How cognitive empathy could have prevented the Ukraine crisis
For decades American leaders have seemed oblivious to the view from Moscow
“Know your enemy” strikes most people as reasonable advice. After all, the alternative—“Be clueless about your enemy”—doesn’t sound like a recipe for victory.
“Know your friend” doesn’t encounter much resistance, either. It’s pretty obvious that friendships go better if the friends have some idea of what’s going on in each other’s heads.
And, once you’ve accepted the value of understanding your friends and your enemies, it would seem only logical to extend the basic idea to points in between: Know your… adversary, rival, frenemy, acquaintance, ally, whatever. What’s the worst that can happen?
And yet, while most people accept in principle the value of understanding other people, history is littered with catastrophic failures to do a good job of that. We may be witnessing one now.
Vladimir Putin has amassed troops along Ukraine’s border and seems poised to invade unless he gets what he wants—which would seem to mean, first and foremost, taking the idea of Ukraine joining NATO off the table. I’m not sure Putin is doing a good job of understanding his adversaries—seeing, for example, that President Biden would face lots of political blowback if he tried to grant Putin that wish. And I don’t think America is doing a good job of understanding Putin. Many of the depictions of him we’re seeing in the media are not very helpful, and some are the opposite of helpful; they discourage wise action.
Consider New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman—who is as close as anyone to qualifying for the title “dean of American foreign policy columnists.”
Last week Friedman wrote that “Putin is a one-man psychodrama, with a giant inferiority complex toward America that leaves him always stalking the world with a chip on his shoulder so big it’s amazing he can fit through any door.” Putin is also, according to Friedman, “a retired KGB agent who simply refuses to come in from the cold and still sees the CIA under every rock and behind every opponent.” And he’s “America’s ex-boyfriend-from-hell, who refuses to let us ignore him and date other countries, like China.” And he’s “a modern-day Peter the Great out to restore the glory of Mother Russia.” And so on.
Kind of makes Putin sound like somebody who can’t be reasoned with! And indeed, Friedman is opposed to trying serious diplomacy with him: “If he wants to come down from the tree in which he’s lodged himself, he’s going to have to jump or build his own ladder. He has completely contrived this crisis, so there should be no give on our part.”
Miyamoto Musashi, a Japanese swordsman and strategist who lived four centuries ago, wrote that to know your enemy you must “become the enemy”—you must “think yourself into the enemy’s position.” In other words: Imagine yourself in the other guy’s shoes. This is why depictions like Friedman’s are the opposite of helpful. They make Putin sound so bizarre, so different from us, that imagining ourselves in his position seems like a futile thought experiment.
I’m now going to do an extended thought experiment that involves putting ourselves in the Russian leader’s shoes—so extended that it goes back to 1998, before Putin was Russia’s leader. And I’m going to argue that a series of American presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—have led us toward the current crisis by repeatedly failing to take serious account of the Russian leadership’s perspective.
This exercise puts a lot of pressure on me! I’m an evangelist on behalf of “cognitive empathy”—understanding how other people view the world (which doesn’t mean “feeling their pain,” or identifying with their feelings at all—that’s “emotional empathy”). In my sermonizing, I sometimes go so far as to claim that humankind must upgrade its cognitive empathy skills if the world’s nations are to solve the many non-zero-sum problems they face and thus avert a planetary spiral toward chaos if not doom. (Hence the name of this newsletter, Nonzero.) Well, if cognitive empathy is that powerful, then surely I can show how it could have made a difference in the case of Ukraine?
Yes, I think I can.
But before we start our quarter-century-long journey, I have a small favor to ask: Please abandon the common assumption that to explain why people do things is to justify their doing those things. When I say “Look at things from Putin’s perspective,” I don’t mean, “Don’t you think any of us would have done exactly what he did in reaction to American actions, and therefore he deserves no blame?” I just mean, “Don’t you think, if American leaders had seriously pondered Putin’s perspective, they might have anticipated the possibility of some sort of adverse reaction, and changed course accordingly?”
Or, to boil it down further: “Don’t you think if American leaders had consistently exercised cognitive empathy, we might not be in the mess we’re in today?”
OK, our story has three chapters:
1) Bill Clinton’s lack of cognitive empathy.
Remember the 1990s—back when we’d just won the Cold War and our goal was to integrate the new, democratic Russia into the western community? The question arose: How exactly should we proceed? Hey, I’ve got an idea: Since Russia just lost a decades-long global struggle, and saw its empire collapse in the process, why don’t we rub salt in the wound? Why don’t we expand NATO eastward, closer to Russia’s borders, engulfing nations that had been in the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet-led counterpart to NATO?
In 1997, with Clinton’s support, NATO invited Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join it, and they did so in 1999. There were people who saw that this would inflict counterproductive humiliation on Russia. George Kennan, who is often called (in some ways misleadingly) the architect of the Cold War doctrine of containment, said in 1998:
I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves.… Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the advocates of NATO expansion] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are—but this is just wrong.
Kennan said the expansion of NATO showed “little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history,” but I’m not sure that was the problem. You wouldn’t have to be a student of Russian history to know that, after victory, humiliating the vanquished is usually a bad idea. You’d just have to spend some time observing human affairs. Treating a vanquished Germany with some respect after World War II had worked out a lot better than the opposite approach worked out after World War I.
So what was the argument for expanding NATO? I’m not sure. Maybe you should ask Bruce L. Jackson, who in the late 1990s was a Lockheed Martin executive doing double duty as president of the US Committee to Expand NATO, a position that, according to the New York Times, involved “giving intimate dinners for Senators and foreign officials.” I’m sure he made some arguments about expanding NATO that, for whatever reason, Senators found persuasive. I’m also sure Lockheed Martin made lots of money off of NATO expansion. But, personally, I can’t think of a single semi-plausible argument for why it was in America’s interest to expand NATO.
As if to make an expanding NATO seem more threatening to Russia, Clinton in 1999 decided that America should, under NATO’s auspices, bomb Serbia, a friend of Russia’s that shared its Orthodox Christian heritage. Russian President Boris Yeltsin called this “open aggression”—and, actually, he was right; under mainstream readings of international law, this intervention was illegal.
Some justified Clinton’s intervention in terms of self-determination; it came on behalf of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo who wanted to break away from Serbia. Then again, you could justify Russia’s similarly illegal 2008 intervention in Georgia—on behalf of separatists in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia—in the same terms.
In fact, Russia cited Clinton’s intervention in Yugoslavia by way of justifying its intervention in Georgia. Some observers even thought the Kosovo intervention helped cause the Georgia intervention. In late July of 2008, days before the Russia-Georgia war broke out, Francis Fukuyama said of Russia that “[one] reason that they’re tormenting Georgia is they’re pissed off about Kosovo.”
But even if that’s true, Clinton isn’t the only American president who encouraged the Georgia intervention. Consider:
2. George W. Bush’s lack of cognitive empathy.
One reason Fukuyama saw a causal relationship between the Kosovo and Georgia interventions is that, as he spoke, NATO troops were still in Kosovo and the Bush administration was pushing for Kosovo’s formal independence—much to Russia’s annoyance. But, when it comes to Bush’s role in antagonizing Russia, that isn’t the half of it.
In 2004 NATO picked up seven new members, among them the Baltic nations (Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania), whose inclusion especially bothered Russia, both because they’d been Soviet republics and because they now carried NATO to Russia’s borders. Then, in 2008, Bush strong-armed reluctant European leaders into backing a NATO statement pledging to eventually admit Georgia and Ukraine—both former Soviet republics and both on Russia’s border.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that Russia’s incursion into Georgia came only four months after this pledge—or that Russian troops, upon exiting Georgia, conspicuously transported back to Russia some big American military hardware they’d seized.
NATO’s adding Ukraine to its wish list was, for Russia, an especially bitter pill. Ukraine is much bigger, in both land and population, than the Baltic nations and Georgia combined, and many Russians consider it the cradle of Russian civilization.
3. Barack Obama’s lack of cognitive empathy.
NATO wasn’t the only western institution whose connection to Ukraine Putin found threatening. As of 2013, Ukraine was planning to join the European Union, and EU membership would mean an end to the special trade relationship between Russia and Ukraine. Putin had hoped for a specially tailored deal that would allow Ukraine to strengthen economic ties with the EU while maintaining strong ties with Russia, but the EU dismissed that idea.
Even so, for a while it seemed as if Putin could keep the EU at bay. After he offered Ukraine financial incentives to preserve its economic relationship with Russia, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych abandoned his support of EU membership. But then suddenly President Yanukovych… was no longer President Yanukovych! In late February of 2014 he fled Ukraine as armed opponents roamed the streets.
Here is how Russia hawk Max Boot (in the course of arguing that Putin is now trying to “resurrect the ‘evil empire’ ”) recently described this transfer of power: “Ukrainians rose up to oust a pro-Russian ruler.” And that’s basically the same characterization you’ll get throughout mainstream American media. But from Putin’s perspective, there are some other features of this episode worth noting:
Before the Ukrainian revolution turned violent, a top US State Department official, Victoria Nuland, traveled to Kiev and, in a conspicuous show of support for anti-Yanukovych protestors, passed out cookies to them. Meanwhile—as a phone call taped by Russia conclusively showed—she was maneuvering behind the scenes, in coordination with America’s ambassador to Ukraine, to select and anoint the next head of Ukraine’s government. And, indeed, after Ukraine’s democratically elected president fled the country for fear of his life, the politician Nuland had anointed became head of the government!
I have no idea whether Obama wondered how all this would look from Putin’s perspective. If he had, here’s something that might have occurred to him:
The violent ouster of a pro-Russian Ukrainian president could leave Putin worried about Russia’s future ties to Ukraine—all the more so if the ouster had some of the hallmarks of a US-backed coup. And no small part of Putin’s concern about the future of Ukraine would focus on Crimea—a Russian-speaking region that housed an important Russian naval base, home of the Black Sea fleet. After the Soviet Union’s breakup, Russia had kept the base via a lease with Ukraine—but might that lease now look a little shakier to Putin?
If all of this had occurred to Obama, maybe he’d have been less surprised by what happened next: Putin used the Russian troops stationed at the naval base, along with commandos brought in from Russia, to seize Crimea. He also supported a separatist rebellion in the easternmost, heavily Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, which today remains beyond the effective control of Kiev.
And now here we are. If Russia invades Ukraine, a likely goal will be to expand the part of eastern Ukraine that is beyond Kiev’s control. And a likely consequence will be lots of deaths—on top of the 13,000 Ukrainians who have already died in the civil war that followed the 2014 ouster of Yanukovych. America is sending weapons to Ukraine in hopes of deterring invasion, but if deterrence fails those weapons will raise the death toll on both sides by intensifying a still-futile resistance.
And as for the other obvious approach to forestalling an invasion—talking seriously about keeping Ukraine out of NATO—well, that’s apparently out of bounds because George W. Bush, who thought invading Iraq was a great idea, also thought adding Ukraine to NATO was a great idea. And also because Tom Friedman and Max Boot and lots of other people in the foreign policy establishment say making concessions is bad (even if this concession isn’t actually much of a concession, since there’s no real expectation of Ukraine joining NATO within the next decade, if ever, anyway).
I’m not saying, by the way, that American leaders should have been able to predict exactly what Russia would do in response to the relentless expansion of NATO or America’s bombing of Serbia or America’s interference in Ukrainian politics. But I am saying that it wouldn’t have taken superhuman powers of cognitive empathy to see that these things would deeply antagonize Russia’s leadership. And my own rule of thumb is that America should try to avoid doing things that deeply antagonize countries—especially when those countries possess thousands of nuclear warheads and when the things that antagonize them don’t serve any obvious American interest anyway.
One reason it shouldn’t have been hard to predict that our actions would antagonize Russia’s leadership is that this prediction doesn’t require some kind of deep and subtle assessment of Putin’s psyche (even if predicting exactly what he’d do in response does require that). It just requires a basic understanding of human nature.
And if for some reason American leaders were lacking in the understanding-human-nature department, they could have fallen back on a basic cognitive-empathy-cultivating algorithm: try to translate the other person’s situation into terms you’re familiar with. Suppose, for example, that some Asian trade bloc tried to pry Mexico out of the US-Canada-Mexico trade bloc—and, at the same time, Mexico announced that it planned to join a Chinese-led military alliance that could mean the stationing of Chinese troops and Chinese weapons in Mexico. Don’t you think that would, um, get America’s attention?
Actually, this particular thought experiment isn’t even necessary. The historical record will do: The US has sponsored lots of coups, and staged lots of military interventions, to forestall perceived threats—and I emphasize the word perceived—much further from America’s borders than Mexico.
In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if some foreign observers, viewing America’s covert and overt interventions since World War II, have conjured up a picture of the American psyche that is in some ways like the psychological portrait Tom Friedman paints of Putin: insecure, even paranoid—yet grandiose in its self-conception and ambition, always, as Friedman said of Putin, “stalking the world.”
Which reminds me of one other virtue of cognitive empathy, aside from saving the planet: Working hard to understand other people, including your enemies, can help you understand yourself.
Note 1: I was inspired to write this piece by my participation last week in an online panel discussion—sponsored by the Quincy Institute and the American Committee for US-Russia Accord called “US-Russia Relations: Can ‘Strategic Empathy’ Be A Way Forward?” And this panel discussion was in turn inspired by a piece on strategic empathy co-authored by Katrina vanden Heuvel and James Carden.
Note 2: Credit where due: Tom Friedman opposed NATO expansion back in the 1990s. In fact, I got that George Kennan quote from a column he wrote in 1998.