Matt Waldman Photo 2

Our director, Matt Waldman, explains why empathy matters in international affairs, and the rationale for establishing ceia.

Why Empathy?

Lack of empathy is an important factor behind large-scale violence and major foreign policy errors. Mistakes made by the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, were underpinned by misjudgements about others. Empathizing deepens our understanding of allies, adversaries, population groups or other actors. It therefore has vast untapped utility in international affairs.

Empathy involves imagining or grasping another’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions. This imaginative shift and change of perspective sheds light on how others think, what drives them, what they want, and how they see themselves and others. Informed by advances in social, behavioural and neurological sciences, empathizing is not simply a cultural value but an important tool for decision-making.

Empathizing helps us build relationships, cut through stereotypes, identify false assumptions and anticipate the behaviour of others. It can enable mutual understanding between adversaries, expose misperceptions that drive hostilities, and reveal opportunities for a negotiated end to conflict. Empathy played a critical role building trust between negotiators in South Africa as the country overcame apartheid in the 1990s, in strengthening US-Iranian diplomacy that led to the 2015 nuclear agreement, and in overcoming major obstacles in the process that led to the Colombian peace agreement in 2016. More broadly, empathy can strengthen reconciliation between groups and galvanize responses to suffering, such as in Europe’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

The best leaders, diplomats, mediators and practitioners all empathize, which underpins their ability to interpret, anticipate and influence others. Yet empathy is largely missing from the policy and practice of foreign policy institutions, the UN and NGOs. International professionals are not trained in empathizing, even though dozens of scientific studies show that training can enhance our ability to empathize.

Empathy is often mistakenly equated with sympathy or approval, or seen purely as a sentimental impulse, and is therefore sidelined in international affairs. But empathizing is rational and does not require the sharing of feelings. Moreover, it serves our own interests: understanding adversaries is central to smart strategy-making, negotiation and leadership. Awareness of others’ mindsets, emotions and perceptions provides us with a critical advantage, given that those factors shape the way others behave.

Why ceia?

Empathy is no silver bullet for international problems. It is not a substitute for other approaches and it has limitations. However, given the power of empathy to inform decision-making and reduce conflict, it can no longer be neglected. The recent succession of foreign policy failures underscores the urgent need for new tools of understanding and practice. Empathy will produce better diplomatic outcomes and counteract dangerous modern political propensities towards over-simplification, polarization and stereotyping.

Recently, there has been a surge of research on empathy in the behavioural sciences, such as psychology and social neuroscience, as well as in political science. Yet, no organisation facilitates the sharing of these advances, brings experts and practitioners together, and applies empathy to international problems. This is what ceia will do.