Back to top

Understanding the Battleground

Embracing Strategic Empathy

In More Detail

The balance of power and persuasion 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 on their own terms. 

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 in Europe. 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 twenty-eight-year-old 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 a lopsided victory in a much larger battle and a war that were also lopsided victories.  

In retrospect, those events marked the end of an era. In the 1990s American leaders, flush with victories in the Cold War and the Gulf War, forgot that the United States had to compete in foreign affairs. 

Over-optimism inspired three flawed assumptions about the emerging 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. Free-market capitalism had triumphed over authoritarian, closed economic systems. The expansion of liberal democracy was inevitable.  Ideological competition was over.

Second, some assumed that the old rules of international relations and competition were no longer relevant in what President George H.W. Bush hoped would be “a new world order” — a world where the rule of law governs the conduct of nations.  Great power competition was passé. 

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 and Xi Jinping in China to the Kim Family regime in North Korea and Iran’s theocratic dictatorship, autocracy was still with us and was making a comeback. Meanwhile, Islamic jihadists and Iranian state-sponsored 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.  It is often based in the conceit that others have no aspirations or agency except in reaction to U.S. policies and actions instead of the harsher reality that rivals and enemies have a say in the future course of events. 

Indeed, rivals and enemies are driven by emotions, aspirations, and ideologies that run counter to wishful thinking. Strategic narcissism produces policies and strategies that are disconnected from the realities of the world and are based on what the purveyor prefers rather than what the situation demands.   Strategic narcissism helped set up the United States for difficulties encountered in Afghanistan and Iraq after the turn of the century as the pipe dream of easy victory in both places confronted complex political and cultural factors as well as determined enemies that chose to fight the United States and its allies asymmetrically.  

Strategic narcissism has produced severe consequences and has diminished our competence and our confidence.  The emotional impetus behind U.S. foreign policy and national security strategy has shifted from overconfidence to pessimism and even resignation.  Some believe that after long, indecisive and costly wars, the 2008 financial crisis, and the 2020 COVID-19 crisis, U.S. disengagement from complex challenges overseas is an unmitigated good.  

But excessive pessimism and disengagement will not advance American security, prosperity, and influence. Policymakers should instead adopt what the historian Zachary Shore calls “strategic empathy,” an understanding the ideology, emotions, and aspirations that drive and constrain other actors. That understanding can serve as the basis for a restoration of strategic competence based on realistic assumptions concerning the degree of agency and influence the United States and likeminded partners have over complex challenges.   

And just as important, the United States and its partners must possess the confidence to overcome emerging and pernicious threats to our free and open societies. Building and sustaining, confidence requires communicating clearly to the public what is at stake and describing how proposed strategies are designed to achieve sustainable outcomes at acceptable costs.

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