Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Geopolitics of Empathy

How our understanding—or misunderstanding—of other countries’ perspectives shapes global order.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Joe Biden hugs an attendee.
Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden hugs an attendee during an event in Ames, Iowa, on Jan. 21, 2020. Al Drago/Getty Images

States compete and contend for many reasons, and sometimes those reasons are abundantly clear to the protagonists. But in other cases, the root causes of the disagreement are not well understood, and the level of animosity is greater than it should be. In this latter case, states know they disagree, but they are either confused or mistaken about the underlying source(s) of the problem. In these circumstances, remedying the problem will be much more difficult, and escalatory spirals are more likely.

For this reason, one of the lessons I try hardest to impart in my courses is the importance of empathy: the ability to see problems from another person’s (or country’s) perspective. To do this does not require agreeing with their view; it is about grasping how others see a situation and understanding why they are acting as they are. The reason to do this is eminently practical: It’s harder to persuade a rival to alter its behavior if you don’t understand its origins.

I was reminded of this problem when I read several obituaries for Lee Ross, a pioneering social psychologist who taught for many years at Stanford University. Ross is best known for his work on what he called the “fundamental attribution error,” which became a core concept in the field and had broad applications. In brief, fundamental attribution error is the human tendency to emphasize “dispositional” explanations of behavior over “situational” explanations. In other words, humans tend to see the behavior of others as reflections of the latter’s personality, character, desires, or basic dispositions rather than as response to the situations others are in. Yet we tend to see our own behavior as a response to the circumstances we are facing rather than as being solely a manifestation of “who we are.”

States compete and contend for many reasons, and sometimes those reasons are abundantly clear to the protagonists. But in other cases, the root causes of the disagreement are not well understood, and the level of animosity is greater than it should be. In this latter case, states know they disagree, but they are either confused or mistaken about the underlying source(s) of the problem. In these circumstances, remedying the problem will be much more difficult, and escalatory spirals are more likely.

For this reason, one of the lessons I try hardest to impart in my courses is the importance of empathy: the ability to see problems from another person’s (or country’s) perspective. To do this does not require agreeing with their view; it is about grasping how others see a situation and understanding why they are acting as they are. The reason to do this is eminently practical: It’s harder to persuade a rival to alter its behavior if you don’t understand its origins.

I was reminded of this problem when I read several obituaries for Lee Ross, a pioneering social psychologist who taught for many years at Stanford University. Ross is best known for his work on what he called the “fundamental attribution error,” which became a core concept in the field and had broad applications. In brief, fundamental attribution error is the human tendency to emphasize “dispositional” explanations of behavior over “situational” explanations. In other words, humans tend to see the behavior of others as reflections of the latter’s personality, character, desires, or basic dispositions rather than as response to the situations others are in. Yet we tend to see our own behavior as a response to the circumstances we are facing rather than as being solely a manifestation of “who we are.”

If someone lies to us, for example, we tend to assume it is because their character is flawed and they lack integrity. They lied because, well, that’s just the kind of person they are. And sometimes, this is true. But if we tell a lie, we are prone to see it as something we had to do given the situation we were in, not as evidence of our own character flaws. If someone else loses their cool and lashes out, we conclude they must be innately hotheaded or have anger management issues instead of considering whether they are overworked, dealing with three small kids in lockdown, or sleep deprived.

A corollary is the tendency to believe other people have more latitude or control over their actions than we have over ours. We think what we are able to do is heavily constrained by our circumstances but what others do is largely determined by who they are and what they want. It follows that if a problem arises between us, we tend to think they have many more options for resolving it than we do, and therefore, the burden of doing so should fall on them.

As political scientist Robert Jervis made clear in his classic book Perception and Misperception in International Politics, the insights of Ross and other social psychologists can help us understand why conflict spirals often arise and are so difficult to reverse. If both sides think their rival’s actions are internally generated and mostly voluntary while their own actions are defensive, reluctant, and largely a response to external conditions they had little control of, then finding common ground is going to be extremely difficult.

Examples of this bias in the area of foreign policy are ubiquitous. It is a staple of mainstream foreign-policy punditry, which reflexively leaps to explain what states do by focusing on leaders or regime types. Why is Russia interfering in Ukraine? Because Russian President Vladimir Putin is a KGB-trained thug who is obsessed with restoring Russia’s status as a great power and seized a fortuitous opportunity. Why is Iran meddling in Iraq, Syria, or Yemen? Because it is led by religious fanatics who are indifferent to human life and eager to export the Iranian model. Why is a rising China persecuting Uyghurs, building islands in the South China Sea, and threatening Taiwan? Because Chinese President Xi Jinping is an ambitious leader who wants to go down in history as an even greater visionary leader than late Chinese leader Mao Zedong. And so forth. It’s much rarer for pundits to consider whether these admittedly aggressive actions might be defensive responses to events or circumstances these leaders saw (rightly or wrongly) as threatening.

As I noted way back in 2015, Russia’s policies in Ukraine are strikingly similar to the Reagan administration’s policies toward Nicaragua in the 1980s. In each case, a great power was worried that domestic developments in a nearby country might lead it to realign with its superpower rival, and in each case, it organized and supported a rebel army to challenge the local government. But where Americans saw their policies as a necessity forced on them by circumstance, they saw Putin’s actions as purely voluntary, totally unwarranted, and as irrefutable evidence of his problematic character.

When U.S. officials and commentators turn to the United States’ conduct, however, they typically see it as driven less by dispositions, desires, or individual personalities as by compelling strategic necessities. Why does the United States have fleets and troops and air squadrons all over the world, and why does it intervene so often in the domestic affairs of other countries? Not because it wants to do these things—oh no!—it does them because it has “special responsibilities” or because it is facing imminent threats that must be countered. In this view, even recent “wars of choice” were thrust on it by circumstance.

Attribution bias also reinforces the recurring impulse to solve international problems not by diplomacy and compromise but through regime change or other radical steps. If an opponent’s worrisome behavior is dispositional—such as a reflection of who they really are—then it’s harder to imagine fixing it as long as the people and institutions responsible for it remain in place. If you really are dealing with a leader or a regime that is compulsively dishonest or irrevocably aggressive, compromise is probably futile and possibly dangerous.

It’s a small wonder, then, that preparations for preventive war (such as the 2003 Iraq War) always involve demonizing the enemy as irredeemably evil, untrustworthy, and incapable of change or compromise. And this may not be just part of selling the war; the people doing the demonizing may believe everything they are saying. In this way, overreliance on “dispositional” explanations makes conflicts more intense, harder to resolve, and more prone to violence. Sadly, similar tendencies seem increasingly evident inside the United States as well.

A virtue of foreign-policy realism is it helps the world guard against the types of fundamental attribution errors identified by Ross. Instead of attributing others’ behaviors to various “unit-level” characteristics (leaders’ personalities, political orders, or whatever), realism emphasizes how the absence of an overarching sovereign authority (like “international anarchy”) inclines all states—and especially major powers—to prioritize their own selfish interests, compete with others more-or-less constantly, pursue relative advantages when opportunities arise, and adopt policies others will often find threatening or disturbing. Instead of dividing the world into good or bad states, status quo powers versus revisionists, or peace-loving leaders and implacable aggressors, realists understand that states and leaders of all types are dealing with an uncertain and insecure world and are likely to do regrettable things in their pursuit of greater security. Realists can be well aware of the motes in others’ eyes, but they are less likely to ignore the beam in their own.

This is not to say all conflicts are based on misperceptions and biases or individual traits and impulses do not play important roles in international affairs. Some conflicts of interest may have a completely rational basis—and are all the more tragic for that reason—and protagonists may be under no illusions about how they differ. A individual leader’s paranoia, ambitions, or dreams of glory may have profound effects on a state’s foreign policy, and ideological visions, domestic factors, or sheer incompetence can play important roles as well. Understanding attribution bias should not lead us to dismiss these other sources of trouble entirely.

But when we are dealing with a vexing international problem, a contentious foe, or a country whose behavior we find troubling or threatening, Ross’s core insight reminds us to stop and ask ourselves a few key questions.

First, is our opponent acting as it is because its leaders really want to, or do they think the situation they are in is forcing them to do something they would rather avoid?

Second, if the latter option is a genuine possibility, is it also possible that some of our actions are making the other side’s sense of necessity more acute and unintentionally reinforcing the behavior that is bothering us?

Third, if so, are there any steps we could take to ameliorate those concerns—like altering the situational environment our opponent finds itself in—without jeopardizing our own interests?

Reversing an unnecessary spiral will not be possible in every case, but the United States (and others) would be much better off if it devoted more effort to exploring opportunities to resolve disputes through genuine diplomacy instead of blaming all the evils of the world on evildoers who must be eliminated for virtue to triumph. For that core insight, the field of international relations owes the late Ross a considerable intellectual debt. It would be a fitting legacy if it had more influence on the conduct of foreign policy itself.

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

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