Authors: Zachary Shore
Tags: #History, #Modern, #General
ENSE OF THE
ENSE OF THE
THE HIGH-STAKES HISTORY OF READING YOUR RIVAL’S MIND
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© Zachary Shore 2014
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A sense of the enemy : the high stakes history of reading your rival’s mind / Zachary Shore.
Summary: “A bold explanation of how and why national leaders are able—or unable—to correctly analyze and predict the intentions of foreign rivals”—Provided by publisher. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978–0–19–998737–5 (hardback) 1. Political leadership—Psychological aspects. 2. Heads of state—Psychology. 3. Enemies—Psychology. 4. Psychology, Military. I. Title. JC330.3.S56 2014
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For my parents
DESPITE A DECADE OF
military operations across Afghanistan, by the winter of 2010 it had become clear that the United States was not succeeding. Hoping to induce the Afghan insurgents into peace talks, U.S. and NATO officials tried to bribe the Taliban to the conference table. They paid an undisclosed and hefty sum to Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour for his participation, at one point flying the Taliban’s second-in-command to meet with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. The talks seemed to be proceeding well. Mansour’s demands were remarkably reasonable. Yet one thing did trouble some officials. Mansour was several inches shorter than he should have been.
Unfortunately, the Taliban commander was a fake, a shopkeeper from Quetta, Pakistan.
Following the third round of negotiations, the clever merchant made off with a fortune, no doubt laughing as he spirited his wealth away. The episode exposed how poorly the United States knew its enemy in this ongoing war. On a superficial level, American and NATO officials could not even identify the number-two man in their opponent’s organization. On the more strategic level, they did not notice that throughout three separate meetings, the impostor never once requested that foreign troops withdraw from Afghan soil—a staple of Taliban demands. Without concrete descriptions of Mansour’s appearance, the U.S. and NATO had to focus on his behavior. Did he think the way a Taliban commander would? In a sense, they needed to read Mansour’s mind.
What NATO and U.S. officials lacked was strategic empathy: the ability to think like their opponent. Strategic empathy is the skill of stepping out of our own heads and into the minds of others. It is what allows us to pinpoint what truly drives and constrains the other side. Unlike stereotypes, which lump people into simplistic categories, strategic empathy distinguishes what is unique about individuals and their situation. To achieve strategic empathy, you must first identify the information that matters most.
Knowing how another thinks depends initially on gathering and analyzing information. Most leaders use the “great mass” approach. Drawing on intelligence networks, they gather up as much data as they can. The problem is that it is too easy to drown in an ocean of information. Determining which data matter and connecting the dots then grows even harder. In contrast to the great mass approach, others believe that a “thin slice” of information is more effective at revealing someone’s true nature. The danger is that we often choose the wrong slice, leading us painfully astray.
The conclusion here is inescapable. The quantity of information is irrelevant; it’s the relevance of any quantity that matters. The key is not to collect a great mass or a thin slice but the right chunk.
The challenge that has long bedeviled leaders is to find heuristics—decision-making shortcuts—to help them locate those right chunks. Such shortcuts would not generate omniscience, but they would equip us with a sense for what makes our enemies tick. And that sense would greatly improve our odds of anticipating the enemy’s actions. This is what strategic empathy enables, and you can imagine how valuable this skill would be.
This is a book about prediction, though not of the ordinary kind. It is not about predicting sports matches, stock markets, elections, or any of the typical things people bet on. Instead, it’s about predicting other people’s behavior when the stakes are the highest they can be—over matters of war and peace. It’s a book about how we get out of our own minds and into someone else’s head, and it focuses on how national leaders in modern times have struggled to do it well.
This is specifically a history of how leaders within governments have tried to think like their enemies. It explores the zig-zag stories when each side in a conflict sought to outmaneuver the other. It is a walk
through one of the twentieth-century’s most challenging yet crucial quests: reading the enemy mind.
A Sense of the Enemy
addresses two questions. First, what produces strategic empathy? Second, how has strategic empathy, or the lack of it, shaped pivotal periods in twentieth-century international conflict?
More than 2,000 years ago the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu advised generals to know thy enemy. The question has always been how to do it. Though millennia have passed, we are still searching for the answer. Writing in 1996, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin argued that political genius, the ability to synthesize “the fleeting, broken, infinitely various wisps and fragments that make up life at any level,” is simply a sense—you either have it or you don’t.
But what if Berlin was wrong? What if that sense could actually be learned and improved?
Using the masterful nineteenth-century statesman Otto von Bismarck as a prime example of one who was exceedingly gifted at divining an opponent’s reactions, Berlin observed that the German Chancellor managed to integrate vast amounts of disparate data over a breath-takingly expansive range. Then, rather disappointingly, Berlin asserted that any careful study of this sense could never lead to any meaningful guides. As he saw it, the gift of political judgment came from seeing the unique in any situation, and any generalizations would be useless in future contexts. Berlin is so uncommonly sensible, so thoroughly compelling, that I am almost tempted to agree.
As a historian of international relations, I find myself deeply planted in Berlin’s camp. I am dubious about the value of international relations theories, and I seek no predictive models of behavior. Yet I question his conviction that a rigorous investigation of the ability to know one’s enemy would yield nothing of value. Leaders who possess this skill are adept at identifying, as well as synthesizing, the data relevant to a given problem. A careful look at such leaders would bring us closer to comprehending how they thought and in that way further illuminate why events unfolded as they did. It might also help us understand how they knew which information to scrutinize and which to ignore. As the psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons observe: “For the
human brain, attention is necessarily a zero-sum game. If we pay more attention to one place, object, or event, we necessarily pay less attention to others.”
We often assume that the experts in any field have absorbed and retained vast amounts of data on their given subject. Though it has been more than a century and a half since he first assumed the German Chancellorship, Bismarck is still viewed in this light. Christoph Tiedemann served as the Chancellor’s personal assistant from 1875 to 1880. Though steadfast in his work ethic, even he struggled to keep pace with the indefatigable statesman. Sessions with the Chancellor typically lasted all day. Once Bismarck dictated a single letter to the Emperor for five hours straight, without interruption. At one point in the dictation, Tiedemann’s arms began to cramp, so he swiftly removed his jacket. Bismarck gazed at him with amazement, astonished that Tiedemann should require a break in the action. Bismarck’s ability to dictate for such long stretches stemmed from his total mastery of the relevant information. His aim, as the Chancellor’s most recent biographer put it, was to know everything about everything in “a constant, furious absorption of material.”
Yet today we know more about how the mind works. Chabris and Simons, among other psychologists, have shown that a central aspect of decision-making is not the absorption of massive amounts of material but instead the capacity to ignore the bulk of it while focusing on the few key data points that truly matter. “Intuitively, most people think that experts consider more alternatives and more possible diagnoses rather than fewer. Yet the mark of true expertise is not the ability to consider more options,” Chabris says, “but the ability to filter out irrelevant ones.”
As leaders filter out the noise, they must also sense where to find the signal.
One key to strategic empathy comes not from the pattern of past behavior but from the behavior at pattern breaks.
We can better understand the past century of international conflict by scrutinizing how leaders struggled to think like their enemies. When they did it poorly, they tended either to assume that their opponents’ future behavior would resemble their past behavior or they assumed
that their enemies would think and act as they themselves would do. But when leaders succeeded in thinking like their enemies, they focused on the enemy’s behavior during meaningful pattern breaks.