Strategic Empathy and US Foreign Policy Workshop, Part 1

Introduction/Prof. Yorke’s Remarks

          Recently, I participated in subject workshop, which was sponsored by the Kissinger Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). I was invited by Mary Barton. Mary and I were both World War I Centennial Fellows in a project run by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. She is currently an America in the World Consortium Postdoctoral Fellow at SAIS. She is the author of the recent Counterterrorism Between the Wars: An International History, 1919-1937 (Oxford, 2020). Also participating were Johns Hopkins doctoral candidate Ashlyn Hand and retired Navy Captain Susan Maybaumwisniewski. Prof. Claire Yorke, Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Grand Strategy, King’s College London, was the real “duty expert” on this subject.

           We had a few introductory meetings among ourselves to work out the sequence of events and develop some of the questions and issues we wanted to pursue. Then on 11 May we had the main event, with about 30 in attendance. All of this was on zoom. 

           For my first blog on this event, I will try to summarize the opening remarks made by Professor Yorke. In subsequent posts I will go on to the remarks made by others, myself included, perhaps followed with a concluding call to action/further study and my own reflections.

            Prof. Yorke led off by quoting Robert McNamara to the effect that there is no contradiction between a soft heart and a hard head. Empathy is a matter of seeking to understand another person’s perspective. This may be difficult, particularly perhaps when it crosses cultural and other boundaries. Empathy can lead to compassion, although it is not the same as compassion. Empathy can humanize relations and also open up opportunities for more information and data in the diplomatic and political arenas. Empathy involves humility, the realization that ours is not the only possible world view. Prof. Yorke identifies three types of empathy, while acknowledging that there are others discussed in the relevant literature. Her three are interpersonal, strategic, and manipulative. The last category may not be true empathy. How do diplomats and others “signal” that they are open to or intending to show empathy? Despite the literature on empathy, which includes writings by “realist” theoreticians and work on “cognitive biases,” the subject of empathy in politics and foreign policy is probably under-theorized. The effect of such feelings as anger, shame, grief, and joy on people’s actions in the public sphere is little understood. Foreign affairs theory tends to focus on questions of power, interest, and security. These are important matters, and an understanding of empathy can improve our grasp of all three. Empathy can serve to break down the walls of mistrust that are at the heart of what has been called the “security dilemma.”            

        Prof. Yorke discussed “Constructivist” theory, which is concerned with how we construct meaning. Some Constructivist writing is concerned with marginalized voices. Prof. Yorke cited the work of Franz Fanon, Edward Said and others on this subject, along with feminist writers. The practice of empathy raises the question of with whom do we empathize, and why. In the foreign relations arena, it may be important that empathy is institutionalized. It may not be enough that heads of state or principal negotiators form bonds of empathy, if rank-and-file diplomats and bureaucrats do not cultivate empathy as well. Seeking empathy can be an uncomfortable and even offensive undertaking, involving compromise and difficult ethical choices. Empathy must also be theorized so that we better understand its nuances and the insight it offers, and so that we continue to ask questions about empathy as feeling, state of mind, and aspiration. What is the story we don’t know?

            For empathy to be practiced more effectively, we need a greater, more detailed and nuanced picture of empathy in action as well as in theory. Done right, empathy has the ability to provide vital information to practitioners, and to transform crises.

            Some questions from the audience, moderated by Ashlyn Hand, followed Prof. Yorke’s remarks. One listener asked about the elected officials who seem to display empathy in foreign relations, but who rely on simplistic, even callous formulas and stereotypes when discussing domestic issues. Prof. Yorke expressed the hope that people would see through such hypocrisy. Another listener asked what features of government lent themselves to empathy. Prof. Yorke identified a willingness to tolerate failure and a healthy media that encourages discussion and that tolerates different points of view. Prof. Yorke concluded by noting the importance of curiosity. This may be vital in all forms of learning, but in empathy it is likely especially important that difference and strangeness provoke curiosity rather than fear, incomprehension, or distaste.

Next: Empathy and the Officer          


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