling and perceptions. My first book dealt explicitly with how intelligence communities assess intentions of adversaries and it showed some patterned biases in their analysis. I still go the National Intelligence Council to talk about the insights from that book and how its relevant for their work today.

On her class, Foreign Policy Crisis Decisionmaking

This fall I’m going to teach a class on crisis decisionmaking in foreign policy. The idea is not just to expose students to theories of decisionmaking but to help them to gain skills and understand how leaders think—how the use of heuristics, the presence of cognitive and motivated biases, emotions, experiences and personality traits systematically shape how leaders make decisions, especially in a crisis—so they can be more effective at providing input to policy-makers and analyzing situations themselves.

Even for those who have taken classes in international relations, probably 80 percent of the reading material will be new. We’ll analyze case studies, write and review postmortems of past crises, engage in a crisis simulations, and present policy briefs. The idea is to give students the skills to be more effective at crisis decisionmaking. It’s a policy-oriented course that is designed for students who want to become members of defense establishment, the intelligence community, the executive branch, and so on, both in the United States and abroad.

On her predecessor at the Saltzman Institute

Over 20 or 25 years, [Richard] Betts has done an incredible job with the institute. We in the community owe him a lot.

For me personally, the program he runs every summer through Saltzman [the Summer Workshop on the Analysis of Military Operations and Strategy, known as SWAMOS] was probably the most important networking opportunity that I had as a graduate student.  In addition to learning a lot of military analysis, you also meet the brightest people in your field and your cohort, PhD students from all over the United States and Europe. He’s educated a whole generations of scholars by now. Of course he’s done so much more than that both as a scholar and a mentor, and we look forward to celebrating his contributions next spring.

What’s next for Saltzman?

I am very excited to become director of the Saltzman Institute. I have many ideas about programming and initiatives that I’m discussing with Saltzman’s executive committee.

In terms of scope, one thing I want to do is expand our concept of security. So in addition to continuing our engagement with traditional topics of security that we do very well in the Institute—like studying conflict and cooperation, terrorism and political violence, civil-military relations, military analysis, and so on—there are a set of topics with implications for security that I think we should engage with more forcefully. These include the relationship between security and climate, security and gender, how we think about race in traditional international security literature, how cyber warfare affects our understanding of signaling, escalation dynamics and so on. Right now we’re learning a lot about the impact of a pandemic on national security and I think this will also be a topic Saltzman will try to engage with more in the next couple of years as well. I would also like to partner with different centers and initiatives—within Columbia and perhaps elsewhere—to engage these topics.

In terms of activities, we want to make sure we’re getting students—both SIPA students and undergraduate and graduate poli-sci students—more involved with Saltzman.  Crisis simulation, speaker series, workshops on different issues—it’s important to try to engage our student body and also to remain a space for members of our university community and surrounding communities to consider the most pressing questions of the day.

I believe that a good research institute is one that seizes the moment and embraces the opportunity to adapt to new realities. Especially for an institute that speaks to issues of war and peace, we need to make sure we remain relevant. That we offer fresh and rigorous input for the policy community, yes, but also that our work is not only grounded in historical perspective but also sensitive to the nuances of the present moment. We can and must anticipate, even shape, trends and not just respond and react to them. The community at Saltzman has done this through the years, both during and after the Cold War.

To continue to be a leading institution, I would like us to embrace these topics as a community of researchers and find ways to offer unique contributions to these discussions.  I truly believe that part of our ability to remain relevant, is to offer insight based on systematic research and scholarship, to get outside of our comfort zone and to explore what is happening around us and articulate what the implications for security are. But we must also stay true to our expertise in those traditional topics of security we at Saltzman have studied for year, because, unfortunately, they still require a great deal of attention.

Challenges and changes

Perhaps due to this pandemic I find myself more grateful for what I have than I was before, and so I do less complaining these days. But it would be amazing if we had more physical space to host fellows; this would help us expand what we study and provide more mentorship to students and young academics. Ironically, the pandemic actually opens up a lot of programming opportunities—the Zoom platform allows us to engage more with colleagues and policymakers  across the country and overseas. So our fall programming will feature more people from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East because we don’t have to spend money to host them.

I think I’m the first woman to direct the Saltzman Institute, and certainly the vast majority of directors at our competitor [institutes] are male—white males—and somewhat older. I want to attract more female students and students of color—again, both at SIPA and at Columbia political science—to study in this area and to know that they belong and, more to the point, have unique value to add. This field has not been especially diverse for generations, and it’s very important to show to the younger generation that its members, in all of their great diversity, can and must reach new heights in this area of study. Being in this privileged position, I take it as a real opportunity, and will try to be the best role model I can.

This conversation was condensed and edited for clarity.

See an abridged version of this interview »