Empathy in Action
Empathy in Action
Monday, March 5, 2018

Matt Waldman is Clare College’s Eric Lane Visiting Fellow for Lent Term 2018, a fellowship which is designed to give someone who works in the field of peace or social harmony the opportunity to study, reflect and enrich their work, as well as interact with staff and students.

Matt is the founding Director of the Center for Empathy in International Affairs (CEIA), which is dedicated to promoting empathy as a tool for strengthening understanding, improving policymaking and reducing violent conflict. Matt is also Adviser to the UN Special Representative for Somalia, and an Associate Fellow of Chatham House.

Matt has specialised in high-level diplomacy and mediation in armed conflict. He has served as an Adviser to the UN Special Envoy for Syria and the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan. He has also undertaken mediation work in the Middle East and Africa as a Senior Adviser at the European Institute of Peace and Special Adviser to Inter Mediate. Matt was previously a Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in Harvard’s Kennedy School (2012-14), where his research focussed on empathy and foreign policymaking.

Over the course of the Lent Term, Matt has delivered three lunchtime lectures to students and other members of the College, alongside a lecture in Clare Chapel and an after dinner talk to the Fellowship. A summary of these talks is provided below:

Behind Enemy Lines: Empathy in International Peacemaking. In Matt’s address in Clare chapel on 19 January he argued that parties to conflict often profoundly misjudge each other, and described biases, such as demonization and attribution error, that lead to increased hostility between the parties. According to Matt empathising can mitigate these biases and yield a greater level of understanding. He pointed to successful case examples, such as empathy between US and Iranian diplomats that played an important role in overcoming decades of mistrust and securing the 2015 nuclear agreement. Matt argued that empathising can help decision-makers to identify and overcome misperceptions that often drive conflict, while increasing their ability to read, anticipate and build trust with others.   

Fighting Talk – The Rationale and Challenges in Talking to ‘Terrorists’. In the first of his lunchtime talks, Matt drew on his overseas mediation experience with the United Nations and international mediation organisations. He suggested that the terms ‘terrorism’ or ‘extremism’ should be used carefully: while they may describe a group’s tactics they tell us little about the motivations of those involved or the causes of violence. He outlined three principal challenges to establishing talks with groups often considered to be terrorists or extremists: first, modalities and logistics, second, trust-building and third, overcoming resistance from hardliners, both inside and outside the group. Matt then discussed the military, humanitarian and political rationale for engaging such groups. In broad terms, he argued in favour of talks, pointing out that there was usually at least something to be gained and little to lose, quoting John F. Kennedy: ‘let us never negotiate out of fear but let us never fear to negotiate.’

Mission Impossible: Why the Afghanistan Intervention Failed and Why it Matters. In the second of his lunchtime talks, Matt drew on his experience of living and working in Afghanistan for nearly six years, and his co-directorship of a major Chatham House initiative on Afghanistan, Opportunity in Crisis. He argued that the West’s main errors in the Afghanistan intervention related to two key misjudgements: that the Taliban posed such a threat to the West that the group had to be defeated, and that the strategy to achieve that objective was viable. He contended that it is crucial to understand the structural and underlying causes of these errors, so that steps can be taken to reduce the prospects of similar mistakes in the future. 

Blessed Are The Peacemakers? Inside the Murky World of International Mediation. In the third of his lunchtime talks, Matt reflected on the gritty reality of international mediation, identifying five professional downsides. First, the lack of positive results due to powerful drivers of conflict and determined spoilers; second, the lack of reliable information, especially about the parties’ motivations; third, the moral ambiguity of peace-making, which can put colleagues at risk and involve dealing with unsavoury leaders; fourth, the high pressure and dangers involved; and fifth, the lack of professionalism in a sector that is largely secretive.

Matt then outlined five professional upsides to mediation. First, the fulfilment derived from undertaking work that could have such a big impact; second, the fascination of experiencing international relations behind the headlines; third, the variety of the work and continual challenges; fourth, the excitement of the work due to its secrecy, sensitivity and huge potential; and fifth, the opportunity to work with impressive people from the countries concerned who take enormous risks for peace.

While at Clare College, Matt has taken forward his work on empathy, especially the development of a pedagogy for training in empathy for diplomats, international officials and practitioners. Many assume that empathy is purely a natural talent – you either have it or you don’t. In fact, scientific studies have shown that training can enhance our cognitive ability to empathise. Matt has been reviewing this literature to identify the most effective training methods.

Matt’s pedagogical work will have direct impact in late March when, together with Professor Robert Bordone of Harvard Law School, Matt will conduct a Workshop on Strategic Empathy for Swiss diplomats in Bern. This is the first such workshop of its kind and will involve a didactic element, especially relating to psychology, international case studies, interactive simulations, self-reflection and the sharing of professional experience. Matt has been invited to conduct a similar workshop for Swedish mediators and diplomats in June.

In recent weeks Matt has finalised the text of a volume, which he and Michael Keating have edited, that will be published by Hurst & Co. later in 2018: War and Peace in Somalia – National Grievances, Local Conflict and Al-Shabaab. The forthcoming book contains 44 chapters by leading experts on the drivers of conflict, local peacebuilding, national reconciliation and Al-Shabaab, as well as issues relating to women, youth and the economy. As such it will constitute a unique compendium of knowledge and insight into the conflict. Matt recently travelled to Mogadishu to chair a United Nations Colloquium on Peace and Reconciliation in Somalia which involved contributors to the book, shown below.


Mett Waldman, Eric Lane Fellow, chairing a United Nations Colloquium on Peace and Reconciliation in Somalia

Centre: UN Special Representative, Michael Keating; to the right of him are the Somali Minister of the Interior, Federal Affairs and Reconciliation, Mohamed Sabriye; Norwegian Special Envoy, Vebjørn Heines; and Adviser to the UN Special Representative, Matt Waldman.