On the Necessity and Possibility of an Empathising Foreign Policy in Today’s World.
On the 11th and 12th days (26–27 October 1962) of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, received two messages from the Soviet Union’s leader, Nikita Khrushchev, within a short period of time. The first was conciliatory in tone, while the second was aggressive. Khrushchev himself had written the first letter and it was sent through closed channels; the second, public one had probably been dictated to him by his generals. By that time, Kennedy had put US fighters on combat alert, and was ready to remove Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba by force, which almost certainly would have triggered an intercontinental nuclear war. The former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson, who was a member of Kennedy’s crisis team at the time and had close contacts with the Soviet leader, advised Kennedy to ignore the second message and respond to the first. It was Thompson’s understanding that Khrushchev was willing to withdraw the missiles from Cuba peacefully, if he had the option to present avoiding a US invasion of Cuba as a strategic victory for the Soviet Union. The then US Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, recognises in the 2003 documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” that the world had never been so close to a nuclear war than in those days. The crisis ended on 28 October, and the Soviet Union withdrew its missiles from the island over the following month or so. Of course, this outcome was achieved due to the concurrence of several circumstances; at the same time, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that, without Thompson, the world might look very different on both continents today. McNamara’s first lesson is: try to empathise with your enemy.
Empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of others—ideally extends to both friends and enemies. Without a doubt, the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes gives a strong advantage in interpreting reality for both states and people. The former are composed of the latter. The reasons for the behaviour of countries should be sought in human nature as well as in history and culture. The main reasons for aggressive behaviour, at both the human and state levels, are fear and the need for resources. The scale of fears is broad; for one, fear arises, for example, from the inability to define oneself with sufficient clarity, in which case others become a danger to one’s identity; fear may ensue from the feeling that you are not sufficiently honoured or recognised. The entirety and status of “me” is equally important to people and countries. Fear is also a prism that significantly distorts our sense of reality and hampers understanding. From this, in turn, spirals of misunderstanding are created, which can lead even the most rationally thinking and operating countries/individuals to the brink of destruction.1 When there is an especially thick fog, it is important to see beyond the boundaries of your fear, in the way ambassador Thompson was able to do at a critical moment.
An equals sign is commonly placed between understanding and acceptance; in reality it might not always be there. In tennis, the notion of “know your enemy” is not unusual. In international discourse, attempts to understand the other side are for some reason considered treacherous, especially by one’s own side. “Ah, those Russlandverstehers …” Not understanding the position of the enemy in a conflict is paralysing, writes Stephen M. Walt, Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University.2
To what extent are we actually capable of understanding others? The brain functions by creating connections, and new experiences are placed in the context of already existing connections. The creation of entirely new “neurological paths” in the brain is laborious. People seem to be capable of seeing and understanding only what is already within them, which links to previous experiences. The selfish do not comprehend selfless motives, and vice versa; cheats suspect everybody, the noble cannot suspect anyone. Democracies assess the rest of the world according to the potential to spread democracy to these places.3 One cannot rule out the possibility that our entire ability to understand is limited to seeing one’s own reflection in others. The greater the similarities and clarity of the reflection, the stronger the friendship; the fewer common characteristics there are, the more muddled the picture, which leaves room for incomprehension, and this, in turn, can lead to fear. This is how the notion of friends and enemies is formed in our heads. So it is for countries, too. Does the presumed limited ability to understand mean that conflicts are inevitable?
Not necessarily, I would argue. The key presumably lies in the first part of empathy—understanding oneself—in the greater awareness of one’s own constraints, and in the understanding that not all that is inconceivable is necessarily bad or dangerous. There are things that should be tolerated without understanding; condemnation also involves comprehension. Second, by consciously trying to see the world through wide-open eyes and removing the lens of fear with reason, we can probably broaden our horizons to a degree. Today’s closely connected world and technology leave us with ever fewer justifications for why we have not yet done this. Realpolitik in international relations means competing for one’s interests, while empathy supports acting in one’s own interests.4 Even unilateral understanding gives a tactical advantage to the party who understands. McNamara and Kissinger5 — traditionally considered to be “realpoliticians”—who were present at the making of several important decisions for the world, are both great proponents of empathy. The attempt to understand does not always eliminate the conflict, but it significantly reduces the potential for a spiral of hostility.6
What does this theorising give us in the context of today’s developments related to Russia? For the purpose of self-awareness, it would probably be useful to ponder for a moment whether the prism of existential fear lets us see things clearly enough in our corner of the world. Where does the geopolitical border between fear and excessive optimism lie? Is the old, value-based Europe really more interest-based in relation to Russia than we are?
In the context of understanding Russia, there are many things that it might be useful to understand better in view of the big picture. For a year and a half, we have been daily submerged in news about Russia and Ukraine—what kind of military movements took place in Donetsk and Luhansk, what new means of information warfare has Russian president Vladimir Putin come up with to influence the domestic and international public, etc. Details are important, and at times they may be decisive, but in other cases they obstruct the big picture—registering every tiny crackle deepens fear and thickens the fog.
The question of how the West misinterpreted the lack of Russian opposition to the post-Cold War order as acquiescence by Moscow is receiving more attention. During the Cold War, the West examined even the tiniest snippet of information about the Soviet Union, but after 1989 it lost interest in how Russia saw the world and its place in it because “the victor feels no curiosity”.7
Rebuilding Russia’s historically big ego, which was fatally damaged by the collapse of the Soviet Union, has not been successful. Setting up a modern competitive economy in Russia seems relatively complicated, mostly due to cultural differences. The erstwhile system of satellites—mines in the Ukraine, agriculture in the Baltic States—was the IV drip of this organism; the fall in world oil prices has damaged its heart.8
Realising that it was not feasible to turn Russia into an economic superpower in the near future, Putin selected a different tool for national self-determination and status-building: the demonstration of military power. It might be cynically argued that Russia is practising its identity behind our borders. However, military might without economic power cannot last for long.9 Logically, Russia cannot afford a large-scale war either, because it cannot afford to lose. The “military card” has been effective because Putin has access to one more inexhaustible resource—fear. In March this year, the Russian leader announced that he was ready to defend the Crimea with nuclear weapons.10 The same message was repeated on 10 April by Leonid Nersisyan, a military observer at Regnum News Agency: if NATO forces gain an advantage in the Baltic region, it might mean that Russia would use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers. Animals act like this in self-defence—they raise their spines or bristle. If the president of our neighbouring state were to be admired for something, it would be his skill in using inadequate resources purposefully. Putin has succeeded in making Russia great by fear. However, at the beginning of June, Vladimir Putin told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that only an insane person could imagine that Russia would suddenly attack NATO. An aggressive message, but also a conciliatory one.
The world’s experts on Russia are debating whether Putin’s actions in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine are part of a larger scheme or are simply fuelled by the desire to ensure domestic control and increase his personal popularity. There is no doubt that, since the Cold War, Russian leaders have had to live up to the public’s wish for clear self-determination, raising the state’s self-esteem and status. According to Gleb Pavlovsky, a former adviser to the Presidential Administration of Russia, Putin lost interest in day-to-day decision-making after his approval rating rose to more than 80% over the annexation of the Crimea. In Pavlovsky’s opinion, today’s Russia does not want to change the world order or even retain its sphere of influence at any price; its actions are driven not by the search for increasing the state’s power outside Russia but by internal weakness.11 Moscow’s policy is isolationism rather than imperialism, as claimed by Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, analysts at the European Council on Foreign Relations.12
Such an increase in popularity also involves certain risks. An artificial world created with propaganda cannot be fully controlled. The population has been “warmed up”. According to data that is probably difficult to check, only recently a significant proportion of Russians wanted a real war with Ukraine.13 It is complicated to tell them “calm down now, please, the show is over”. Besides, as in every good war movie, there are warmonger generals in real life, and they are ready to carry out forceful plans even at some risk to themselves.14 In some ways, it can be said that Putin has become a hostage of the war in Ukraine.15 This war cannot be won or lost. Opening a new front in Syria makes it possible to correct mistakes and, at the same time, direct attention away from Ukraine. There was only passing mention of Ukraine in Vladimir Putin’s speech at the UN General Assembly on 28 September.16 A large portion of the speech was dedicated to Syria and the fight against the so-called Islamic State. The airstrikes in Syria that commenced on 30 September indicate, however, that the real target is not the Islamic State but other forces fighting against Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Of course, this does not suit the West. The danger of the conflict in Syria escalating even further is multifaceted. In addition to historical interests, Russia’s support for Syria’s current regime is probably motivated by fear that the West’s aim regarding Russia is also regime change. Today, the reality may be the opposite; many think that change could be even more dangerous than the current situation.17 From several points of view, the West should refrain from trying to turn Russia into a democracy like them, but should endeavour to shape it into something with which they are able to co-exist.18
In the UN speech, Putin again accused the West of trying to establish a unilateral order and of exporting its values to Ukraine, North Africa and Middle Eastern countries; he thinks that Western values have induced chaos in several of those places. “Do you realise now what you’ve done?” he stated emotionally, adding that Russia could no longer tolerate the current state of world affairs. There are doubters in the West, too; maybe it really was the case that the European Union pushed too close to Russia with its Ukraine–EU Association Agreement. The fall of Viktor Yanukovych was certainly a big blow to Russia’s ego. However, it is important to bear in mind that Putin probably does not need the West to actually violate Russia’s interests in order to accuse it.19 This is the skilful use of confrontation: it is always easier to identify yourself that way. For Putin, it is not even important that the EU and NATO do not expand their sphere of influence but act as value-based commuting centres and complement each other. European countries identify themselves through their actual territory; Russia’s ego, however, goes beyond its physical borders. Alas, international law does not tolerate such deviations.
The US and EU sanctions as punishments for annexing the Crimea and supporting separatism and military intervention in eastern Ukraine will doubtless speed up Russia’s economic downturn, although their impact is deemed to be rather limited. A punishment should ideally change the punished party’s behaviour in a way desired by the punisher. This has not happened—the Crimea is still occupied, and the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine has been going on for a long time. On the other hand, we do not know how Russia would have acted in the absence of sanctions. The only thing that is clear is that the international community could not let such a grave violation of law go unpunished, and should not lift the punishment as long as the status quo ante has not been re-established. However, experts believe that no sanction will be strong enough to make Russia return the Crimea to Ukraine in the near future. The continuation of the punishment—even if it is only valid on a moral level—is the only feasible option for the credibility of international law.
At the moment, fighting in eastern Ukraine shows signs of slowing down, but a new, more complicated front has been opened up, and the situation in and around Russia is not stabilising.20 All of this raises plenty of questions, among them: What will happen if things are accidentally driven too far, if at some point it is too complicated to stop the spiral of conflict? Should we then react to Putin’s “first” or “second” message? To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, great decisions must often be made before our knowledge is sufficient to substantiate them. Even more importantly: if the spiral of mutual misunderstanding goes deeper, do we have enough “Tommies” who are able to remain sober and see beyond their own fear?
This article reflects the author’s personal views.
1 McNamara’s second lesson was that rationality alone will not save us.
2 foreignpolicy.com/2009/05/27/empathy-and-internati… 3 Condoleezza Rice has said that in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq, Americans could not understand why the governments of several European states did not support it. The statement illustrates well how even understanding similar partners can be complicated.
4 washingtonnote.com/we_need_a_reali_1/ 5 In his book Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist published at the end of September, Niall Fergusson argues that Kissinger is an idealist.
6 Such opinions are voiced even by the military. US Army major Daniel Leard says: “Human history will always be human. No matter how alien, mechanical, or fantastic the future might be, human empathy would remain among the most influential forces in the world..” foreignpolicy.com/2014/04/01/the-future-of-war-ent… 7 www.ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR117_TheNewEuropeanDisorder_… 8 If oil prices drop further, the consequences for the Russian economy will be disastrous. That could make Russia behave more dangerously, according to Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6 (1999–2004). www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/world/former-mi6-head-p… 9 In a documentary that was completed for the anniversary of the Crimea’s annexation on 21 March 2014.
10 www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/201… 11 www.nytimes.com/2015/08/13/opinion/what-the-west-g…?
12 www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/143329/ivan-kraste… 13 www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/after-the-cra… 14 E.g. Igor Strelkov, one of the leaders of the separatists, who is clearly disappointed that Putin has not gone further and annexed the Novorossiya territories for good.
15 www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-02-04/russian… 16 gadebate.un.org/70/russian-federation 17 www.cer.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/at… 18 www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/143329/ivan-kraste… 19 www.the-american-interest.com/2015/04/14/could-it-… 20 New York University expert on Russia, Professor Mark Galeotti, states that in the 21st century many things are different, but the danger of a conflict escalating still exists. www.bne.eu/content/story/stolypin-apocalypse-not
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.