Can empathy influence leadership, security, and high-stake situations? The War in Afghanistan (2001), the Covid-19 pandemic (2019), and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (2022) are all events that have put high-stake emotions at the forefront of diplomacy.

Today we spoke with Dr. Claire Yorke about her work with empathy and especially what is known as strategic empathy. Dr. Yorke’s research aims to show how empathy can influence and transform how we think about leadership and politics. Bridging academia and policy-making, her research explores how a better understanding of the power and potential of empathy and emotions can shape strategy and policy, and transform how we think about security, leadership and politics.

Claire Yorke is an author, academic researcher, and advisor. Her expertise is in the role of empathy and emotions in international affairs, politics, leadership, and society. She is currently a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the Centre for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, leading a new project funded by the European Commission on Empathy and International Security (EIS). Between 2018 and 2020, she was a Henry A. Kissinger Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer at International Security Studies and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University. She is currently writing two books on empathy and emotions. The first focuses on their integral role in diplomacy, combining theory and practice with extensive interviews (Brookings Institution and Chatham House). Her second book examines how empathy and emotions are critical to effective political leadership (Yale University Press). Alongside Professor Jack Spence and Dr Alastair Masser, she has co-edited two volumes on diplomacy which are were published in April 2021 (IB Tauris and Bloomsbury).

First Part: Strategic empathy and what it means for International Relations

How did this field of study come about for you?

I was working in politics and policy for seven years before I joined academia. I found it curious how emotions were not talked about openly in policy conversations, despite them being influential in our daily lives. People were not considering how security makes people feel. Although people in political spaces do care about the regions, communities and topics they are focusing on— too often a number of obstacles make it hard to bring empathic understanding and insight into the policy space. I wanted to get into more depth about what empathy really meant, how it might be applied, how it was limited, and what it could mean for bringing constructive and beneficial changes to policies

My research found the concept of empathy to be multifaceted and I wanted to explore what it means when we look at it through the context of international relations and security. There is a lot of politics in this space, so it is not just about being understanding, and building relationships and connections, there are costs and compromises involved. Using an interdisciplinary and applied approach, and qualitative research methods, I look at the evolution and utility of empathy in the context of security strategy and policy-making, and then analyze how it can be used to both alleviate and transform, or perpetuate or entrench, insecurity.

If used too tactically or too cynically, empathy can appear hollow, which has further implications for the trustworthiness, credibility and the integrity of those using it. I consider it part of a longer-term vision that should allow us to see and understand people, to view future challenges and anticipate what other people might experience as a result of the policies that affect them. In other words,by expanding our understanding, and being open to a wider range of perspectives and experiences, as well as reflecting on the impact of one’s one words and actions on others, empathy can be used to better inform strategy and have a greater impact in helping people. By understanding empathy as an iterative process, where you adapt it and modify it as you learn more in relations with others, people can make better decisions and think far more sensitively and far more coherently about the problems that we face. Crucially, empathy should engender far more humility in strategy and reduce the likelihood of hubris or arrogance, which can blind decision-makers to the reality of a situation and foster over-confidence about how easy an outcome might be, or how much control they might have over it. Former US General H.R. McMaster talks a lot about this. We saw hubris in the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not enough understanding of the genuine challenges and nuances of these countries.

This word that you use, strategy, can have an almost calculated connotation, turning it into a negative term – yet you seem to say that strategic empathy is something very alien to that idea. How do you reconcile these two concepts?

I think strategic empathy has the potential to encourage longer-term thinking. It can be used to look 30, 40 years ahead and ask: what are the longer-term objectives? How do we want people to feel? And how can the conditions be created to encourage people to live alongside one another and have vibrant, healthy, cohesive communities. Empathy as a lens and a process helps people be more adaptable, to acknowledge there is no one finite or definitive answer and to respond to different, unexpected, and unanticipated events. This could be observed both in diplomacy and security policy. By understanding different dynamics at play, and what motivates people and what resonates with them, and what matters, we can create better responses, approaches and initiatives that have a more human centric core.

We were wondering whether this is more connected to the creation of values. The creation of the European Union itself also stemmed from a series of empathetic decisions that led to the idea of a value-based community. Does your research explore the process of value creation?

The European Union emerged both for political, economic, and strategic interests, and because there was a desire to build a community to prevent the atrocities and the conflict that Europe experienced in the first-half of the 1900s. This process of building a community is never easy, as we have seen, but there have been a series of initiatives to foster certain shared values, and create a vision for how people in Europe want to live. It’s fascinating to see how powerful that has been in a relatively short space of time, even with the challenges it has faced. Initiatives such as free movement, free trade, shared rights, and schemes like the Erasmus scheme for students, are all examples of how the development of connection and understanding has been built into the community. It doesn’t mean it is perfect, or universal, but it is telling that so many people do consider themselves European and that we have such a level of exchange, cooperation and interaction between states.

One of the things observed in the past 60 to 70 years is the dominance of this great state narrative. However, we have seen more recently that you cannot push one agenda in this international space and expect that everyone will get in line. All countries come with their own backgrounds, histories, contexts, and interests, whether that be social, political, economic– and all of this must be taken into account. In the United Nations and the European Union and NATO you have smaller states who want to have more of a voice and greater agency over the decisions taken.

When we start to look at the rise of smaller states and the importance that they have on the international stage, we get far greater equity. Ukraine is not a huge power, and yet it's at the forefront of the war and conflict-related discussions right now. An example of how empathy is fundamental in this space, especially with the governments of smaller states, is climate change. Climate change cannot be tackled if policy makers only look at it through the eyes of big powers or of traditional conceptions of interests, i.e. how to maintain the strongest military and the most GDP. This is a collective challenge that requires cooperation, and not just from states but from non-state actors and citizens, all taking part in initiatives to bring change. One of the steps that can be taken right now is to look at what smaller states, island nations, and indigenous communities can teach us, as they are at the front line of a lot of environmental concerns. By looking through the lens of empathy we can build a more inclusive process within diplomacy and security that gives voice to a wider range of people. The solutions we find would then be more sustainable at a global level and should carry a greater proportion of the community along in their implementation.

Would empathy also help us understand shifts within a country? Brexit is an example of this: if policy makers had listened, truly listened, with empathetic ears, to what was happening in their country, do you think they would have made the same mistakes?

It is important to understand what the dominant dynamics are within states, such as the UK in the case of Brexit, or the USA in the case of the election of President Donald Trump. If you'd only worked in diplomacy or politics in London or Washington DC in 2016, you might not have seen Brexit or Trump coming. The idea of Remain or Hillary Clinton losing was not really conceived in the capitals, as it was taken for a given that they would win. Yet there were bigger emotional forces at play. You can’t generalise for a whole population, as people are so diverse, but there were large communities who felt marginalised, or forgotten by decision-makers in political capitals. Some people were worried about jobs, or threats to their sense of identity, and they didn’t necessarily see people speaking to what they were experiencing, or allaying their fears. However, populist leaders are good at capitalising on these grievances and they then offer what sound like easy, quick-fix solutions ‘Make America Great Again’, or ‘Taking Back Control’ while dismissing established institutions and politicians, and eroding faith in the status quo. Without e empathy, you miss big shifts that happen internally in countries as well as internationally.

To be in a leadership position means being open to listening to a diversity of points of view and understanding where these visions are stemming from. Empathy helps leaders understand the broader picture of a country, and read the mood and then find sensitive, responsive, and wise ways to navigate that. This doesn’t mean you can solve everything, or respond to every concern, but by demonstrating in how you communicate and engage with people that you are taking different perspectives into account it helps build trust and informs decision-making I think especially in the case of Brexit and Trump, there are a huge number of people that leaders should have been speaking with, and understanding more.There also should have been a more concerted effort to address the genuine systemic, structural and social problems people were facing in terms of inequality, poverty, job precarity, and uncertain futures, for example. The challenge, again, for leaders is that at some point you have to take a decision and implement it, decisively and with conviction. People respond better to that, and you can always adapt if you find things aren’t working as planned, but you have to balance understanding and empathy with courage and strength, or it just appears like weakness.

Going back to how a state actor views things, we can easily see how their primary interest is to protect their own citizens, their own constituency. They may say, ‘I'm going to be empathetic, but to my own people first’.

If used the wrong way empathy can be dangerous. It is a way of building a community, but it can also pit people against one another. Academics like Paul Bloom who wrote ‘Against Empathy’ has shown this, empathy is not always positive. Some people argue that Donald Trump was empathetic and spoke to his base in a way that mobilised them and that they felt seen and heard.

However, when it brings people together behind a common cause it can be a force for change: President Zelensky in Ukraine right now is showing European and American leaders that what is going on inside the country is part of a bigger struggle. He is mobilizing a narrative of “you need to be with us”, and he is using empathy in the realm of diplomacy and international security. He is simultaneously strong and resilient, but also vulnerable. And this is not the classic example of a strong-handed leader, Zelenskiy is showing the world that a leader can be compassionate. He inspires support with his balance of courage, strength, conviction and emotions, and that contributes to the amount of global support he is receiving.

The war in Ukraine resonates a lot with domestic and political populations and audiences. It is a conflict in which many people feel very invested. Social media is being used by the government in Kiev and citizens all over the country in a way that resonates with us all, precisely because it touches our emotions and our fears about possible further threats. The war is not something distant, or far away, or a remote concern, but is framed to connect with different national identities and common shared values. One danger is, though, that as it goes on people’s capacity for support diminishes because of so many other things going on. We so often see the news agenda shift after a few weeks or months and moving our attention to other things. We saw this with Afghanistan last summer. So it is necessary to maintain connection and explain what is happening there in ways that keep people engaged and aware of events.

As a final note, I am cautious about saying empathy is the solution to everything, because if it is seen as a magic bullet, a sign of virtue, or a powerful buzzword there risks being performative empathy. Some world leaders use the language of empathy, but their political actions have do not necessarily align with empathetic choices.

Cover image (CC) by Republica from Pixabay