Seeing the World Through the Eyes of Another

By: Joseph Donato, Columnist

Photo Credit:

The great nineteenth century French novelist Gustave Flaubert once observed that, “there is no truth, only perception.”[i] While relevant in many fields of study, this observation rings particularly true in the abstract realm of international relations. Unlike the scientist, the statesman has no concrete proofs or formulas to determine the true nature of things; nothing is concrete. One can accept this judgment without being forced to embrace moral or ethical relativism. Some values and actions are indisputably closer to a universal sense of “good” than others. Nevertheless, in international relations, perception is what counts. Navigating international waters, therefore, requires a degree of understanding, introspection, and perhaps even empathy that American policymakers have lacked in recent decades.

If one could confidently know the intentions and motives of others, the art of war and strategy would be revolutionized. Such knowledge would reduce the suspicion, anxiety, and fear that drive human conflict. Alas, as Cicero noted, “nothing is more obscure than human intentions.”[ii] This is, however, not cause for despair; a wise statesman can, though deep thought and reflection, still achieve a sufficient understanding of adversarial intentions, perception, and motives to avoid painful miscalculation. Unfortunately, this has been an area of particular weakness for the United States. As leaders of an inherently idealistic nation, American statesmen allow the benevolence of their intentions to cloud their judgment about how their actions will be perceived. In turn, they are quick to dismiss those who oppose their policies and objectives as inherently evil.

In his classic treatise The Art of War, the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu wrote, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” [iii] The failure of American leaders to heed this warning and strive to understand their enemy has caused considerable harm to US foreign policy over the past fifty years.

During the Korean War the largely unfounded American conviction that China would not intervene in the war led to nearly fatal strategic miscalculations.[iv] A generation later, rigid perceptions of Ho Chi Minh and his insurgency contributed to the ill-fated American decision to escalate the war in Southeast Asia. Ossified opinions about a Communist world conspiracy led American planners to see Ho as a puppet of Beijing and Moscow instead of the determined Vietnamese nationalist he was.[v] Likewise, the belief that the Shia majority in Iraq would welcome American forces as liberators led the Bush Administration to grossly underestimate the difficulty of post-war reconstruction. In each of these cases, American strategists failed to understand the complexity of the motives and objectives of their adversaries. Moreover, they failed to anticipate the way their policies and actions would be perceived by hostile or neutral actors.

By understanding these factors, policymakers can better coordinate strategic ends, ways, and means. They can thereby better judge what second and third order effects may result from their actions. Unfortunately, the United States has repeatedly failed to give time and attention to such abstractions at a prodigious cost in blood and treasure. It has pursued major policies after only a shallow analysis of its adversary’s will and motives. Moreover, American policymakers have assumed that because their own intentions are just, others will readily understand them. As these factors indelibly shape when, why, and how an adversary will fight, they are an essential part of strategy. How deeply did planners reflect on the worldview and perceptions of the Muslim world when forming assumptions about the impact of the American liberation of Iraq? How often have demonstrably simplistic American views of complex nation states and regions been challenged at the highest levels of government? How deeply does one strive to understand an adversary?

As tensions throughout the world continue to rise, the need for greater understanding of motives, fears, and intentions is needed, both at home and abroad. Of course this applies to all nations, but American leaders in particular stand to gain a great deal by reflecting on how their actions are likely to be perceived in foreign capitals. How does the strategic situation in Eastern Europe look from Moscow? How are American deployments in the South China Sea viewed in Beijing? How does the presence of American forces to the West, East, and South impact the actions of the regime in Tehran? These questions are by no means an attempt to defend Russian, Iranian, or Chinese aggression or undermine American strategy, but rather an effort to draw attention to the clear need for greater understanding in international relations. Empathy is often dismissed as weakness but the wise strategist knows the value of intimately understanding a rival. By considering his worldview, objectives, fears, and ambitions he can more prudently and wisely coordinate the instruments of national power and avoid costly and painful miscalculations. It is time for American leaders to dedicate more time and thought to such matters; there is too much at stake.[vi]

[i] Art Quotes, Gustav Flaubert Quotes, accessed on April 25, 2017, – .WPjBIdLyuUk.

[ii] George Seldes, The Great Thoughts, (New York: Ballantine, 1985).

[iii] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2005).

[iv] Thomas E. Ricks, Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, (New York: Penguin, 2013).

[v] Robert S. McNamara and Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, (New York: Vintage, 1996).

[vi] Stephen M. Walt, ““Empathy” and International Affairs,” Foreign Policy, May 27, 2009,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.