The Ethic of Strategic Empathy

by Anatol Lieven

Russia and her neighbours 10 mins read

The great realist thinker Hans Morgenthau stated that a fundamental ethical duty of the statesman is the cultivation of empathy: the ability through study to see the world through the eyes of rival state elites. Empathy in this sense is not identical with sympathy. Thus, George Kennan’s deep understanding of Stalinism led to an absolute hostility to that system.

This kind of empathy has very valuable consequences for foreign policy. It makes for an accurate assessment of another state establishment’s goals based on its own thoughts, rather than a picture of those goals generated by one’s own fears and hopes; above all, it permits one to identify the difference between the vital and secondary interests of a rival country as that country’s rulers see them.

A vital interest is one on which a state will not compromise unless faced with irresistible military or economic pressure. Otherwise, it will resist to the very limit of its ability, including, if necessary, by war. A statesman who sets out to challenge another state’s vital interests must therefore be sure not only that his or her country possesses this overwhelming power, but that it is prepared actually to use it.

Geopolitical power is really, in the end, local and relative: it is the power that a state is willing to bring to bear in a particular place or on a particular issue relative to the power that a rival state will bring to bear. Furthermore, the degree of the willingness to mobilize and use power and to make sacrifices depends ultimately on whether the issue concerned is believed to be a vital national interest. If it is only a secondary interest, then it is one on which the statesman should be prepared to make concessions and seek compromise.

The first step in this process of empathy is simply to listen to what the other side says. This however is not in itself enough, for they may of course be exaggerating an issue’s importance as a bluff or a negotiating gambit. It is therefore also necessary to study in depth the history, politics and culture of the country concerned. Thus, despite what Chinese officials say, we might doubt that they would actually go to war if Taiwan declares independence. A study of modern Chinese history, and of the importance of nationalism to the legitimacy of the Chinese state, makes clear that they are not bluffing.

What makes this search for understanding easier is that foreign and security establishments generally hold historically-derived doctrines about their country’s vital interests that are relatively easy to identify given study and an open mind.

The greatest enemy of an open mind and a capacity for empathy is self-righteousness. One aspect of self-righteousness is a confusion between basic moral commitments and the inevitable moral compromises forced upon state representatives trying to defend their country’s interests in a morally flawed and chaotic world. 

The morality of Western policymakers lies in their commitment to Western democracy, and their renunciation of absolutely immoral means: notably the mass murder of civilians. This commitment however, while it may restrain Western democracies from the most evil actions, does not confer some kind of innate innocence on their conduct of policy. 

This is especially true of the Middle East where I have worked for a number of years. Given the nature of this region, any outside state, democratic or otherwise, seeking to play an important role there will inevitably be compelled to engage in certain immoral actions — including alliances with corrupt and murderous dictatorships. What Western policymakers can, however, be blamed for is the pretense that because our systems are democratic, this somehow in itself makes these immoral actions better than those same actions when engaged in by other states. 

The least excusable Western failure of empathy since the end of the Cold War has been with regard to Russia because — by contrast to some Middle East countries, let alone North Korea — the attitudes and beliefs of the Russian establishment are not hard to understand, at least for anyone with a minimal grasp of Russian history and culture. Moreover, the realism of Russian policymakers fits the mindset of many American security officials.

The vital interests of Russia are adhered to by the Russian establishment as a whole. They consist chiefly of a belief that Russia must be one pole of a multipolar world — not a superpower, but a great power with real international influence. Also: that Russia must retain predominant influence on the territory of the former Soviet Union, that any rival alliance must be excluded, and that international order depends on the preservation of existing states. In addition, as with any political system, there is a commitment to the existing Russian political order and a determination that any change in it must not be directed from outside.

There are obvious tensions between some of these Russian interests and secondary U.S. interests, but on one issue — the danger from Sunni Islamist extremism and terrorism — a vital interest of Russia is completely identical with our own. Because of this danger, U.S. administrations, like the Russians, have often supported existing authoritarian Muslim states for fear that their overthrow would lead to chaos and the triumph of Islamist extremism. 

In Syria, Russia followed the policy of the U.S. in Algeria 20 years earlier — and indeed in its support for General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt today. Russian fears of an ISIS takeover of Syria if the state collapsed were echoed in briefings to President Obama by the CIA. Yet a Western narrative has emerged of Russia engaging in wicked support for “brutal dictatorships” in the Middle East, and that this policy in turn is linked not to fear of Islamist extremism, but implacable anti-Americanism and reckless geopolitical ambition.

Straightforward Western prejudices (now dignified with the abominable euphemism of “narratives”) are part of the reason for these false perceptions derived from the Cold War. The collapse of Communism, however, also led to a growth in Western hubris that led Western policymakers to fail either to listen to their Russian colleagues when they stated Russia’s vital interests, or to study Russia in sufficient depth to understand that they were not bluffing but really meant what they said. Instead, you had the tragicomic picture of American officials lecturing Russian officials on the “real” interests of Russia. 

As a result, U.S. and British officials ignored Russian warnings that if Washington persisted in trying to extend NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, Russia would fight. And when Russia did fight — albeit in a very limited way — this was taken as a sign not of a Western failure to listen, but of Russian “madness,” aggression, and evil. Though if one thinks of the Monroe Doctrine, Russian concerns in this regard should hardly be incomprehensible to an American official. It should also have been easy enough to accept the Russian point that this was a vital interest for the sake of which Moscow was prepared to make very important concessions to Washington on other issues.

Instead, the United States establishment embroiled itself in confrontations with Russia, only to recognize at the last moment in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 that these countries were not in fact American vital interests, and that the U.S. was not prepared to fight to defend them. An additional danger therefore in refusing to study other countries’ vital interests is that it makes it more difficult to think seriously about your own. We had better hope that in dealing with the vastly more formidable challenge of China our policy elites will engage in real study, eschew self-righteousness, and identify and not attack the vital interests of China, as long as Beijing does not seek to attack our own.

Responsible Statecraft, November 3rd 2020