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Embracing Strategic Empathy

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The balance of power and persuasion in the world has shifted against the United States and other free and open societies. False assumptions stemming from overconfidence after the Cold War have resulted in strategic narcissism in American foreign affairs. By adopting strategic empathy, we can combat the negative effects of strategic narcissism and secure a better world for future generations.

Published: December 8, 2020

Discussion Questions

  1. How has the United States displayed strategic narcissism in foreign policy?
  2. How do current challenges to national security differ from those faced before the end of the Cold War? How are they the same?

Additional Resources:

  • Read “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World,” by H. R. McMaster. Available here.
  • Watch “Battlegrounds: International Perspectives on Crucial Challenges to Security and Prosperity,” a video series with H. R. McMaster. Available here.
  • Listen to “Defending the Free World,” an episode of the GoodFellows podcast with H. R. McMaster. Available here.
View Transcript

The balance of power and persuasion in the world has shifted against the United States and other free and open societies. Much of that shift has been self-inflicted due to a failure to understand emerging challenges to American security, prosperity, and influence.

Failures of understanding stem, in part, from overconfidence after the end of the Cold War. In 1989 I was a captain in the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment stationed in West Germany. Our regiment patrolled a stretch of the Iron Curtain that divided democracies and dictatorships. That November, the Berlin Wall fell and the Iron Curtain parted. The Soviet Union soon broke apart. We had won the Cold War without firing a shot.

Just over a year later, the Gulf War required us to kick Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait. As a young Army captain, I commanded Eagle troop of the Second Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of 73 Easting, what some have called the last great tank battle of the 20th century.  It was one lopsided victory in a war full of lopsided victories. 

In retrospect, those events marked the end of an era. Flush with victory, American leaders forgot that the United States had to compete in foreign affairs.

Over-optimism inspired three flawed assumptions about the post–Cold War era.

First, some believed that the arc of history guaranteed the primacy of free and open societies over authoritarian and closed societies. The expansion of liberal democracy was inevitable.

Second, some assumed that the old rules of international relations and competition were now irrelevant. President George H.W. Bush hoped there would be “a new world order” — a world where the rule of law governs the conduct of nations.

Third, some believed that America’s unrivaled military prowess would allow our military to achieve “full-spectrum dominance” over any potential enemy. Military competition was finished.

All three assumptions were false. From Vladimir Putin in Russia to the Kim Family regime in North Korea, autocracy was still with us and was making a comeback. Jihadist terrorist groups adopted asymmetric warfare to mitigate America’s conventional warfare superiority. And a new great power competition was emerging with China as the Peoples Liberation Army undertook one of the greatest peacetime military buildups in history, increasing defense spending over 800 percent from 1992 to 2018.

So why did we get things so wrong?

The flawed assumptions of the post-Cold War period stemmed from what we might call “strategic narcissism.”

Strategic narcissism is the tendency to define problems as we would like them to be and only in relation to ourselves. It assumes that others have no aspirations or agency except in reaction to U.S. policies and actions. It leads a country to pursue strategies that are based on what it prefers to do rather than what the situation demands.

Strategic narcissism has diminished our competence and our confidence. Some believe that after long and costly wars, U.S. disengagement from challenges overseas would be an unmitigated good. 

But resignation and disengagement will not advance American security or influence. Policymakers should instead adopt what the historian Zachary Shore calls “strategic empathy,” an understanding that ideology, emotions, and aspirations drive and constrain the actions of other actors.

Just as important, the United States and its partners must have confidence to overcome emerging and pernicious threats to our free and open societies. To build confidence leaders must communicate clearly to the public what is at stake and how strategies are designed to achieve worthy, sustainable outcomes at acceptable costs.

In this series, we will examine key battlegrounds that effect America’s security and vital interests. We will examine the assumptions on which previous policies rested, endeavor to understand crucial challenges to national security based, in part, on what our adversaries want to accomplish, and suggest what the United States and likeminded partners should do to secure a better world for future generations.