The Psychological Logic of Peace Summits: How Empathy Shapes Outcomes of Diplomatic Negotiations

Why do some peace summits succeed while others fail? It turns out that this simple question is difficult to answer because much existing work tends to suggest that diplomatic outcomes are endogenous to other factors such as power and national interests. This suggests that peace summits should nearly always be perfunctory proceedings where the outcome has long since been determined. And yet, as we know, summits often do fail, often in very high profile and spectacular ways. 

We approach this puzzle from a vantage point that connects psychology, negotiation theory, and relationalism. In particular we highlight the importance of empathy between leaders. We first demonstrate that numerous findings suggest that empathy—the ability to understand the cognitive and affective states of others without necessarily sympathizing with them—is required for overcoming long-standing hostilities. Empathy is used to infer intentions, motivations, positions, and interests; it is also a precursor to trust. Without it, negotiations are destined to fail. The history of intractable conflict, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Troubles in Northern Ireland, where a lack of empathy characterizes the relationship, illustrates this point. As UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold put it, “you can only hope to find a lasting solution to a conflict if you have learned to see the other objectively, but, at the same time, to experience his difficulties subjectively” (Booth and Wheeler 2008:237).

Empathy is not the same thing as sympathy, though they are often equated and conflated. What empathy does is allows individuals engaged in a negotiation, such as a peace summit, to show that they can understand the interests, positions, and intentions of others, particularly their desire to negotiate in good-faith. This is critical to finding an acceptable zone of possible agreement (ZOPA). To test whether their counterparts have empathy, individuals pay close attention to what is expressed through words and behavior. A wealth of evidence suggests that individuals convey their empathic capacity to each other through expressive signaling: the bodily behaviors, unconscious mimicry, and facial microexpressions of interpersonal social interaction. These signals help individuals form beliefs about whether the other can empathize. And, importantly, all of this can be done without sympathizing with the other party. Empathy’s causal role does not stem from its normativity. Empathy can be entirely self-serving, exploitive, or result in fundamentally unfair outcomes. We see empathy as crucial to getting to agreement, not a safeguard of fairness or morality.

We also argue that all is not lost when leaders of warring states do not effectively empathize with or send empathic signals to one another. Empathy need not be dyadic in nature between the main protagonists in a conflict. Instead, we argue mediators have the ability to build empathy between individuals who are unable to create it themselves. Thus, when individuals do not empathize directly with each other, as is often the case in protracted conflicts, an empathic mediator can make up for this deficit by building relational empathy between disputants. As Tony Blair (2014) reflects on his role moderating the Northern Ireland Peace Process: This is not a matter of reason but of emotion... Many of the hundreds of hours I spent in discussion with the parties were not simply about specific blockages or details of the negotiation, but rather about absorbing and trying to comprehend why they felt as they did and communicating that feeling to the other side... I then had inside me something of the passions they felt inside them.” Blair helped each side feel what was important to the other, essentially building empathy between two sides that could not empathize on their own. In the end, we suggest that empathy is both something that occurs within individuals, the reproduction of the mental states of others (the first step of our theory), as well as potentially between actors, all enabled and facilitated by an empathic mediator (the second step of our theory).

This argument has significant ramifications for the conduct of diplomatic negotiations. Our theory departs from existing explanations of peace summitry and diplomacy in a number of ways. First, we highlight the role of individual leaders and mediators. While much of diplomacy is focused on the communication of state interests and intentions, we are focused on a much more personal level: cultivating and expressing a highly personal ability to empathize with another person. We engage with a growing body of literature that seeks to understand how face-to-face interactions and personal diplomacy can credibly reveal private information about leaders’ intentions and desires to negotiate in good faith. Second, our theory highlights how individual behaviors – in particular, signals sent through expressive behaviors - are perceived, which in turn affects outcomes. Leaders and mediators who are unable to convey their ability to empathize may be “leaving money on the table” since they presumably would benefit from a successful summit, by unnecessarily shrinking the ZOPA, or limiting their ability to find a positive outcome. Finally, our argument is not that bargaining power, strategic interests, or other negotiation strategies do not matter; quite the opposite: power and interests are often critical in getting parties to the negotiating table. Nevertheless, empathy is crucial precisely because it affects how bargaining power, positions, and interests are conveyed, received, and understood. Leaders and mediators use empathy to better comprehend their counterpart’s motivations, the interests underlying their stated positions, and the concessions they can be expected to make and accept. Communicating this information to other parties is crucial to reaching a bargaining outcome.

The upshot for policymakers is that demonstrating empathy to your adversary is not a signal of weakness; it does not make you vulnerable. Leaders who dismiss the importance of empathy do so at their own peril. They are less likely to be invited to the negotiation table, and more likely to limit the ZOPA and fail to reach agreements that may serve their interests. Similarly, mediators who are unable to convey empathy toward disputants and therefore not build relational empathy are also letting go of a potential opportunity to find peace. Ultimately, it may be that it is the appearance of empathy that is as crucial as actually possessing it.

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