The need for strategic empathy

Among the books waiting to be read on my bookshelf is A Sense of the Enemy: The High-Stakes History of Reading Your Rival’s Mind, by Zachary Shore. This caught my attention because fifteen years ago Shore lived on the same corridor as me at St Antony’s College, Oxford, while we were both writing our doctoral theses. Also, the subject matter fits well into my forthcoming course on Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making. The book is a study in decision making, and judging from what I have skimmed so far, it advances a fairly simple thesis: successful foreign policy depends upon what Shore calls ‘strategic empathy’, that is to say an ability to understand what motivates your enemy. This does not mean imagining what you would do if you were in your enemy’s place. Rather it means really understanding them, their desires, the constraints under which they operate, and so on.

I would take this further and say that strategic empathy is important not just when dealing with ‘enemies’ but in politics more generally, and that it is precisely the lack of such empathy which has pulled Russia-West relations into the mess which they are today.

The response of both Russia and Western states to the crisis in Ukraine has been to throw insults at one another and to resort to conspiracy theories. To many in the West, Russian behaviour in Ukraine is the product of a deliberate plan of imperial expansion; to many Russians, the civil war in Ukraine is the result of a long-term American strategy to destabilize and weaken any potential rivals. Within Ukraine, the current government views the war as solely the consequence of Russian aggression, whereas the rebels view themselves as victims of government barbarity. No matter who you are, somebody else is entirely to blame. No effort is made to understand, let alone empathize with the other side’s point of view.

Underlying all this is a sense on both sides of moral righteousness. The division of the world into good guys – us – and bad guys – them – discourages any effort to promote strategic empathy, for the latter comes to be regarded as appeasing evil. But strategic empathy does not require that one concede that the other side is right. Rather, through a better understanding of others’ actions, one increases one’s chances of pursuing successful policies.

So, for instance, the government which came to power in Ukraine in February 2014 arrogantly ignored the concerns of those protesting against it on the grounds that they were simply stooges of Moscow and did not represent genuine public opinion. The result was civil war. The government would have done better to understand that some of its citizens did reject it and needed reassurance.

Meanwhile, Western states failed to understand how important Ukraine is to Russia, and thus failed to understand how Russia was likely to react to the forcible overthrow of the Ukrainian government. Fixated on ‘Russian aggression’, Western leaders made no effort to understand the opinions of those fighting against Kiev. Consequently, Western leaders reinforced the inflexibility of the Ukrainian government, and so made a bad situation even worse.

Russian leaders have also made mistakes. The annexation of Crimea incited the governments in Kiev and the West to see the events in Eastern Ukraine as a repetition of those in Crimea, and so to view the protests against Kiev as being not an expression of legitimate opinion but rather a precursor to Russian invasion. Russian actions instilled fear and encouraged intransigence. Moscow does not seem to understand this.

If I have a blogging wish for 2015, then, it is for both Russia and the West to try harder to understand how the world looks from the other’s point of view. Moral certitude may be emotionally satisfying, but strategic empathy is far more likely to lead to peace.


3 thoughts on “The need for strategic empathy”

  1. Meanwhile, Western states failed to understand how important Ukraine is to Russia, and thus failed to understand how Russia was likely to react..

    I would quibble here. The West has consistently underestimated Putin and over estimated their own strength, influence, ability and competence. Call it the End of Empire syndrome or something similar but all of them collapse when they over reach themselves and are simply unable to comprehend simple facts and are taken by surprise by the turn of events. Yes, comparatively the West is strong and Russia is weak but the West plays its cards badly and plays the same hand over and over and over again where as Russia plays a weak hand expertly and with patience. Putin’s КГБ training has served very well indeed!

    Like you, I also believe Russia has made mistakes but I’m not willing to say how influential the return of Crimea to Russia was on those in the south and east of the Ukraine. The wheels had already been set in motion and may well have reached a similar result via a slightly different route. We know that ‘new’ Kiev would certainly brook no dissent so even without Crimea, they surely would have upset the easterners very quickly. Maybe not inevitable, but none of those in Kiev have shown the slightest damn.

    I can’t really say much on the concept of strategic empathy except that my understanding is that all decisions come to down to some kind of risk assessment between balancing practical matters with how bonkers (or simply incompetent) the decision makers are. This touches upon the point brought up in comments on a previous blog post of yours: who exactly are these people making the decisions and what of the relevance of career diplomats?

    One thing history tells us though is that regardless of the level heads (I should quote some classic Kipling here*), if someone/state is spoiling for a fight, they generally get one (with exceptions). The West has been doing its best to goad Russia in to over reacting, but Putin won’t do anything unless a) the West shows its cards first; b) he can wrong foot the West with unpredictable action that makes it harder to be gamed.

    Any way, Happy New Year Paul and all the best for 2015! 2014 was crazy enough and I fully expect 2015 to surpass it in many ways with some big surprises!


    By Rudyard Kipling

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

    If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!


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