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Building strategic empathy for great power competition

By Daniel Rice

There is little doubt amongst the nations of the world that we are actively in, or are entering into, a new period of great power competition. While US-China competition and Russia hold the spotlight, other nations – or groups of nations such as India, the European Union, ASEAN, or the African Union – have their own growing influence and impact on global governance. Indeed, modern global power competition involves the interlocking and overlapping interests of all stakeholders in complicated webs of relative influence. To call what we see today in the global geopolitical landscape a “new Cold War” would be dramatically underselling the complexity of the situation.

Modern great power competition will be unlike those of the past. However, even as technologies and the domains in which competition occurs evolve, fundamentally, great power competition boils down into a competition of the beliefs and will of civilizations, their people, and their leaders. The will and beliefs of a civilization and its people are often harnessed by a country’s leadership and crafted into a grand strategy comprised of different narratives. Underpinned by culture and language, these narratives are then applied to the different levers of national power: diplomacy, information, military strength, and economic influence (DIME) under the overall DIME framework of national power.

Strategic empathy

When holistically looking at this new global competition, most of it occurs outside of conventional military power and across the non-military levers of power – i.e., diplomacy, information, and economics. However, there are lessons that can be drawn from the military realm that can help to both facilitate healthy competition and reduce tensions amongst nations. One such concept is that of strategic empathy.

Strategic empathy is a tool used to attempt to gain an understanding of your adversary’s beliefs, will, and intentions such that you are better able to anticipate and proactively engage or contest your adversary. In other words, strategic empathy is a tool that facilitates the interpretation and understanding of a competitor’s narratives, and how those narratives create limits to actions or are applied to push forward their grand strategy.

In this context, strategic empathy can be a powerful tool in more accurately interpreting a nation’s strategy and actions. Pairing strategic empathy with cultural competence and linguistic capabilities further strengthens the ability of a government to address the various global stakeholders that they deal with on a regular basis. In the United States, the State Department Foreign Service and Foreign Affairs Officers within the military lead the government’s efforts in this regard. However, the cadre of individuals within these organizations is relatively small, and building this cross-cultural capability has significant barriers to entry. The time and financial investments required to build language proficiency and to socialize one individual in a culture can be too costly or take too long to be relevant.

At the same time, opportunities for individuals to engage with their counterparts, and in certain cases their competitors, are scarce. Yet, even with the costs, there is a track record within the United States of investing in building strategic empathy and applying it to great power competition. During the Cold War, the United States spent thirty years developing a core of government officials, dubbed Kremlinologists, whose role was to interpret the actions of the Soviet Union for decision-makers within the government. While not a silver bullet solution, strategic empathy may have been key to dissolving the US-Soviet tensions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the modern context, we are currently witnessing Sino-US relations rapidly becoming more tense – yet the institutional capacity for strategic empathy is only beginning to be built, or else exists on an individual and not institutional level.

Growing Cross-Strait tensions

Sino-US competition is by far the most complex international challenge that all nations face. The stakes are immeasurably high and the potential flashpoints are numerous. Amongst the potential flashpoints for conflict, none is more pressing than the China-Taiwan-US relationship. At its most basic, the tripartite relationship is based on an unfinished civil war between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨) and the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨). Over the years this frozen conflict has left the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan developing along disparate, yet intertwined paths, with the United States as a quasi-unofficial guarantor of peace across the strait.

Largely static until recently, this political dance has been called the “cross-Strait status quo.” But, this relationship and the status quo amongst the three sides is gradually changing. As the PRC’s national power grows, Xi Jinping has doubled down on the narrative of unifying Taiwan with the PRC. Adding to this tension, the growing capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army serve to pressure Taiwan into unification, deter Taiwan’s diplomatic efforts, and to deter the United States from its traditional role in the relationship.

Developments in the military domain, particularly around Taiwan, have radically increased the potential for a military conflict between the United States and the PRC, with Taiwan entrenched in the front lines of this potential clash. Even though tensions are rising and the status quo is changing, there does not need to be outright conflict between the three parties. In fact, peaceful resolution of the situation regardless of the outcome, is likely the preferred course of action for all three parties. Unfortunately, the three parties are mired in political narratives that have limited or outright eradicated channels for constructive communication.

Complicating this cross-strait issue is the larger Sino-US competition that often frames Taiwan as a component of the bilateral competition, as opposed to an independent actor with its own agency. Under the circumstances, strategic empathy may be a key in creating forums for constructive dialogue, or at the very least establishing mutual understanding of the difficulty of the problem and of the individual perspectives behind each side. From the building blocks of understanding it may be possible to avoid outright conflict.

Competition occurs across all aspects of DIME, and a lack of strategic empathy creates a significant strategic gap within our own government that is both dangerous and difficult to overcome. At its core, strategic empathy is an attempt to peel away the layers of official policies and to understand the human element of the situation. To build strategic empathy requires exposure to other peoples and cultures in a “safe” space – “safe” meaning circumstances in which individuals feel secure enough to open themselves up, sharing their views and vulnerabilities without threat of ridicule or exploitation.

Creating a “safe” space also requires the willing participation and acceptance of participants towards building understanding and keeping an open mind. In official channels, this is an immensely difficult task to achieve, but in unofficial channels there are growing opportunities to build institutional strategic empathy from the ground up. One success story in this regard is the growing non-profit Strait Talk.

Strait talk as an avenue for strategic empathy

Strait Talk (海峽尋新論壇) is an organization that aims to promote peace across the Taiwan Strait by engaging youth from Taiwan, China, and the United States in constructive dialogue founded in international conflict resolution methodologies. In practice, this forum creates the opportunity for young professionals involved in policy or international affairs to immerse themselves in building strategic empathy between Chinese, Taiwanese and American colleagues at the grassroots level. From the dialogue, participants carry forward the knowledge and personal connections that they create, applying them to their work – which often involves cross-strait issues.

Personally, I had the privilege of attending two of the dialogues. Although there were many events during the dialogue that were impactful – especially the “walk through history” – the portion that struck me most in both dialogues was individual storytelling. Falling later in the forum, the storytelling block occurs once barriers are dropped and participants feel safe to discuss their own views, family ties, or otherwise personal connections to the cross-strait relationship. It is in those moments, hearing about the individual identities, fears, beliefs, and views of the different sides of the China-Taiwan-US relationship, that what is often very sanitized in policy discussions becomes more visceral.

Understanding each individual’s ties to the larger problem set instantly puts into perspective the foundational experiences that shape each side’s stance in the current dilemma. In a short period of time, and through the Strait Talk process, strategic empathy is built and immediately becomes a valuable tool for creating constructive ways to de-escalate cross-Strait tensions.

From the United States’ perspective, Sino-US competition and the US-Taiwan relationship are not ephemeral. These complex relations will be seminal in the next few decades of policy towards the Indo-Pacific and more broadly towards the globe. As such, we will need to equip our whole-of-government decision-makers and staffers with better tools to be able to navigate these relationships. One such way is to encourage the proliferation of Strait Talk and other track two or informal dialogue mechanisms, and to facilitate our own participation in these forums.

Additionally, these organizations should not be constrained to only policy-related fields. Private industry and public entities can benefit from understanding the US-China-Taiwan relationship and its importance to the different facets of our nation. Building strategic empathy from the grassroots up can help inform our strategic decisions, our reactions, and help us better navigate regional and global competition. Without it, we may be left planning or executing policy in a silo. As most planners know, planning in isolation is not a very successful proposition.

The main point: The US-China-Taiwan relationship is one of the most complex and difficult components of modern great power competition, and requires a more holistic and human-centric understanding to facilitate constructive dialogue. Building strategic empathy at the grassroots level and across the public and private sectors can help the United States, China, and Taiwan to build mutual understandings from which constructive dialogue may occur.



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