Thursday, December 11, 2008

Empathy: A Facet of Understanding

Steve Clemens:

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.


At its best, realism isn’t just cynicism, it’s a recognition of the important reality that other countries have their own real and perceived interests and that effective US foreign policy needs to take that into account. And at its worst, the liberal humanitarian impulse becomes less about actually helping other than about appropriating vaguely high-minded rhetoric to mass an agenda of arrogance (see e.g., Max Boot’s paen to the virtues of imperialism). Productive synthesis between this impulses can be a guide to good policy, and the useful corrective in both cases is empathy — the idea that others’ point of view should be taken seriously.

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