Stephen M. Walt

“Empathy” and international affairs

“Empathy” has been in the news lately, mostly in the context of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. It’s a quality that’s often in short supply in the conduct of foreign policy, where leaders (and sometimes whole nations) often have a fixed view of certain events and find it hard to believe that anyone might legitimately ...

By , the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.

“Empathy” has been in the news lately, mostly in the context of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. It’s a quality that’s often in short supply in the conduct of foreign policy, where leaders (and sometimes whole nations) often have a fixed view of certain events and find it hard to believe that anyone might legitimately see things differently. As Condi Rice commented when some European governments didn’t support the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, “I’ll just put it very bluntly. We simply didn’t understand it.”

One reason for this absence of empathy is the human tendency to filter current situations through the prism of the past. One of the more enduring findings in political psychology is that people place more weight on their own experiences than on the experiences of others, even when their own experiences are in fact atypical. According to Robert Jervis’s classic Perception and Misperception in International Politics: “if people do not learn enough from what happens to others, they learn too much from what happens to themselves.” The salience of first-hand experience in shaping subsequent beliefs is increased if the event happens early in one’s life or career, and if it has important consequences for the individual (or the nation). In other words, we overlearn from big and important events, especially when they happen to us early.

This tendency might explain why different generations tend to have very different views on how the world works. For Americans born and raised during the Cold War (i.e., like me) images of conflict are also accompanied by a certain sense of stability and order. The Cold War begins in the late 1940s, the United States forms a set of alliances to wage it, and then bipolar stability kicks in. There are crises and confrontations and even some peripheral wars in Korea, Indochina, the Middle East, and Afghanistan, but the central strategic balance doesn’t change very much and the Soviet Union eventually expires rather quietly. The period 1950-1990 is a monument to the virtues of deterrence, containment, and multilateralism, and a timely warning about the dangers of getting involved in costly quagmires. It is perhaps no accident that people like me tend to see the world as a competitive but ultimately fairly stable and predictable place.

But what if you were born in the early 20th century, and came of age in the turbulent decades after World War I? You would have seen a world where a nation’s fortunes could shift in a matter of weeks or months, and sometimes with swift and terrible effect. You might have seen the Roaring Twenties, followed by the Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. You would have seen a prostrate and disarmed Germany rearm itself in less than a decade, defeat France in a few weeks in 1940, and then conquer almost all of Europe and drive deep inside Russia, only to witness this seemingly unstoppable juggernaut be occupied and divided in half a mere three years later. You would also have seen Imperial Japan sweep across the Pacific, only to be occupied and disarmed by 1945. And having watched the Iron Curtain descend and seen Mao’s triumph in China, you’d have a healthy respect for how quickly fortunes could shift and you’d be less inclined to take a complacent view of anything. Had I lived through the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, I might have been much more hawkish than I turned out to be.

The problem with this sort of generational interpretation is that it can’t account for differences between people who lived through the same events, although it might lead us to ask whether their own personal experiences with key events were different. But even there I suspect there’s more to it than just personal experience.

But the real lesson is that the same “events” look very different to different people and to different countries. The U.S-backed contra war in Nicaragua killed some 35,000 Nicaraguans (about 1 percent of the population) but hardly any Americans; is it any wonder Nicaraguans remember it differently than Americans do? Similarly, 9/11 means one thing to U.S. citizens, but something different to Europeans, Central Asians, or people in different parts of the Middle East. The current war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is experienced differently by an Al Qaeda leader facing a Predator attack, by the CIA “pilot” operating the drone from a remote location, by a Pakistani or Afghan civilian who is attacked by mistake, by refugees now fleeing the fighting in the Swat Valley, and by the politicians in the United States, Afghanistan, or Pakistan who have to deal with the consequences.  And not only do different individuals and different societies experience the same events in radically different ways, they then conduct their own discourse about these events (occasionally fertilized by ideas and commentary from outside) and eventually generate unique narratives about them.  

Understanding how things look to others doesn’t necessarily eliminate conflict — especially when basic interests are fundamentally at odds — but it makes us much less likely to misinterpret another’s position and makes spirals of exaggerated or mistaken hostility less likely.  

To take an obvious example, many Americans think of Iran as an aggressive, unpredictable country led by a set of aggressive, fanatically religious clerics. That tendency probably increases if you watch a lot of FOX News or listen to talk radio. From this perspective, Iran’s nuclear program and its support for extremist groups like Hamas or Hezbollah is evidence of aggressive ambitions, perhaps of the very worst sort. 

But ask yourself how this situation might look to an ordinary Iranian, or even to a member of its ruling elite. To many Iranians, their interest in nuclear technology (and possibly nuclear weapons) is entirely rational and essentially defensive: they have two nuclear neighbors (India and Pakistan), a third nuclear weapons state nearby (Israel), and the world’s most powerful country (the United States) has troops on either side of Iran and has been seeking to overthrow the Iranian government for a number of years now. Plus, various American politicians keep saying that “all options ought to be on the table,” and Obama’s special envoy to Iran, Dennis Ross, participated in a study group last year that advocated a hardline approach.  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination or empathy to figure out why Iran might want a nuclear deterrent: wouldn’t we want the same thing if we were in their position? Similarly, supporting radicals elsewhere in the Middle East keeps the U.S. off-balance and complicates efforts to unite various Arab states against Iran itself. A bit of empathy won’t resolve these issues, of course, but it might help us reject the fervent threat-mongering that drove us to launch a foolish war in Iraq and has led others to favor a similar approach to Iran.

So can we train ourselves to “see things as others do?” Here the internet and the blogosphere are potentially transformative tools: you don’t have to rely on the New York Times or the Washington Post or your own local newspaper (even if your “local paper” is Le Monde, Die Zeit, or the Daily Star). I can sit here in my office and read the English edition of Ha’aretz, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, and the online edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun. Or I can read the Guardian, Asia Times, or the Jerusalem Post, and then go to the online and BBC News websites too.  (And don’t forget, of course).  Americans would be well served to spend part of each week perusing, a website that collects and translates media reports from around the world and a variety of political perspectives. When you travel, don’t just watch CNN — check out the BBC or Al Jazeera, too. Spend some time reading knowledgeable non-Americans like Ahmed Rashid, C. Raja Mohan, Kishore Mahbbubani, or Therese Delpeche. Don’t rely just on reports from inside-the-Beltway think tanks in the United States; take a look at the websites of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the International Crisis Group, or the growing number of think tanks in the developing world.

To repeat: developing a greater capacity for empathy won’t eliminate conflicts of interest between states, and won’t always make it possible to resolve the differences that will inevitably arise. But an inability to understand an adversary’s perspective (or an ally’s, for that matter) is a crippling liability, and there’s less excuse for it in our increasingly interconnected age.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.