When discussing foreign relations, national security and America’s role in the world, the conversation tends to drift toward words like might, strength, weapons, sanctions and capability. What if that clearly narcissistic approach was making international matters worse and the better approach was centered in empathy? Would anyone believe it or listen?
I recently interviewed former national security adviser H.R. McMaster for my “Therefore, what?” Deseret News podcast. Lt. Gen. McMaster began by stating that the biggest problem with our strategy over the past decade has been that it has been incredibly narcissistic. Strategic narcissism, which he introduced in his book “Battlegrounds,” “Is meant to communicate our tendency to view the world only in relation to us, and then to assume that what the United States does, is decisive to achieving a favorable outcome.”
McMaster continued, “And this is a problem, it’s a problem, not only because it’s self-referential, but also because it doesn’t consider the agency, the influence, the authorship over the future that the other has. And so, this narcissistic view often results in folly, based on cognitive traps that we fall into: We mirror image the other, we engage in wishful thinking and are subjected to confirmation bias.”
Seeing yourself as the center of the universe rarely ends well in diplomacy, business or personal relationships. Strategic narcissism prevents you from seeing how the others involved have independence, individual will and the agency to act on things that have nothing to do with you.
McMaster then laid out the case for strategic empathy, saying, “So the argument for strategic empathy is not to be confused with sympathy. It is really viewing complex challenges, as well as opportunities, from the perspective of the other side — especially of rivals, adversaries, or enemies.”
Strategic empathy impacts the way we make decisions. McMaster provided this perspective as well as an example involving China saying, “Strategic empathy allows you to identify, and then subject to scrutiny, the assumptions on which your decisions and your policies and strategies are based. … We tend to allow implicit assumptions to underpin what we’re doing. So, for example, with China, for far, far too long we assumed that China, having been welcomed into the international order, would play by the rules. And as China prospered, it would liberalize its economy and liberalize its form of governance. But we weren’t empathetic enough. We didn’t view China’s actions and strategies from their own perspective, and especially the emotions, the aspirations and the ideology that drives the Chinese Communist Party.” Lacking understanding and empathy leads to poor policy and flawed decision-making.
Strategic empathy requires an understanding of history. Understanding where someone has been, what they have experienced, what principles and values are important to them and how they have been treated all help you to have empathy. McMaster has a doctorate in history and is currently working at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. I asked him how history and strategic empathy intersect. He replied, “I think the study of history is an exercise in humility. Because it allows you to understand that you’re not the first to encounter the problems you’re encountering. As a leader, you can learn from the experiences of others and apply them, you can learn really what’s been effective, and from what’s especially interesting and effective.
“I think studying effective leaders and how they’ve overcome daunting problems and circumstances, you see leaders who were selfless, who understood it wasn’t about them, it was about the mission, it’s about those in their charge. They understood what their base motivation was, that it was a base motivation of service rather than self-aggrandizement.”
Applying the lessons of history with empathy for today, McMaster explained, “We face this kind of quantum crisis, of a pandemic, of a recession associated with a pandemic, the social divisions … and the related concerns of inequality of opportunity and unequal treatment under the law. And then this horrible partisan political season that we’re still in, culminating in the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6. Frankly, what we need is leaders to step forward — leaders who are good at communicating to all Americans what we have in common, and to reinforce our confidence, rebuild our confidence in our common identity as Americans.”
McMaster concluded, “I argue for strategic empathy, oriented on problems associated with foreign policy and national security, but I think we have to be careful not to lose our ability to empathize with one another. And I think it’s going to take leadership to break this destructive interaction that we see these days between identity politics. Our republic never was meant to be perfect from the beginning. Our founders realized that our republic would require constant nurturing, and we can do this if we do it together.”
With empathy, not narcissism.
Leaders at every level, and all of us personally, would do well to gain a humble and empathetic perspective of those we lead, those we love and those we serve. Strategic empathy is a leadership principle and interpersonal skill that should be taught at home and practiced everywhere else.