Apr 7th, 2020, 09:17 PM

On Empathy

By Stuart Johnson
Reagan & Gorbachev Signing the INF Treaty - December 9, 1987. Image Credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
Employing Keats’ “Negative Capability” theory in our International Crises

Why not “On Sympathy?” Because sympathy only implies relating to another’s emotional state. Empathy is the ability to relate to another’s emotional state by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation. This is a critical difference. In international relations crises, of which there are many today, misjudgments are often made when perceptions of the opposition's point of view aren’t properly thought through leading to miscommunication. As such, it is imperative that our leaders and diplomats today practice greater empathy in order find common ground and promote compromise. 

Frustratingly, diplomats and heads of state often point to existing and more traditional international relations theories such as realism and liberalism that do not employ empathy specifically and explain and even legitimize past behavior which rarely leads to compromise. What they instead should be doing is challenging the academic community to develop novel conceptualizations that better explain today's crises and lead to greater understanding among parties. Thankfully, in contemporary conflict resolution, theorists like Steve Azar in developing his Social Conflict Theory have provided a basis for scholars to draw on multiple disciplines and to think through conflict resolution more deeply. It is in this spirit that conflict resolution theorists should employ the concept of “negative capability” in their works which focuses on the importance of empathy. More specifically, it was a phrase first used by the English Romantic poet John Keats in 1817 to characterize the capacity of the greatest writers to pursue a vision of artistic beauty even when it led them into intellectual confusion and uncertainty. In diplomacy, employing this approach should be used as an alternative to using philosophical certainty to explain current conflicts. Moreover, today's diplomatic corps and government officials should encourage international relations theorists to pursue 'artistic beauty' and new conceptualizations  as Keats would call it, to find new explanations for long-term 'intractable' conflicts. 

Believe it or not, there is a real and cogent argument against infusing empathy into our decision-making processes. Yale University Psychology and Cognitive Science professor Paul Bloom makes it in his 2016 book – “Against Empathy”. Through a series of clinical studies and logic he makes the point that empathy is surprisingly bad at making us good. He notes that while empathy pushes us to care more about people in the moment, it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our decisions. Worse, Bloom says that empathy is biased and pushes us in the direction of parochialism and racism. As opposed to empathy, Bloom advocates for compassion. To him, compassion means allowing one to give another's concerns weight, and to value it. Meaning, I care about you, but I don’t necessarily pick up your feelings. Yet, as I have argued earlier, misperception between opposing parties is what causes miscommunication in international crises, not a lack of compassion. It may be too much to ask warring parties to be compassionate with one another's views, when all we need them to do is to be empathetic and cognizant of their opponent so they don't kill each other. In other words, empathy might not be the end of the conversation, but it’s certainly a beginning.

During the Cold War, it was Margret Thatcher who talked Ronald Reagan into seeing things from Gorbachev’s perspective, which eventually led to the end of the Cold War. In a written letter to Reagan, Thatcher counseled Reagan:

“We have no designs on you, we recognize you as equals, we know that you are entitled, just as we are, to be secure, let’s find our security, by spelling out our intentions with frankness, and let us understand that the world isn’t safe if it isn’t safe for both of us.”

In no way did this letter lead to an infinite peace, but it did lead to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which held in force until February of last year. The point is, only by employing these empathetic compromises was the agreement reached. The United States, in engaging like-minded European partners, in this case Thatcher, and the Russians, the intellectual agenda was cleared for an agreement to be reached. This is the challenge Keats’ “negative capacity” theory poses to current Track I diplomacy. And maybe today, it could even be Track II diplomats and intellectuals that play an increasingly important role in allowing opposing parties to recognize one another’s interests without demonizing them.

In conclusion, today’s world faces a number of threats including: the proliferation of non-state actors, spending cuts that threaten diplomacy efforts, military buildups in Asia, Europe and the U.S., growing nuclear weapons arsenals, climate change, and volatile oil prices that threaten to trigger sudden geopolitical shifts to name just a few but none of these conflicts can be resolved without political. And yet, trends in geopolitics indicate we are moving away from compromise and towards nationalist, self-centered diplomacy - a paralyzed United Nations Security Council and most glaringly a growing divide between the United States and their Western allies versus Putin’s Russia and China. As The American University of Paris’ own Dr. Hall Gardner’s “World War Trump” puts it starkly, the Trump Administration’s nationalism is walking us towards a more destabilized and dangerous world which could lead to World War III. But this doesn’t have to be the case. As we saw at the end of the Cold War, compromise is attainable. Showing greater empathy is a first step towards reaching our next great compromise.