Claire Yorke on Emotions in Foreign Policy

Dr. Claire Yorke is an author and academic who combines research with policy-relevance. Her expertise is in the role of empathy and emotions in international affairs, politics, leadership, and society. She is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the Center for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, leading a new project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Fund on Empathy and International Security (EIS). Between 2018-2020, she was a Henry A. Kissinger Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer at Yale University and is currently writing two books on empathy and emotions.

It is often argued that emotions cloud judgment, and that decision-makers should remain “rational actors.” How can emotions and empathy positively shape strategy and policy?

We have a bias against emotions, and an idea that they are irrational, unquantifiable and distort sound judgment. Yet, emotions serve as sources of insight, information, and meaning. If we are more attuned to our emotions, both individually and collectively, we should be better able to determine why we respond to certain events as we do and what is required in a situation. This is equally true of crises, when there may be an intense emotional experience at a personal and group level, but it is also in the everyday of policy and strategy. If we understand better how policies make people feel, then such insights can be used to create more sensitive approaches that connect with people and their experiences. We can better determine what is required of a given situation and what solutions may be most effective.

This is where empathy comes in. It gives us a tool to see a bigger, richer, more nuanced, and complex picture and then make more informed decisions. However, that means policymakers must be able to confront their biases, and the ways in which they may experience the world very differently to others. That is a difficult and uncomfortable process, but it’s an essential part of shaping better and more sustainable strategy.

It is not all necessarily positive and transformative. There is of course the potential for emotions to be used to help manipulate or coerce people. We see that too in populist and nationalist policies, which are effective at tapping into how people feel. However, by being cognizant of the manifold effects of emotions, and ther easier to manage and respond.

What are some of the nuances in the emotions and empathy approach? Are there differences according to gender, culture, age?

Absolutely, there is no sole idea of emotions or empathy, just as power can have multiple variations, and change with context or who is using it. For example, there is a constant interaction between leaders and publics and their environments, so this iterative and responsive dimension shapes how emotions may be used. What may be permissible behind closed doors, may not be palatable or permissible in the public space.

There are also some differences in terms of what we expect from people. There is this assumption that women are more emotional than men, for example, and men and women are often judged differently when they display the same emotions. There is a tension between emotionality and strength, for example, and it can sometimes be harder for women to be seen as strong if they are also displaying emotion.

Culturally, emotions can have different significance and meaning. It’s therefore important for diplomats and policy makers to be sensitive to these nuances and how to respond, for example to avoid either humiliating another or losing face themselves. Age, experience, and a personal capacity and desire to express emotions also shape their impact. At present, what is interesting, and exciting, is that young people are having a genuine impact in foreign policy. When we look at climate change, education, indigenous rights, or economic equality, there are some inspiring and effective movements and champions who are using emotional appeals, along with rational argument, to mobilize wider engagement and get people thinking about the world around them.

What is the most fascinating emotion you are studying?

I find emotions as a whole fascinating, and how they interplay with each other and have diverse logics and implications. Right now, a lot of my work is focused on empathy, and the idea that it provides a lens and a tool with which we can try to understand others better and be more reflexive about how we engage with the world around us. However, I am also really interested in shame, and its impact—positive and negative—and anger, and how it can be quite a positive force of change when used wisely but taken to extremes can be really damaging and lead to poor decision-making.

Love can mean many different things. Love for a country can be a powerful force that mobilizes people, unites them around a common cause, and gives a sense of community and identity. However, taken to an extreme it can turn into dangerous nationalism. In foreign policy terms this can mean pursuing policies that may cause harm to others, that may demonize people who are part of a perceived ‘out-group’, or it can lead to violence in the defense of what you love. Love for others can be seen in outpourings of support for refugees, in the form of compassion and care. It can be a way to demonstrate our shared humanity and the many things that unite us, and therefore be a positive force of change and solidarity.

It’s worth far more attention, especially exploring how we cultivate love when hate can perhaps seem cathartic or easier.

Can you tell us about a well-known incident in international affairs where emotion/empathy played an important role?

If you look at the big transformations in diplomacy, when relationships underwent dramatic shifts from animosity to cooperation or change, you can see evidence of empathy and emotions more clearly. Some examples are when U.S. President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger went to China in 1972, or when U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the former leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, managed to find a détente after long periods of conflict. Such shifts require a different level of understanding, of connection between the leading figures and the development—however hard—of trust between the parties. Tensions are rarely alleviated by the alignment of interests alone. It requires personal and emotional investments by diplomats and political leaders to build the relationships, rapport and dialogue that can yield change.

What is your advice to young women embarking on a similar path to yours? Are they bound to hear “women are so emotional”?

There is a positive movement around emotions right now. The pandemic enabled a lot more people, of all genders, to talk about how they are feeling and the impact of emotions on how they engage with their world. So, I hope we have moved beyond such gendered stereotypes, which also do a disservice to men and masculinity. It’s not healthy to be disconnected from your emotions, or under the illusion that you are motivated solely by sterile logic or reason, it doesn’t work that way.

For young women starting out, I think it’s important to cultivate emotional intelligence, to be what Harvard Professor and psychologist Susan David calls ‘emotionally agile’. Understand how your emotions shape your perspectives of the world and how you engage with others. Emotions are an invaluable source of connection with others, and reveal a huge amount about the human experience, which is critical in this field. Politics is about people, about how they feel, about why some ideas resonate more than others, and about how they give meaning to the world. We are stronger and more resilient when we can work with emotions, rather than pushing them to one side.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s