Joshua Baker

Imagining Empathy: A Counterfactual Study of the US - Iran Nuclear Relationship

Supervisor: Professor Nicholas Wheeler and Professor Scott Lucas (Co-supervisors)

Using two specific instances in the nuclear standoff between the United States and Iran as its case study, this project draws upon counterfactual methods as a means of enquiring into how counterfactual constructions of possible worlds can be used to reflect back upon and probe the assumptions we hold about the actual world. Specifically, counterfactuals are used in this project to expose the temporal limitations of what scholars and policy-makers claim to 'know' about specific events and relationships. Following the logic that our accounts of past events are shaped and influenced by events which occur afterwards, counterfactuals are used to problematize the biases with which scholars approach historical case studies by asking the question of could things have been otherwise.

Underpinning these counterfactual constructions is a particular strand of theorising in the security dilemma literature (as well as IR more broadly) that has placed emphasis on the importance of empathy for the resolution of conflicts. Despite empathy’s explanatory prominence for some security dilemma theorists, the project argues that it has not been adequately conceptualised in light of the extensive literature on the concept. The project builds upon this literature, as well as on emerging perspectives on the emotions in international politics, by incorporating these wider multi-disciplinary debates on empathy into the security dilemma, and going on to argue for a particular critical conceptualisation of empathy that encapsulates and allows for difference and diversity in international politics.

Counterfactuals are therefore used for their theoretical as well as empirical value. This method is used to interrogate these theoretical arguments concerning the concept of empathy in International Relations, which is done by asking the counterfactual question of how empathy might have altered the history of the nuclear relationship between the United States and Iran. At the same time, the worth of these counterfactual constructions is not found solely in the epistemic accuracy of the knowledge claims they produce, but to the extent to which the construction of these alternative worlds facilitates greater critical insight into the actual world.


Before joining POLSIS and the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation, and Security (ICCS) in October 2012 I studied at the University of Exeter and the University of Plymouth. During the first year of the PhD I was the research assistant on the ‘Challenges to Trust-Building in Nuclear Worlds’ project within the ICCS. My doctoral research is funded by the ESRC.


  • BSc (Hons) International Relations with Politics(First Class), University of Plymouth
  • MA International Relations of the Middle East (Distinction), University of Exeter

Research interests

  • Security studies
  • International relations theory
  • The security dilemma
  • Empathy and emotions in international politics
  • Nuclear weapons and non-proliferation 

Teaching responsibilities

  • 2013/14 - International Security (POLS 218)

Professional memberships

  • BISA
  • ISA

Conference papers

'Empathy and the Security Dilemma: Existing Perspectives and New Directions', European Consortium for Political Research General Conference, Glasgow, 3-5 September 2014

'Empathy, The Security Dilemma and the Problem of Other Minds', British International Studies Association Annual Conference, Dublin, 18-20 June 2014 (panel convenor)

'Imagining Empathy: A Counterfactual Methodology of Emotions', Counterfactual Histories and Possible Futures PhD Workshop, University of Helsinki, 13-14 February 2014.

'Making Empathy and Reciprocity Work: Lessons From the Iran Nuclear File', European University Institute, Florence, June 2013 (written with Nicholas J. Wheeler and Scott Lucas – presented by Wheeler)


'Breaking the Deadlock in the Iran Nuclear Negotiations', ICCS Brief, 1: 1, 2012, PP 12-14 (with Nicholas J. Wheeler and Scott Lucas).

Also published online as ‘Iran Special Analysis: Breaking the Deadlock in the Nuclear Negotiations’, EA WorldView, 2012 

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