How do you determine what motivates the actions of the other side? To answer the question, Zachary Shore, a historian of international relations at the Naval Post Graduate School, has written a book that is at once immensely interesting and disappointing because as a work on the interpretation of the text of the actions of others it does not discuss the problems of interpretation.
In A Sense of the Enemy, Shore proposes the concept of strategic empathy as a means of discovering what hidden drivers and constraints motivate the other side. His case studies include German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann’s diplomatic efforts to restore Germany’s power; Stalin’s failed effort to predict what Hitler would do; Roosevelt’s attempts to read Hitler’s intentions; and North Vietnam’s Le Duan’s ability to read the Americans, which lead to North’s ultimate triumph.
Shore argues that strategic empathy is a matter of considering meaningful pattern breaks in the behavior of the other side. These pattern breaks are choices that impose a significant long term cost on the decision maker in a moment of crisis. This concept differs from notions built on the continuity heuristic, or the idea that past behavior is a good guide to the future, though knowing the pattern is certainly necessary before one can consider pattern breaks and their possible meanings. The continuity heuristic, according to Shore, does not tell us why actors behaved as they had and therefore offers little predictive power when it comes to their future actions. Another model, that of simulating the mind of another or more commonly known as putting yourself in their shoes is also flawed, Shore writes, because we are only projecting our own views rather than actually getting inside the narratives of another. But is a method of choices at critical moments be any more revealing?
Probably not. First, choices that break patterns of behavior may not be rational or calculated. Policies may be a result of contradictory currents within the power elite, creating conflicting pattern breaks. For example, in the Stresemann case study, the Soviet Union experienced conflicting foreign policy objectives as a result of conflicting goals within different factions of the elite: on one hand, Soviet elites wanted to spread the revolution; on the other hand, Soviet elites also wanted to increase Soviet military power. Whether the Soviets wanted military cooperation more than anything was indeed a question that Streseman struggled with, but I doubt that pattern breaks were what he would find useful in deciding what the Soviets had to value more. What was the true pattern? Were the Soviets revolutionaries or realists who merely used revolution cynically? Pattern break analysis requires continuity, which may not always be available. Another problem with patterns is that they may not be the patterns that matter because they may reflect some force that is distorting true drivers.
Second, the costs of pattern break choices are relative. While a decision maker may seem to sacrifice something of value at a moment of pattern break behavior, in fact, this thing of apparent value may not matter at all to him. But how would an analyst know? For example, consider Putin’s choice to take Crimea. Why is Putin prepared to sacrifice Russia’s standing in the global community, and to antagonize the West in this brazen fashion? Why is he okay with risking isolation? It may seem that he is sacrificing a great deal, but what if in reality he is not sacrificing anything at all? It is rather clear, for example, that Russia does not derive much benefit from the global order. There are no Russian cars being sold in America or the EU, no cell phones, IT services or banking products or much of anything else for that matter. Nor is Russia a site for the production of much, as China is. Russia is, in fact, already more or less isolated. Though it seems as if he is risking a great deal, Putin actually risks nothing by confronting the West. Europe will depend on Russian gas in the foreseeable future and buy it regardless. But how do we know what matters, what price the other side is willing and able to pay?
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to know what matters to others. Even with living persons, figuring out what drivers motivate them is tricky, as the case of Putin shows. Why has he risked so much? Or did he not risk anything at all? The answers could perhaps be settled by good intelligence, but in most cases such inside information is not available and we are left with questions. Answers depend entirely on what prior ideas and points of view we bring to the table, on the box we reside in. But another person, watching from another mental box, will see an entirely different explanation because the situation and the characters in it will be very different. But who is right? Power often decides, if for example, an explanation tickes the fancy of the decision maker or merely expresses, as the Long Telegram or the Crowe Memorandum did, the spirit of the times.
The reason for that plurality of possible interpretations is simple—reality, like any text, admits more than one interpretation. Interpretation of text, and text here is not merely a literary artifact, is always therefore deeply problematic when one insists on a project of excavating the truth. Not only is language a flawed instrument in such a project, the availability heuristic distorts our effort as well.
Just how problematic interpretation really is can be seen by considering the constructivist perspective. Constructivism tells us that there are no truths that are independent of intersubjective agreement. Here this means that Stalin, or any other figure of history, is a creation of the community of historians rather than something more. Reality is constructed; it is not discovered. Describing reality is a creative act, not an exercise in objectivity. According to Focault, there is no reality outside of that created by language or narrative to describe. There are, theretofore, no true motives, no hidden drivers to discover; these are no more than artifacts of the interpretations of events constructed after the fact and subject to the limitations of the availability heuristic: we develop motives and drivers for others based on the data about them that we have available, never knowing just how representative that available data really is.
But Shore’s analytical frame needs such truths, presuming that authentic drivers of behavior can be discovered by a special method of reading the text of experience Shore calls strategic empathy. But if Focualt is right, and truth doesn’t exist apart from language and narrative, then the method propose by Shore, or any other method, cannot work. We won’t be recovering the true motive but merely a motive we want and need to assign to the person we are analyzing. And we will think this fantasy is true only because of the various cognitive errors that plague our thinking process.
Shore writes, for example, that Stalin could have discovered Hitler’s true drivers by looking for pattern breaks, such as the choice Hitler made in the struggle between the SA and the Reichswear. The only problem is that Shore’s Hitler—indeed any historical figure–is a construct of historical analysis, an entity whose motives are known because they have been provided by historians through intersubjective consensus building work.
What’s worse, what seem to be successes in strategic empathy, such as Le Duan’s reading of America’s weakness, only seem successful because of certain ideas we may have about what made America presumably weak then. Certainly a long war wearied the American public. But Le Duan’s reading may have really been completely coincidental to America’s real weaknesses. Perhaps it was the lack of military talent on America’s side that was a truer cause? MacArthur turned around the disaster of an earlier war in Korea with one brilliant move. No doubt, Vietnam offered similar opportunities to a master of the operational art.
Whatever truths about the past we have today are not real truths about it but truths produced by narratives about the past. Success of strategic empathy, then, or any other scheme of interpreting the past, is entirely dependent on what narrative about the past we use—a different consensus about the past would lead us to see different historical figures being correct about reading their adversaries using different analytical means.
This is profoundly consequential because it suggests that it is impossible to read the text of experience correctly. As a result, Stalin or anyone could never have a chance of knowing Hitler’s drivers because these are open to different interpretations only after the fact. All that Stalin or Roosevelt ever could do to understand Hitler was to construct the stories they could, given who they were and the ideas they could come up with. But this undermines the entire project of strategic empathy—if all you can ever hope for are your flawed ideas that may or may not be latter seen as correct, then you’re nowhere as far as trying to determine what really motivates the other side.
Analysts today can’t see events from other points of view than those to which they are predisposed. Our interpretations are more likely to reveal something about us than about the subject of our efforts. But if we are prisoners of our ideas, then what’s the point of any analysis of the intentions of the other? All we ever come up with are reflections of our prejudices and perceptions, the stories we have been taught to believe are real but, in fact, are just someone else’s fantasies about the world.
This problem of perception is not something we can easily overcome. Our analyses are always flawed, because, as Edward Said wrote, language is flawed:
[The] real issue is whether indeed there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in culture, institutions, and political ambience of the representator. If the latter alternative is the correct one (as I believe it is), then we must be prepared to accept the fact that representation is eo ipso implicated, intertwined, embedded, interwoven with a great many other things besides the “truth,” which is itself a representation. (pp.272-273)
So where does that leave an analyst? Perhaps the first step is to attempt to start with the identification of the analytical box he operates in and to question the ideas he believes are so self-evident that they cannot be possibly wrong. But acknowledging one’s intellectual box is crucial to the project of attempting to analyze the boxes others live in. The most important question to ask, then, is why we need to see something as we do?
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