Strategic Empathy: Examining Pattern Breaks to Better Understand Adversaries

November 9, 2023
Sarah Bidgood, Robert Carlin, Siegfried Hecker, Jim Lamson, and Hanna Notte

Strategic Empathy: Examining Pattern Breaks to Better Understand Adversaries’ Acquisition, Threat, and Use of Strategic Weapons

This project was supported by Middlebury’s Kathryn Wasserman Davis Collaborative in Conflict Transformation.

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From the Executive Summary:

Drawing from the work of Zachary Shore and others, we define strategic empathy as “the sincere effort to identify and assess the genuine patterns of an adversary’s acquisition, threat of use, and use of strategic weapons and the underlying drivers and constraints that shape them.” This concept encapsulates a mindset, a lens, and an approach that help us to understand an adversary’s strategic thinking. In the context of this study, we apply strategic empathy as a tool to examine U.S. adversaries’ policies and actions concerning the acquisition, threat, and use of strategic weapons. It is important to clarify that strategic empathy is not synonymous with sympathy or agreement with the adversary’s viewpoint, nor does it seek to excuse or justify its actions. Instead, it operates on a policy “agnostic” basis, facilitating a more holistic, nuanced understanding of the adversary that can inform strategies of coercion, cooperation, or a mix of both, depending on the circumstances.

In this study, our approach for conducting case studies was primarily rooted in Zachary Shore’s book, A Sense of the Enemy: The High Stakes History of Reading Your Rival’s Mind, which focuses on examining what Shore terms “pattern breaks.” These pattern breaks encompass surprising or shocking, high-impact occurrences, and can be either events that affect an adversary or behaviors by the adversary itself. We apply this approach to examining eight pattern breaks for Russia, North Korea, and Iran related to their acquisition, threat, and use of strategic weapons. The aim of these case studies is to shed light on the adversaries’ patterns related to strategic weapons and the underlying drivers and constraints that shape them. Through this approach, strategic empathy offers a valuable tool, but it is not intended as a stand-alone approach. Rather, it offers a complementary perspective to other analytical approaches. It is also not intended as a causal theoretical framework but rather an alternative lens that can contribute to a more holistic and nuanced understanding of the adversary.

Applying strategic empathy towards adversaries can be valuable to improving both analysis and policy. For instance, it can be used to:

  • Test, validate, challenge, or refine the conventional wisdom about the influence of specific events, drivers, or constraints on the acquisition, threat, and use of strategic weapons by adversary countries;
  • Afford a deeper awareness of how the adversary uses specific terms, concepts, and frameworks relating to the acquisition, threat, and use of strategic weapons;
  • Improve policies and actions, both cooperative and coercive, such as deterring/assuring adversaries; reassuring allies and friends; managing crises, escalation, and armed conflict; negotiating agreements; and formulating unilateral risk reduction measures; and
  • Assess potential adversary responses to policy initiatives.

Despite these advantages, there can be serious challenges to applying strategic empathy by both analysts and policymakers. These challenges include:

  • Conducting research and analysis with little or no direct contact with the adversary;
  • Dealing with domestic political constraints and challenges, including avoiding being perceived as either demonizing the adversary or defending/excusing its behavior;
  • Examining a pattern break and crafting policy as that pattern break is unfolding in real-time;
  • Weighing when and how to employ the insights of strategic empathy in coercive versus cooperative policies toward the adversary, or some mix of the two;
  • Applying strategic empathy to analysis and policy in different strategic contexts, including conditions of peacetime competition or rivalry, periods of heightened tension, crises, and military conflict.

The results of this study point to a number of recommended approaches, as well as pitfalls to avoid, for analysts and policymakers in applying strategic empathy to address the acquisition, threat, and use of strategic weapons by adversaries. These recommendations include:

  • Taking the time to establish the initial pattern before the pattern break;
  • Employing multiple methodologies, using strategic empathy as a complement to other tools for understanding the adversary;
  • Using multiple types of sources and perspectives to gain insights, including (1) Direct engagement with adversary officials (if possible), (2) Indirect engagement, including via mediators, Track 2 discussions, or scientific engagement; (3) The adversary’s statements, policies, and actions that can be analyzed “from afar”; and (4) Outside sources such as official government reports, outside experts, and “inside-out” sources (former adversary officials or experts that have close links to adversary officials);
  • Engaging, if possible, with contacts from the adversary country;
  • Working in teams to draw upon a wide variety of competencies;
  • Examining many pattern breaks relating to the same country;
  • Avoiding the assumption that the adversary has a fixed nature and behavior, where its future actions will necessarily mirror its past behavior;
  • Avoiding the assumption that the adversary will view U.S. policies and actions as nonthreatening;
  • Practicing “reflexivity” in viewing U.S. policies and actions, to consider how they may inadvertently influence adversary patterns, drivers, and constraints, including the role they may play in unintentionally provoking fear in the adversary; and
  • Using “red teaming,” or viewing an issue from the adversary’s perspective.

Finally, applying strategic empathy can contribute to conflict transformation by alleviating sources of misunderstanding or mistrust that can lead to “unhealthy” or “destructive” forms of conflict between adversaries. Unhealthy or destructive forms of conflict include elements such as a lack of diplomatic contact and direct communication channels, so-called “shadow wars,” highly militarized communications that rely primarily on threats and use of force, entrenched and longstanding grievances on both sides that generate negative emotions, narratives, and myths, and an overall absence of guardrails for constraining conflict. The insights strategic empathy offers into the patterns, drivers, and constraints related to adversary policies and actions can help to usher in “healthy” (or “healthier”), more constructive, forms of conflict, or as one expert put it, “managed enmity.” With this in mind, the method in this study for applying strategic empathy may be applicable to multiple elements of conflict transformation, including:

  • Contextual knowledge, or a deep understanding of the important underlying historical, geopolitical, social, and other factors that shape conflict. The strategic empathy approach can enhance the contextual knowledge of analysts and policymakers about the important historical, political, military, technological, organizational, and other key patterns, dynamics, and factors that shape an adversary’s approach to the acquisition, threat, and use of strategic weapons.
  • Intercultural competence, or how to talk across differences. Because strategic empathy is fundamentally an approach that enables analysts and policymakers to better understand their adversaries, it can likewise contribute to the development of intercultural competence.
  • Critical self-awareness, or an understanding of one’s own biases and perspectives. This aspect of conflict transformation maps onto the concept of reflexivity which entails thinking about how U.S. policies and actions may have unintended, or inadvertent, impacts on adversaries of which policymakers and analysts may have been unaware.
  • Dialogue and deliberation. Strategic empathy can contribute to transforming unhealthy conflicts into healthy (or healthier) conflicts. One characteristic of healthy conflict is regular interaction between adversaries, whether at a government-to-government level, a military-to-military level, a Track 1.5/2 level, or in the context of scientific exchanges, to name but a few. Strategic empathy can increase opportunities for such dialogue and engagement by helping to reduce or eliminate sources of tension in U.S.-adversary relations.

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