The most important thing a would-be peacemaker can do is get to know the enemies, understand their ambitions, their pains, the resentments that condition their thinking and the traumas that even they do not fully understand themselves.

Two and a half millennia ago,
the Chinese general Sun Tzu

This book is written by two individuals with very different experience of international relations: one, a career diplomat with some results to show at the UN, the other a practising therapist, and both concerned to develop the links between the psychological and the political worlds. The book focuses on the possibility of change in both the structure and process of current international relations in the hope of making ‘a contribution to the resolution of conflict’. The book is about life and not theory, and part of the narrative is about the authors’ own experiences of sitting with the enemy and sometimes solving issues with them. Together, the authors explore what lies behind the hostile facade of the other, what alienates us, and how, in spite of the aggression, there is sometimes the potential for shared mutual interests.

Conflict resolution is a vital subject in international relations, both in theory and in practical politics. This book does not claim to be a free-standing study of international relations and its theory and practice but of the underlying factors making up the mindsets of those involved in conflict resolution, and this will be the book’s unique contribution. It is conceived as a collection of studies of conflict resolution that examine how the psychological issues are affected by history and culture, and how we construct identity. These are all fundamental elements underlying the basic ‘East–West’ division and mutual miscomprehension which are set out in detail in the accounts of negotiations in the book.

Politics and international conflict are usually examined through the lens of realpolitik, which is primarily about power involving ‘the rational evaluation and realistic assessment of the options available to one’s own group and to an opposing one’.1 There are in this chess games of power relationships and the desire of elite groups to shape the world according to their own best interests, which operate in the world of economic and military calculations, strategic options and political alliances and alignments. But it is the belief of the authors that conflict is more likely to be resolved when you also place the geopolitical complexity in a bed of human relationships. Suffering humiliation and powerlessness are the conditions in which groups are more likely to resort to violence. Respect, treating people with dignity and inclusive politics that give groups and communities access to resources and influence over their lives are more likely to induce behaviour that is not destructive. We are most likely to understand more about the smell of politics and human behaviour if we start at the kitchen table, and, according to Hans Blix, the wise ex-head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, peaceful relations between states ‘can and must be practiced both at the conference table and the kitchen table’. He goes on to say that if you are to be effective at diplomacy you need to understand ordinary human behaviour, and for him an obvious example is that ‘young children are incentivised by juicy carrots, and we can transpose such thinking to understanding that states are more likely to be incentivised by carrots than sticks’.

Diplomats frequently shy away from issues that are not amenable to quick fixes and that speak to the deepest psychological and emotional instincts of those involved in conflict. ‘However, as much as policy makers would prefer to ignore these issues, they need to be considered if the goal is a conflict-ending, claims-ending agreement.’ Whilst this book makes a plea for governments to be more aware of the psychological and historic narratives of particular groups, it also recognizes that the human mind has to be located in the wider system of geopolitical structures of power politics. This will include the vested interests at stake amongst elite groups in positions of power, the proxy wars, and the political rivalries at work, all of which will be played out. 

Any thorough analysis will include recognizing the multiple influences that shape conflict, as without this we weaken our ability to resolve it. Decision making frequently takes place in a policy bubble, hermetically sealed from the complexity of the multiple influences that determine conflict. Governments lack procedures to engage in thorough systemic thinking before enormous decisions are made to go to war. This kind of critical disciplined thinking will need to include getting into the mind of the enemy, understanding their motivations, what they care about and how intervention would be viewed by people on the ground, all of which has been sadly lacking.

Whilst politics is not about therapy and politicians and states cannot be placed on the couch, human motivation and psychology need to be part of the strategic calculations of decision makers. For it is man who both creates and ends wars, and destroys his environment. Institutions do not decide to destroy or kill, or make peace or war; those actions are the responsibility of individuals. So to try and understand the root causes of conflict only in terms of power politics and resources, without also understanding human behaviour and what exacerbates the fight over resources, undermines our effectiveness in preventing war and making peace. When there is long-term endemic conflict emotions are often very near to the surface as a result of the horrors of war. Members of the family have been killed, people have often sustained terrible wounds and communities are frequently traumatized. Emotions of fear, trauma and humiliation prevent any kind of rational judgement, dominate the mood and can affect not only individuals but groups, communities and whole nations. They affect not only what we think but how we think and disturb our capacity to think rationally and act in our best interests. 

There is a lively and important psychological debate about what motivates human behaviour. Are we inherently violent, or is our potential for violence stimulated by outside events? Are we essentially destructive and thus needing to be constantly restrained, or are we essentially benign and shaped by our environment? Over the last 100 years we have begun to develop the capacity to respond more intelligently and more humanely to acts of anger and destruction. In our domestic lives we try not to meet aggression with aggression, as we know this does not help reduce violence. We have learnt that compassion and containment help to prevent further acts of violence. Whilst this is certainly true at a personal level, generally speaking, it is not applied in international conflict. Machiavelli, the great sixteenth-century political thinker and servant of the state, had a very low opinion of human nature which he characterized as insatiable, arrogant and crafty, whereby man never did good unless necessity drove him to do so. For him, man was essentially evil and self-centred, and his behaviour could ultimately only be repressed by force. There are many who confirm Machiavelli’s view of the world where all men are essentially wicked and given an opportunity will give vent to their malign intent, and where politics needs to be shaped accordingly. 

Later, Thomas Hobbes, a seventeenth-century English polymath, wrote Leviathan, which was originally published in 1651 after the violent eruption of the English Civil War. He believed that man was driven by competition, rivalry and the need for glory, and would always wish to subdue the ‘other’. For him, the life of man in a state of nature is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ and therefore the task of government is to replace anarchy with hierarchical political structures. This may be up for review in the twenty-first century when the empowerment of citizens through social media and technology may not sit so comfortably with historical hierarchical structures of power. This will be discussed later in the book.

In contrast to the thinking of Machiavelli and Hobbes, a more idealist view of human nature emerged in international relations in the twentieth century. This view of man is less bleak and in it there is a belief that man can develop and progress. After World War I there was a belief that the world could be transformed into a more peaceful and just order with the awakening of democracy and the growth of the international mind. In this school of thinking, the state should make its internal political philosophy the goal of foreign policy, and how it treats its citizens at home should be the benchmark for how it behaves in the international dimension. 

Realism and idealism were to become rival political theories. Political realists believe that war will continue despite all efforts to the contrary and that nations therefore have an interest in and a need to be prepared for war. They emphasize a tragic view of human nature, whereas political idealists tend to be more optimistic and are united in the assumption that human nature can develop positively with the right structures in place. Realists tend to see war as a natural state of affairs, in contrast to idealists who see war as driven by historical circumstances, evil leaders, political systems and inadequate understanding and education. Such beliefs about human behaviour shape our politics and our beliefs about whether conflict can be transformed or managed. Those of the idealist school are more likely to subscribe to the former view, that conflict can be transformed, whereas the realists are more likely to see conflict as intractable by nature, and therefore needing to be managed. 

The authors of this book do not subscribe to either position, not least because each conflict is different and the multiple forces at work need to be understood in this context. We would support the idea that deep in man’s DNA there is the potential to fight and be destructive, but we believe that there is also a profound capacity to create harmony, and whether or not this prevails is shaped by the conditions that surround the individual. An old adage attributed to Abraham Lincoln articulates the impact of our surroundings on our outlook and values, and goes something like this: ‘If we had been born where they were born, and taught what they were taught, we would believe what they believe.’ 

When examining conflict, our lack of imagination often prevents us from understanding the conditions in which people live, the pressures they are under, and the painful consequences to them of long-term conflict, which often creates a very different perspective from our own. The majority of people do not spend their lives in a landscape of violence or even cruelty. Most people live in a spirit of co-operation and collaboration; we understand and value the benefits of reciprocity and taking care of each other. These civilized societies are governed by laws, which police the darker aspects of human behaviour. These societies have devised systems of reconciliation, arbitration and co-existence. But living in conditions of endless conflict tends to erode the civilising effect of co-operative behaviour and stimulates the worst aspects of human behaviour. 

What gives mankind hope and what separates the behaviour of man from that of animals is our ability to think rationally, but in conditions of heightened tension and fear group behaviour emerges which is not based on rational calculations but instead is driven more by rigid beliefs about identity and survival. In such an environment the individual is more likely to lose the ability for independent thought and to find their distinctiveness subsumed by the power of group thought. It is in these conditions that large groups can frequently become consumed by their histories and identification with earlier traumas, which intensifies their focus on ‘their recitation of past injuries which magnifies the perception of threat and danger’.6 When the group or country cannot reverse this deep sense of powerlessness, there is an increased likelihood that the next generation will be trapped in victimhood and bound together by a traumatic identity.

Understanding this collective and individual identity becomes essential to unravelling conflict. We need to know what the national narrative is, how both the individual and the group see themselves and what could unlock the sense of victimhood. It becomes important to understand the deeply held values that bind the group together, and this involves getting into the mind of the enemy. In adversarial conditions it is difficult to do this and to understand how and why they think differently. Our natural proclivity is to distance ourselves from those with whom we are in conflict. It is counter-intuitive to want to understand their insecurities and fears when they have caused us pain. Former US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara says that one of the first lessons of war is that we must learn to empathise: ‘We must put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions.’

Robert McNamara was one of the prime architects of the Vietnamese war in which 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 American soldiers died. In his old age, he became reflective and in the iconic documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, he eloquently portrayed how the US failed in Vietnam because it did not understand the culture and the history of the Vietnamese people. Deeply influenced by the film, we decided to call this book The Fog of Peace. The title seeks to demonstrate how complex, foggy and difficult the art of peacemaking is. Without the capacity to empathise and enter into the mind of the enemy, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming the superiority of our own state of mind. We may fail to understand why groups and communities think differently from ourselves and behave in ways we find so unappealing.

This book will explore in detail why empathy matters. Empathy – which is not appeasement – is an essential component of the art of peacemaking because entering into the mind of the enemy increases the possibility of resolving conflict. This does not mean sympathy or that one even likes how these people think, act or behave, and it can cause huge discomfort for those involved. The important point is that individuals have histories and stories, which are their own and not those of others. By entering into their minds, we increase our options when resolving conflict. This book is not a manual of conflict resolution but, in writing it, what we are drawing on is our experiences of trying to understand the mind of the enemy, to better understand their narrative: what is in their heads, what has shaped their history, and how they think.

We hope the book will be received as an original contribution to the understanding of international conflict. Its concerns throughout are issues of international relations and especially conflict resolution and mediation. It is presented as a collection of vital themes and reflections that reside in a combination of psychological understanding and practical diplomatic experience. Based on long experience, deep thought, study of current and relevant literature, discussion with personal contacts and, above all, the direct experience of facing the ‘enemy’ up close and personal, The Fog of Peace addresses the importance of understanding the mindsets and psychological elements in the resolution of conflict.