​Using Empathy during a New Cold War

An American contemplating the hostile state of current US-Russian relations might well be pessimistic. Russia, this American observer might conclude, is an implacably hostile enemy whose actions reflect Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambition to act aggressively abroad while suppressing dissent at home. From this perspective, America has no choice but to wage a new Cold War, acting forcefully to check Russian aggression.

Such a perspective is not only dangerous—as it risks open warfare—but tragically narrow-minded. A view of US-Russian relations that includes empathy for Russian policymakers and their perspectives allows an alternative interpretation of Russian actions. Putin and other policymakers may well be acting out of fear of the United States and seeking to protect Russia from a perceived US threat. From this alternative perspective, avoiding provocations and working to relax tensions is a better option for the United States.​

The political scientist and psychologist Ralph K. White applied empathy to US-Soviet relations during the last Cold War. More recently, the former US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Brown University Professor James G. Blight applied White’s principles to US-Russia relations as of 2001. This approach continues to be valuable today.

In their book Wilson’s Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century, Blight and McNamara quote White’s explanation of empathy and its relevance in international relations:

Empathy is the great corrective for all forms of war-promoting misperception. It means simply understanding the thoughts and feelings of others. It is distinguished from sympathy, which is defined as feeling with others—as being in agreement with them. Empathy with opponents is therefore psychologically possible even when a conflict is so intense that sympathy is out of the question. We are not talking about warmth or approval, and certainly not about agreeing with, or siding with, but only about realistic understanding . . .

[Empathy] means trying to look at one’s own group’s behavior honestly, as it might appear when seen through the other’s eyes, recognizing that his eyes are almost certainly jaundiced, but recognizing also that he has the advantage of not seeing our group’s behavior through the rose-colored glasses that we ourselves normally wear. We may have grounds for distrust, fear, and anger that we have not permitted ourselves to see.[1]

If we apply this empathetic approach to Russian policymakers, we can see that for almost 20 years the United States has acted in ways that, from the Russians’ standpoint, threaten and humiliate Russia. These provocative American actions fall into roughly three broad categories: 1) NATO expansion; 2) attacking Russia’s allies; and 3) undermining Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

From Russia’s perspective, then, the United States has expanded a hostile military alliance’s reach right up to the Russian border, waged war against Russia’s friends, and tried to undermine Russia’s military power. Viewed this way, anti-American hostility is understandable and seemingly aggressive Russian actions can be seen as defensive. Even the Russian attack on Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, while unjust, makes sense as a Russian attempt to prevent NATO from expanding to include Ukraine as well.

  1. NATO Expansion. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a product of the Cold War, a military alliance created specifically to counter a perceived threat from the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War and the dissolution the Soviet Union did not mean the end of NATO, however. Instead, NATO has grown, bringing in as new members many Eastern European countries that were once parts of the Soviet Union or Soviet satellites. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO in 1999; Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, as well as the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined in 2004; Albania and Croatia in 2009; and Montenegro in 2017.[2]

    From the perspective of the Soviet Union’s successor state, Russia, this expansion of a historically hostile military alliance into what had once been Russia’s sphere of influence—indeed, right up to Russia’s borders—must appear an extraordinarily hostile policy. To recall a relevant parallel, the presence of pro-Soviet regimes in Cuba and Nicaragua during the Cold War provoked extreme fear and hostility within the United States; how much more extreme would such reactions be if 13 nations in the western hemisphere all joined a pro-Russian military alliance?
  2. Attacking Russia’s Allies. The United States has repeatedly waged war against countries that are friendly with Russia: Serbia in 1999, Iraq in 2003, and Syria since 2014. The Russians would naturally view such war-making as a sign of American hostility or at least contempt.
  3. Undermining Russia’s Nuclear Arsenal. Since the 1990s, the United States has actively pursued a missile defense system: that is, missiles meant to shoot down other missiles launched by hostile countries. Such a system is currently being set up in Europe, under NATO supervision: a key installation was established in 2016 in Romania, with another to follow in Poland in 2018.[3] This missile defense system is ostensibly meant to protect European nations from Iran, but Russian policymakers understandably view it as a threat. Such a system is threatening because from the Russians’ perspective an effective NATO missile defense system could undermine whatever credible threat Russia’s arsenal of nuclear missiles pose to NATO nations. By the paradoxical logic of nuclear deterrence, to lack a credible ability to threaten another nation makes one vulnerable to aggression by the nation possessing the missile defense system. In short, the Russians perceive the missile defense system as making them less able to deter an attack from the United States and NATO.

Rather than viewing Russia as merely malevolent and implacably hostile, American policymakers should consider how their own actions have provoked Russia and helped create the current tense situation. Less threatening behavior that respects Russian interests and concerns could ease tensions: stopping further NATO expansion and cancelling the European missile defense system would be good first steps. Such an approach is preferable to another Cold War.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.


[1] Robert S. McNamara and James G. Blight, Wilson’s Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century (New York: PublicAffairs, 2001), 65-66.

[2] “Member Countries,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, accessed November 19, 2017, http://bit.ly/2hBGysz

[3] Ryan Browne, “U.S. Launches Long-Awaited European Missile Defense Shield,” CNN, May 12, 2016, http://cnn.it/1T9Nqg3; Robin Emmott, “U.S. Activates Romanian Missile Defense Site, Angering Russia,” Reuters, May 12, 2016, http://reut.rs/2hLkjo3; Lisa Ferdinando, “Work Joins Groundbreaking for Ballistic Missile Defense Site in Poland,” Department of Defense News, May 13, 2016, http://bit.ly/2jDKoWs.

© 2017 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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