“Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy, but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.” – Sun Tzu
Understanding the psychology of rival states and allies is crucial for foreign relations and strategic defense and their motivation for geopolitical interactions. The psychological analysis begins with cultural and sociological elements, such as norms and ethnic or religious diversity, that direct a state’s domestic and foreign policies and explains why it partners with one nation and is hostile to another. Another critical component is the psychological analysis of its key leaders and decision-makers, dramatically impacting a state’s internal and external policies (Hymans 2010). Examples of this are the contrasting foreign policies between former Presidents Trump and Obama because of their psychological profiles or the irrational behavior of Uganda’s Idi Amin or Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe that caused a tremendous amount of instability in their respective regions.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union ending the Cold War also indicated a psychological shift of the populace, government, and individual leaders. East German security forces no longer saw the need to defend a checkpoint with deadly force from a gathering of college kids, and the Wall came down. Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost policies also demonstrated an institutional and psychological shift in the Soviet Union and its leadership that contributed to its collapse and reformation into the democratic Russian Federation (Snyder 2005). There were, of course, other factors, such as a ruinous economy, the abysmal government response to the Chernobyl disaster, and the defeat in Afghanistan that also aided in a psychological shift within the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
Cognitive and perceptual biases play a huge role in the psychology of foreign relations and IR and Just War Theories regarding how states interact with one another. A lack of understanding of local cultures and societal norms has on many occasions led to increased or prolonged conflicts or instigated ethnic strive internally. A particular group may believe they are obligated to act with hostility towards another specific group because that is the way things have always been and serves as Jus ad Bellum – justification for war – even if it defies logic or conventional reasoning (Mercer 2005). Examples of this have been commonplace throughout the Global War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan and other current regional counterterrorism operational areas.
In closing, understanding the psychology of a state is instrumental in more effectively engaging in diplomacy and anticipating an adversary’s actions. Quality psychological analysis of a state and its leaders can help decision-makers avoid confirmation bias due to their own cognitive and perceptual biases and significantly improve their ability to prevent, protect against, and mitigate the enemy activity. Notable failures include the invasion of the Sinai by the Egyptian Army in 1973, the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963 (Jervis 2017).
There are, of course, always variables, like the psychological condition of a state’s leadership or policymakers, that can dramatically impact how it will react to specific internal and external stimuli. But, again, a good analysis will reduce the level of uncertainty and unpredictability of its actions to outside observers (Erisen 2012). This awareness will be critical as tensions rise on the Ukrainian border and between China and Taiwan.
Erisen, Elif. 2012. “An Introduction to Political Psychology for International Relations Scholars.” Perceptions 17 (3) (Autumn): 9-28.
Hymans, Jacques E. C. 2010. “The Arrival of Psychological Constructivism: A Journal of International Politics, Law and Philosophy A Journal of International Politics, Law and Philosophy.” International Theory 2 (3) (11): 461-467.
Jervis, Robert. 2017. “Perception and Level of Analysis.” In Perception and Misperception in International Politics, 13-31. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.
Mercer, Jonathan. 2005. “Rationality and Psychology in International Politics.” International Organization 59, no. 1: 77-106.
Snyder, Robert S. 2005. “Bridging the Realist/Constructivist Divide: The Case of the Counterrevolution in Soviet Foreign Policy at the End of the Cold War.” Foreign Policy Analysis 1, no. 1, 55-71.
Ben Varlese is a former U.S. Army Mountain Infantry Platoon Sergeant and served in domestic and overseas roles from 2001-2018, including, from 2003-2005, as a sniper section leader. Besides his military service, Ben worked on the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq’s protective security detail in various roles, and since 2018, he has also provided security consulting services for public and private sectors, including tactical training, physical and information security, executive protection, protective intelligence, risk management, insider threat mitigation, and anti-terrorism. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, a graduate certificate in Cyber Security from Colorado State University and is currently in his second year of AMU’s Doctorate of Global Security program.
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