Empathy and International Relations: A conference report and short research note

Posted on Monday 16th July 2012

by Dani Nedal

On 11-12 June 2012, Professor Nicholas Wheeler participated in a symposium organized by Professor Lynne Cameron (Open University and Honorary Professor at the University of Birmingham affiliated with the ICCS) on ‘Living with Uncertainty: Metaphor and the Dynamics of Empathy in Discourse.’ This symposium was part of Professor Cameron’s three-year ESRC/AHRC Professorial Fellowship funded under Research Councils UK’s Global Uncertainties Programme. The conference discussed over two days theories and practices of empathy, with panels dedicated to a cross-disciplinary exploration of these topics. Presentations elaborated on several approaches to the study of empathy in its various dimensions and the challenges to researching and exercising it. These included scholars and scholar-practitioners working on empathy in areas as diverse as applied linguistics, psychology, medical practice, criminology, literary analysis, history, conflict transformation, and international politics. 

Professor Wheeler presented a paper with Dr. Naomi Head (University of Glasgow and Honorary Research Fellow at the ICCS) on ‘Conflicting Narratives of (In)Security: 2003-2006 Nuclear Negotiations Between Iran the E3.’ The paper, which develops ­out of Professor Wheeler’s project on Trust-Building in Nuclear Worlds and Dr. Head’s work on communication, empathy, and conflict transformation, seeks to show how mounting tensions concerning the Iranian nuclear program are driven not only by material factors and strategic considerations, but also crucially by what they term, following Jonathan Mercer, emotional beliefs.  One of their key claims is that these mind-sets, ideological fundamentalism (the belief that the other is inherently bad) and peaceful/defensive self-images (the belief that one is benign and that this is unequivocally obvious to others) can drive international conflict even in the absence of fundamentally incompatible interests. Here, their argument draws importantly on Robert Jervis’s classic discussion of the spiral model.

Head and Wheeler briefly explored, drawing on extensive interviews conducted with Iranian and Western officials, how these emotional beliefs have shaped the negotiating moves both sides make and how they (mis)interpret the signals sent by the other side. On the Western side, for example, peaceful/defensive self-images have prevented the United States and Europe from crafting proposals that address Iran’s crucial national and regime security concerns. Ideological fundamentalism in some Western capitals has led to assumptions of bad faith on the part of Tehran, with the implication that any concessions are either ruses or a result of pressure and threats.  

Head and Wheeler argued that these types of beliefs are held by leaders on both sides and are not limited to cognitive and motivated biases as in Jervis’ original spiral model (though these do play a part): they are shaped by traumatic memory and enshrined in conflicting overarching narratives about the history of relations between the West and Iran, including but not limited to recent nuclear negotiations. Moreover, and especially relevant for the conference, they make the case that leaders can, and should, exercise empathy to break away from these beliefs and from resulting conflict spirals.

Their paper elicited responses from other participants, who raised concerns about the use of the concepts such as emotions, cognition and empathy in referring to collectives (i.e. the state). These objections brought out implicit reflections about the issue of levels of analysis in Professor Wheeler’s research project (and International Relations theory in general) and how individual cognition and emotion connect to social contexts. Navigating the complicated frontier between social/political psychology and social constructivism (see Stuart Kaufman’s recent reflections here) has been one of the main theoretical challenges that animate both Professor Wheeler and Dr. Head’s broader projects.

At the same time, however, other research papers presented at the conference suggested solutions to the problem of ascribing these anthropomorphic features to the state. The paper given by Alexander Laffer (PhD candidate, Open University), looking at how readers in a focus group empathise with fictional characters in novels, brought home a point raised in several other papers, especially Professor Cameron’s own work on how to model empathy and dyspathy. The crucial point is that the object of empathy, the ‘other’ whose shoes one tries to step into, is always a representation of the other: a fiction. That is, one can never fully assume the place of the ‘other’. In that sense, while states may not be able to exercise empathy, a faculty reserved for humans, leaders of a polity can, and most of the time do, impute motives, intentions and other human traits to groups of people. To the extent that the state is a person, albeit a fictional one (the state is, of course, of a legal person under international public law), it can be the object of empathy.

Issues of definition, measurement and operationalization were also discussed, with most participants being very reluctant to attach one precise definition or suggest measures for the concept. An exception to this was Neema Trivedi (PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge), whose survey and interview work with criminal offenders uses scaled measures of empathy (how bad these criminals reportedly feel for people in hypothetical and real scenarios). Trivedi’s claim that if you can’t measure something you can’t operationalize it in research prompted negative reactions from other researchers, most of whom decline to offer narrow definitions and are sceptical about measuring empathy. This seems to be a somewhat deep divide within the literature on empathy, and one that is perhaps unbridgeable as it reflects different epistemological and methodological commitments.

Other papers also presented insights that warrant further consideration by researchers working on empathy in International Relations or as a cross-disciplinary endeavour: such as the empathy-blocking effects of formulaic language (of which diplospeak is arguably the pinnacle), excessive physical proximity and distance (which parallels discussions on geography, threat perception and balancing behaviour by authors like Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer and Jack Levy and others) and in/out group dynamics (on which both Realism and Constructivism have drawn to different effects).

In sum, Professor Cameron’s symposium was an inspiring example of the type of productive exchange across disciplinary boundaries that the ICCS is striving to promote. More specifically, it opened up new possibilities for research on empathy in the field of International Relation, particularly as it relates to theorising global cooperation and security. The ICCS welcomes researchers at all levels looking to contribute to this research agenda.

Dani Nedal

Research Fellow

Department of Political Science and International Studies and the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham.