Vietnam revealed the importance of empathy, Afghanistan tragically reinforces that lesson
In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, the West did not sufficiently understand the systems and structures of governance and power, and underestimated the vision and commitment of their adversaries.
Reflecting on his experiences of the Vietnam War, and the errors made, former US Secretary for Defense, Robert S. McNamara emphasized his first lesson: the imperative of empathy. Had the Americans better understood their Vietnamese opponents, they would have realised why they were fighting – liberation rather than Communism – and the nuances and context of the conflict. It could have changed policy choices, and saved countless lives on all sides.
Afghanistan may be a different conflict, but it reveals a similar lack of empathy in the West’s strategy and foreign policy. Although this absence has been noted before, the cost is now apparent. It is counted not only in the lives lost and resources expended, but also in the damage done to the West’s reputation as a global actor, its longer-term capacity to act, and trust in the promises we make.
Empathy is often overlooked in foreign policy because it is considered naïve or at odds with the hard realities of politics. Yet the ability to view the world from the perspectives of others, and communicate that insight, is critical. Such an approach recognises the importance of emotions, of the meaning given to ideas, identities, and history, and the stories people tell themselves.
In the context of conflict, empathy involves grasping why people fight, and what they are prepared to risk and lose. It means understanding how actions designed to bring security – such as drone strikes – can have unintended consequences that can feed resentment, or mobilise support for adversaries. Moreover, it requires greater appreciation of what security, stability, and good governance means for those we try to help.
As Britain seeks a new path in the world, empathy should be a political and strategic imperative
In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, the West did not sufficiently understand the systems and structures of governance and power, and underestimated the vision and commitment of their adversaries, who view the world in generational terms rather than military or diplomatic deployment cycles.
Certainly, and especially with groups like the Taliban, this is where empathy can be problematic. The idea of empathising with an enemy seems morally repugnant. But it does not mean condoning or supporting their actions, merely understanding and not projecting our own assumptions on them.
Beyond the Taliban, political leadership also undervalued the power of empathy for those who helped and supported the mission on the ground, and those who would be left behind. The apparent chaos of the withdrawal, costs longer term trust and credibility in the eyes of allies and adversaries alike. It lacks strategic foresight and causes further untold harms. Good policy should treat people with dignity and as more than pawns on a great power chessboard.
That is not to say empathy was entirely lacking. Whatever the merits or mistakes of the intervention, or one’s position on it, many of the people who fought and helped and remained engaged in the country, did so because they genuinely cared about the people. The extensive rescue efforts over the past few weeks by individuals and organisations to help those left behind, are further testament to the personal sense of connection and care many people continue to feel.
Calls for a public inquiry and analysis of what went wrong from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and Defence Select Committee provide an opportunity to investigate the blind-spots and flawed assumptions that exist at the highest levels. As McNamara discovered, it offers a chance to see how greater understanding might have led to different outcomes and assess how such lessons might be incorporated into future planning and not repeated.
Such a process is not easy. Putting empathy into practice demands acceptance of discomfort and complexity. It is often hard, particularly for powers such as the US and UK, to acknowledge these other world views and differences of experience. The process of empathizing requires humility and a willingness to truly listen and engage with others as equals, which can be at odds with one’s national interests or self-image as a great power.
Nevertheless, if government could recognize its value, despite the discomfort, empathy could contribute to better foreign policy, to more sensitive and inclusive approaches to contemporary challenges, and to a powerful vision for the future. As Britain seeks a new path in the world, empathy should be a political and strategic imperative.
Dr. Claire Yorke is an author and academic specialising in empathy and emotions in international relations, politics, leadership and strategy.
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