Tag Archives: strategic empathy

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.