We Need a Realist, Empathetic Foreign Policy

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While traveling in Turkey last month, it occurred to me that a little empathy would go a long way toward repairing the United States’ relationships with both our traditional allies in Europe and with states such as China, Russia, and Iran with which we have some substantially divergent interests. I am not talking about compassion or kindness, but realist foreign policy decision-making based on a sophisticated understanding of other countries’ unique strategic calculuses.
Empathy might seem like a foreign concept to policy practitioners used to thinking in terms of the harsh realities of an anarchic international system characterized by realpolitick, the pursuit of self-interest, and ruthless competition. However, the importance of empathy, properly understood as “the capacity to recognize or understand another’s state of mind or emotion,” flows logically from the centrality of self-interest to power politics.
Executing an empathetic foreign policy means both appreciating other countries’ perspectives and understanding how our words and deeds affect their behaviors. In other words, empathy must be part of both our foreign policy development and our approach.
The Bush administration’s greatest failure to empathize in the Turkish context was its inability to appreciate that even a successful overthrow of the Baathist regime in Iraq was likely to result in greater autonomy for Iraqi Kurds and instability along Turkey’s southeastern border. It was this fact, rather than anti-Americanism or weak knees, that was the decisive factor in the Turkish parliament’s decision on March 1, 2003 to prohibit U.S. forces from using its territory to open a northern front against Saddam.
We also need to understand that the manner in which we engage with other states matters. For example, when I met with Republican People’s Party (CHP) second-in-command Onur Oymen, he emphasized the need for Turkey and the United States to “think together.” That way, even when we cannot agree, we will understand.
Too often, U.S. policy under the Bush administration has been characterized by what former Ambassador to Turkey Mark Parris has termed “exploitative myopia,” meaning that we only talk to other countries when we need something from them (Iraq war, Russia-Georgia war in the case of Turkey). But a true strategic partnership is more than just a functional relationship during times of crisis. We need to nurture our global partnerships and remain aware of other countries’ unique sets of interests, constraints, ambitions, and fears.
Incoming Secretary of Commerce Bill Richardson seems to get this. He said last year with regard to Iran that, “In my dealings with North Korea, and with other hard-line governments around the world, I have learned that a basic level of respect for – and understanding of – your adversary is crucial for agreements to be reached…we need to recognize [Iran’s] national pride and its own perceptions of threats to its security.”
I hope that the rest of Obama’s team is on the same page.
–Ben Katcher

Comments

25 comments on “We Need a Realist, Empathetic Foreign Policy

  1. larry says:

    The underlying comment of local elections in Afghanistan was not emphasised enough today when you were on MSNBC. The local people don’t have enough say in their local government and support in this area will be critical. Like our own government, the local election has a greater appeal to local citizens. Let give this it’s due support.
    Retired Military

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  2. questions says:

    GWMc7e,
    “because one does not yield to their desires” is precisely the problem. We act as if it’s our job to decide which desires are put into action and which not. Not exactly sensitive to local conditions. In Kantian terms, we treat others merely as means to our ends, and never as ends in themselves. There’s frequently little understanding of or respect for local concerns, local power structures, or local economic conditions (think about how few linguists we have dealing with certain countries). Think about what Grover Norquist planned for the Iraqi economy; think about US support for right wing thugs around the world; think about the current 100 billion dollar Iraqi rebuilding fiasco. Not a whole lot of concern or empathy for the locals, but a whole lot of concern for a foolish reading of US interests. Think “blowback”, think about the tyrant in Book X of Plato’s Republic (the one who chooses his next life badly and is fated to eat his children — OOPS!!) — we don’t do this right by any stretch of the imagination.

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  3. GWMc7e says:

    This isn’t any new concept, nor has it not been used by no less than the current Bush administration. No secretary of state would not first seek to understand the goals, aspirations, concerns and worries of their allies as well as their enemies. To assume that consideration is not given because one does not yield to their desires is simple-minded thinking. The problem is that the world is complex. With any and every decision, someone is going to be unhappy. If decisions are only made that have unanimous support from all, nothing will get done. This is the guiding light of the U.N. Consider the nations that have veto power over major decisions. Why is it that nothing ever gets done? Could it be we’re not empathizing with one another?

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  4. questions says:

    I think we need a foreign policy that realizes that every decision is simultaneously domestic–geared towards keeping rulers in power and keeping factions quiet — and international — geared towards flexing power or showing off muscles or rebelling against power structures. I also think we need a foreign policy that reads widely in behavioral economics so that we stop thinking every nation is acting in rational self-interest. The international scene is as oedipal as is any family or nation, as prone to poor analysis, as liable to misperceive threats, as worried about image…. We need to make sure we’re not using dated paradigms, that we have a good picture of the domestic scene, that we realize that individuals want to live well, that politicians want to gather power, that nations want better positions in the hierarchy.
    The US seems to fail on every front. We don’t see inside other countries, we fail to understand our own father-complexes, we seem to think we have a natural right to be on the top of the pile (see Abu Ghraib photos for “pile”), we act as if the major mode of international behavior is to pick up a set of allies and hold them regardless of their internal politics (every ally makes us safer in a bi-polar world because either they are “ours” or they are the commies’), we don’t work for anyone’s dignity or autonomy or respite from the ravages of corporate exploitation….
    In short, we do it all wrong because we start from the wrong place.
    Were I starting over, I’d probably look to encouraging “ultra soft power” along the lines of the Chinese concept of “wu wei” — action through inaction. Rather than bombing or taunting or torturing, you make space for someone to realize his/her own failings in a safe way. You don’t threaten, you let the world threaten. If you smack a screaming toddler, you get an even more screaming toddler. If you let the toddler scream and the screaming does nothing, the toddler starts to learn not to scream because screaming is ineffective. Simultaneously, you help the toddler arrange his or her world so that screaming is less and less the preferred strategy.
    So what “screaming” do nations do and why? This, I think, is the question for IR at this point.

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  5. Don Bacon says:

    *Justice? The USA has two million people incarcerated in various prisons, many on hoked up charges and “substance abuse.”
    *Fairness? The USA has twelve million hardworking residents to whom it refuses to grant citizenship.
    *Consideration? When one of its major cities was wiped out by a hurricane the US government thumbed its nose at the displaced citizens.
    *Cooperation? Democracy is a dead duck in the USA, with its bought-and-paid-for Congress.
    In spite of the facts the USA is promoted as the great hope of mankind (American Exceptionalism).
    What good is empathy when you’re on the wrong path? Physician, heal thyself. Morality and justice begin at home, and then might be extended to others.

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  6. Ben says:

    Very interesting post. I highly suggest Security First by Amitai Etzioni at GW if you have not already read it. He essentially argues for “a muscular, moral” foreign policy. Essential that is a realist foreign policy shaped by morality and justice and recognizing that “only justice, fairness, consideration and cooperation can finally lead men to the dawn of eternal peace,” as President Eisenhower said.

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  7. Carroll says:

    Evidently Section 8 can’t read.
    The CIA…. hasn’t…. reversed it’s 2007 NIE.
    Epstein in this article, is arguing, for whatever his reasons are, that if the CIA had one assessment in ’96 and a different one in ‘2007’ why should we think they are right in their 2007 assesment?
    P.S.
    (It’s like this Epstein…things change.)
    Here is the article.
    http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/12/10/opinion/edepstein.php?page=2

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  8. arthurdecco says:

    section9: Crap. You, like all propagandists, disgust me.

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  9. section9 says:

    Yah kids, meantime, the incoming Obama Administration has
    offered a nuclear guarantee to the Israelis. Naturally, the
    Iranians know that this is a bluff, and will proceed pell mell
    towards their atomic bomb and missile program. They will see
    Obama’s offer of negotiation and concession for the
    appeasement that it is. To the Iranians, the atomic bomb offers
    them dominion over the hated Arabs. What can Obama give
    them to match that?
    Oh, by the way, you all did read the Edward Epstein’s scathing IHT piece today about the CIA having to
    walk back from its embarrassing 2007 NIE, didn’t you? Makes for
    good reading.
    The Israelis would be wise to turn down a hollow promise from
    Obama to protect them. The Shahab missiles are designed to
    threaten Europe, and keep us from responding to a preemptive
    Iranian attack. The Israelis have survived this long by, by and
    large, depending on themselves. It is a tradition they should
    continue.

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  10. fyi says:

    downtown:
    Just what exactly can Obama offer Iran that Iranians would find so valuable as to modify their behaviour in several areas (ME Peace, Persian Gulf Security, Nuclear Program, Iraq, Afghanistan)?
    Please be precise – I mean please enumerate tangible benefits and do not use vague terms such as “help on economy” etc.
    I personally do not see anything:
    – Iran’s economic problems are beyond US help – they are results of self-inflicted wounds.
    – US has no power to induce regime change in Iran; so that is not a real “offerring”
    – US cannot (and should not and will not even if she could) guarantee security of Iran against attacks by Israel, or Pakistan, or India, or Turkey.
    – US cannot trade with Iran even if she wanted; there are too many anti-Iran laws on the books in US.
    – Iran is getting oil exploration and related technology from other sources – even if those tools were developed initially in US.
    – US cannot offer financing deals to Iran when the global financial sector has imploded and no such financing is available any way.
    There are of course, marginal benefits that US can offer: removal of executive orders on sanctions, release of Iranian funds frozen by executive orders, liberalizing trade from US to Iran in non-military goods etc.
    But these are not worth that much to Iran any longer. As time passes, Iran has learnt how to live with sanctions. Their removal, while welcome, is not of sufficiently high value to induce substantial changes in the orientation of that state.
    Like I said, look to more of the same with Iran in an Obama Administration.
    This is what happens when you leverage yourself out of influence with sanctions.
    I like to hear opposing views; but please be concrete and specific and please put a (qualitative) value on what US can offer.

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  11. fyi says:

    downtown:
    Just what exactly can Obama offer Iran that Iranians would find so valuable as to modify their behaviour in several areas (ME Peace, Persian Gulf Security, Nuclear Program, Iraq, Afghanistan)?
    Please be precise – I mean please enumerate tangible benefits and do not use vague terms such as “help on economy” etc.
    I personally do not see anything:
    – Iran’s economic problems are beyond US help – they are results of self-inflicted wounds.
    – US has no power to induce regime change in Iran; so that is not a real “offerring”
    – US cannot (and should not and will not even if she could) guarantee security of Iran against attacks by Israel, or Pakistan, or India, or Turkey.
    – US cannot trade with Iran even if she wanted; there are too many anti-Iran laws on the books in US.
    – Iran is getting oil exploration and related technology from other sources – even if those tools were developed initially in US.
    – US cannot offer financing deals to Iran when the global financial sector has imploded and no such financing is available any way.
    There are of course, marginal benefits that US can offer: removal of executive orders on sanctions, release of Iranian funds frozen by executive orders, liberalizing trade from US to Iran in non-military goods etc.
    But these are not worth that much to Iran any longer. As time passes, Iran has learnt how to live with sanctions. Their removal, while welcome, is not of sufficiently high value to induce substantial changes in the orientation of that state.
    Like I said, look to more of the same with Iran in an Obama Administration.
    This is what happens when you leverage yourself out of influence with sanctions.
    I like to hear opposing views; but please be concrete and specific and please put a (qualitative) value on what US can offer.

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  12. downtown says:

    Unfortunately, there is an entrenched interest group that will tenaciously and ultimately successfully try to derail any attempt by the Obama administration to engage in rapprochement with Iran.

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  13. JohnH says:

    It’s obvious from comments that many people here understand the value of listening and empathy in the conduct of foreign policy. So why is it so difficult for the professionals–the notorious foreign policy/national security mob–to embrace such a simple, obvious way of conducting their business? Could it be because they’re underwritten by wealthy interests who are not the least interested in understanding others, because it might prove inimical to their profit margins?
    In the case of Iran, at least, this seems to be pretty obvious, given the lack of other good reasons for US bellicosity. If the foreign policy mob really wanted to understand Iran, they would quickly realize that Iran is being so ‘difficult’ because it wants to maintain sovereignty over its massive energy reserves–something highly threatening to influential Western energy interests.
    As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” Methinks that the Washington foreign policy establishment is little more than a collection of hired pens, “think” tanks and political hacks serving corporate interests under the pretense of promoting “vital strategic interests.” The more efective they are at promoting these interests, the more they get recognized as experts. Condi Rice, who had a Chevron supertanker named after her, achieved superstar status, though she proved to be a foreign policy disaster.
    Sadly, pursuuit of true national interests get sold out to the pressures of special interests.

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  14. K Galt says:

    An “empathetic” foreign policy would be great but I will not be holding my breath. How about a foreign policy actually based on the facts on the ground instead of false intelligence coming out of offices like the Office of Special plans or some other foreign policy office with a huge agenda. ..this would be a great start

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  15. ErvinD says:

    most often, to understand others, what is required is to engage in listening. that means trying really hard to understand friends and foes.
    is US able to do that? what I’ve seen so far has been only US talking and trying to make “them” understand.
    best example of “trying to listen” that I have seen lately is Conflicts Forum.

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  16. fyi says:

    Absolutely no chance of any change with Iran. US cannot offer anything that Iran would want that is of high value. Nada, zilch; with or without empathy. Look forward to more sanctions and more estrangement between US-EU & Iran.
    That state has become a strategic fixture of Russian-Chinese Entente.

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  17. Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi says:

    In exigency of worldpeace, prosperity and multilateralism, the US statecraft needs to shape a balanced, workable, durable and sustainable foreign policy enriched with pragmatic diplomaticism advocating and directing the values of mutual interests among the states. It is here that the coming Obama administration should be committed to streamlining the US-foreign policy regarding Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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  18. Mr.Murder says:

    Props to Richardson, he sees the strategic relation between isolated sectors. North Korea’s needs fuel its sales of items to Iran, etc.
    He stated as much in simple direct terms. maybe he’s more skilled a diplomat than the era of Clinton hating press. They focused hotly on him and other would admit.

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  19. arthurdecco says:

    “Incoming Secretary of Commerce Bill Richardson…said last year with regard to Iran that, “In my dealings with North Korea, and with other hard-line governments around the world, I have learned that a basic level of respect for – and understanding of – your adversary is crucial for agreements to be reached…we need to recognize [Iran’s] national pride and its own perceptions of threats to its security.””
    I wish this sensible and realistic appeal for a course change regarding Iran could be attributed to Hillary Clinton, Obama’s choice for Secretary of State. She is the person who has been assigned the responsibility for displaying America’s “basic level of respect for, and understanding of” the American government’s “adversaries”, rather than the respected Bill Richardson, incoming Secretary of Commerce.
    I can’t see how Governor Richardson’s opinion on this subject will change the way or why things get done in an Obama administration. I’m not even remotely hopeful this clear-eyed proposal of his is representative of a positive shift in the future administration.
    John H & TonyForesta, I luv ya!

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  20. TonyForesta says:

    Socalled “American exceptionalism” is dead and rotting in the field. America has failed as a democracy, failed as an economic model, failed and a social or societal model, failed as a political system, failed as a legal system, failed as purveyors of religion by appeasing the freakish perversion of christianity pimped by the fascists in the haters biggots, racists, and ignorant idiots in the evangelical hordes, and failed as nation that honors, upholds, and advances freedom, equality and justice for all.
    America is certainly NOT exceptional. Though we do own the worlds hypersuperior military and intelligence apparatus, – our ideologies, policies, and twisted machinations are monstrous, horrific, bloody, imponderably costly monumental failures.
    America either musters the courage to admit to this terrible truth, and work to dismantle the fascists predator class domination of our government, our legal system, and our socalled churches – or we are doomed – and will very good well justified reasons.
    America must change – and change in every way – or perish. Empathy is a good start, but only one small step toward righting the terrible wrongs of the last eight years of fascist control of the government, and decades of promoting the bests interests of the predator class – the superrich above and beyond the best interests of the American people.

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  21. ExBrit says:

    I am slightly more optimistic about the abandonment of ‘American exceptionalism’ than the earlier poster. I have, at least, heard Andrew Bacevich on Bill Moyer, and Madeline Albright on the telly recently opining that “it’s a bad thing”. I also think that Obama has a global perspective unlike the blind and tone deaf foreign policy of the Bush administration.

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  22. John Boonstra says:

    Good post. I agree, and am sure that Obama won’t boil empathy down to claiming to look into autocratic leaders’ souls…http://www.ondayone.org/node/5354.

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  23. JohnH says:

    Bravo! Empathy absolutely needs to be part of the tone of foreign policy. Blind, single minded pursuit of one’s self interest is the surest way to alienate yourself from the rest of the world.
    I would go one step further, however. The ability to understand other countries’ strategic calculus means that the US could identify “win-win” situations and conduct negotiations based on mutual self interest. I could list places, like Venezuela, where the US could enjoy positive relations if it abandoned its “winner take all” attitude.
    What a world of difference it would make if a “know-it-all” USA stopped trying to dictate to the rest of the world and no longer expected others to automatically fall in line with America’s latest whims. Bye-bye failed “Washington consensus,” hello mutually advantageous engagement.

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  24. Don Bacon says:

    Empathy is not possible Without abandonment of American Exceptionalism:
    Wiki definition: AE refers to the belief that the United States differs qualitatively from other developed nations because of its national credo, historical evolution, distinctive political and religious institutions, ethnic origins and composition, or national ideals.
    I have seen no sign that Americans are going to stop considering themselves the chosen race, despite the low esteem they currently suffer in the world.

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  25. Dana Snyder-Grant says:

    Ben,
    I like how you use the language of mental health and psychotherapy to understand how we need to be with foreign governments,
    -Dana

    Reply

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