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Strategic Empathy: Assessing Leadership Behavior

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Trans-Pacific View

Strategic Empathy: Assessing Leadership Behavior

Insights from Zachary Shore

Strategic Empathy: Assessing Leadership Behavior
Credit: North Korea via Attila JANDI /

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Zachary Shore – Associate Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Institute of European Studies and author of five books, including A Sense of the Enemy: The High-Stakes History of Reading Your Rival’s Mind – is the 42nd in “The Rebalance Insight Series.” The views expressed in this article are solely those of Professor Shore and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Explain strategic empathy and pattern-break analysis.

“Strategic empathy” is the ability to discern someone’s underlying drivers and constraints. As a historian, I wanted to know how leaders have succeeded in reading their enemies. When they did it well, did they have a method, or was it just luck. I realized surprisingly that leaders who read their enemies best did so not by focusing on the enemy’s pattern of past behavior, but instead by scrutinizing their behavior at pattern breaks. At those moments when the routine norms of daily business were completely overturned – such as during a disaster, a sudden spike in violence, a mass protest, or other highly impactful event – how people behaved revealed what mattered to them most. And the leaders who focused on their enemies’ behavior at those pattern-breaking moments gained powerful insight into their enemies’ minds.

How would pattern-break analysis help explain Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions in Ukraine?

The focus is not so much on Putin’s intentions, but rather the underlying drivers that shape those intentions. The first step is always to identify a true pattern-breaking moment. In Ukraine that moment came when the Maidan protests ousted President Yanukovych. Until then Ukraine had essentially pursued a kind of “Schaukelpolitik,” or a pivoting back and forth between Russia and the West. There was nothing novel in this approach. In the 1920s, Germany had adopted a similar policy, also pivoting between Russia and the West in order to wrangle concessions from each side. But the Maidan protests of 2013 disrupted Ukraine’s balancing act and threatened to place Ukraine fully in the Western camp. Since Putin views Ukraine as crucial to Russia’s national interests, he seized the opportunity to wrest back some influence in the region. His behavior around this pattern-breaking moment revealed how much he valued influence in Ukraine. He was willing to use military force, though not overtly and not to the point of all-out war. Alarmists at the time cried that Putin was like Hitler – an insatiable expansionist bent on recreating the Soviet Union. His behavior has not shown anything of the kind. He has exerted just enough pressure to preserve Russian influence in the east.

What can pattern-break analysis reveal about North Korea?

American policy on the peninsula has been essentially stuck since the Korean War. It may soon be possible to unstick it. If Beijing shows meaningful signs of closening relations with Seoul, it may indicate an opening for change. China’s support for Pyongyang helps keep that dictatorship in power. Until now Beijing has been unwilling to reduce its support for at least three main reasons. Beijing fears that a North Korean collapse could mean a destabilizing influx of refugees, a nuclearized unified Korea, and the presence of U.S. forces directly on its border. To overcome these obstacles, the next U.S. president could attempt private three-party talks between Washington, Beijing and Seoul. The U.S. could proffer a deal: a commitment not to station U.S. forces north of their current positions, or even a graduated, phased withdrawal of some U.S. troops from the peninsula in exchange for China’s genuine pressure on Pyongyang to reform. In order to hinder North Korean refugee flows into China if the regime should one day collapse, all parties could agree to increased Chinese security forces along its border with the North, combined with each party contributing resources to help settle some refugees in the South and establish immediate interventions in the North to ameliorate the people’s privation. The U.S. and the ROK might have to agree to a denuclearized peninsula, but the newly unified nation would remain under America’s nuclear umbrella, just as Japan does.

And what are implications for China’s role in North Korea?

Obviously, there are no guarantees that any of the three parties concerned would agree to such changes in the status quo, but Beijing might slowly be recognizing that its current influence over North Korea is a wasting asset. Millions of people are suffering under Kim Jong-Un’s oppressive rule. If the regime does collapse, it will be far better to have had these discussions before the fall rather than after it, when the chaos of events could yield outcomes that no one would want. If a genuine pattern-breaking moment does occur in the region, scrutinize Beijing’s behavior toward Pyongyang and Seoul. That behavior may reveal what Beijing truly wants for the peninsula.

What assumptions should the next U.S. president avoid in exercising American power and influence?

America’s ability to project power around the world is unmatched and unrivaled. Certainly presidential tough talk will not make a safer world. Only wise policies can do that. In a previous book, Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions, I used the historian’s craft to identify the most common cognition traps into which leaders fall. Exposure Anxiety, the fear of being seen as weak, is a pernicious trap that could potentially ensnare a U.S. president with something to prove: either someone who had limited foreign policy experience or someone who believed that military actions would silence charges of weakness.

Of the seven most common cognition traps described in Blunder, the one I think most crucial for the next U.S. president to overcome is Mirror Imaging: thinking that the other side will think like us. This is especially important in relations with developing states. What was true during the Vietnam War appears true in Afghanistan today. Americans have tried to graft the trappings of modernity – roads and bridges, hospitals and schools – onto premodern societies. We tend to assume that all Afghans would want these things as much as Americans do. But as scholars have shown, tribal societies with powerful kinship and clan-based identities tend to be more interested in local grievances and local justice. The Taliban understand this intuitively; Americans do not. A president who can break through mirror imaging will be more likely to devise wise policies in all of America’s foreign affairs.