Strategic Empathy: The Afghanistan Intervention Shows Why the U.S. Must Empathize with its Adversaries

What was missing in U.S. policy-making was empathy: imagining or simulating another’s experience and perspective, in order to better understand them.

Empathy, in this sense, is rational and cognitive. Is a tool for understanding the way another person thinks, feels or perceives. It enables us to comprehend another’s mindset, driving emotions or outlook, without requiring us to share the other’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions, or, indeed, approve of them.

An empathic approach involves the assimilation of diverse information, including social, historical and psychological details, and a conscious effort to see the world through that person’s eyes. Thus, it serves the first demand of strategy: know your enemy. Crucially, empathy can help leaders anticipate how enemies and perceived allies are likely to act and react, and help avoid strategic errors.

As the theorist Robert Jervis has said:


“The ability to see the world and oneself as
others do is never easy and failures
of empathy explain a number
of foreign policy disasters.” 

…empathy, mischaracterized as purely a sentimental  impulse, has been marginalized by theoretical and practical empathy approaches to foreign policy that are dominated by rational pursuit of power and self interest.


Matt Waldman, Research Fellow, International Security Program
 Harvard – Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs