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The Secret to Building International Alliances

Psychology can give us great insight into what makes effective diplomacy.

Key points

  • Diplomats are subject to biases and errors just like everyone else.
  • Partisan loyalties can make it harder to change your mind, even when the evidence says you should consider alternative options.
  • Focusing on multidimensional goals rather than single outcomes can help to unblock complex negotiations.

World leaders are moving fast to position themselves for what happens next as we continue through the coronavirus pandemic. President Biden leads the U.S. in re-engaging with the world, China and Russia attempt to exert influence through offering their vaccines in less affluent nations affected by the pandemic, and the 47th G7 meeting is taking place in the United Kingdom, which is using its Presidency, “to unite leading democracies to help the world fight and then build back better from coronavirus and create a greener, more prosperous future.”

Foreign policy outreach
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Diplomatic engagement between nations to solve problems is nothing new. For centuries, diplomatic interventions have addressed political, geographic, economic, and strategic relations. As an example of diplomacy behind the scenes, in 2015, U.S. diplomats helped negotiate a reduction in Iran’s nuclear program.

In more recent years, before the complexities of 2016 and the darker arts of manipulation rose, a softer-styled foreign policy of public diplomacy focused on using multiple channels to influence foreign attitudes. The popularity of South Korean culture, for example, has boomed around the world, most visibly through BTS, a K-pop group and now the world’s biggest band. The “Korean Wave” has been successful in spreading the Republic of Korea’s language, ideas, and cultural values widely.

In 2021, with climate change, geopolitical tensions, and the pandemic still to tackle, diplomatic stakes are as high as they have ever been. What do we know about how diplomatic relationships between leaders and their governments work from a psychological point of view?

The Psychology of International Diplomacy

Political psychology is a sub-discipline interested in understanding individual motivations and behaviors in the political realm. Current research focuses on topics like how personality differences influence political behaviors and outcomes, such as the tendency to vote, trust in government, and attitudes toward civic duty. However, meaningful modern diplomacy is based on a wider core set of skills including successful communication, negotiation and conflict resolution, robust justice-based decision-making, and sound knowledge of group processes.

Political psychology can be applied by diplomats to gain better insights into the authority figures and that they need to interact with and the group processes they will be involved with. For example, according to research published in the British Journal of Political Science, a leader’s prior attitudes and beliefs influence the perception and interpretation of information. A strong sense of partisan identity has also been linked to this phenomenon of motivated reasoning, which suggests that people accept information that supports their beliefs but are more critical of information that contradicts them.

In this respect, political leaders, and indeed diplomats, are no different from the average citizen: Studies also suggest that people who are well-informed are more likely to be stubborn—a type of cognitive rigidity that is hard to shift. This is consistent with the idea that people seek information that will make it easier to reach a decision when faced with complex problems, even though there may be doubts about the veracity of the source used to confirm any pre-existing bias.

Diplomacy As a Moral Worldview?

The psychological theory of moral foundations is related to the idea that people possess consistent, gut-level morals that influence their worldview. In arguably its most unhelpful form, a belief in moral exceptionalism can lead to people with strongly-held opinions remaining unmoved by valid arguments that their opponents find convincing. An over-tight and fully-invested holding of what seem to be self-evident truths means that they may not be challenged by others, or even undergo rigorous self-examination. This can lead to lasting impasses and disjuncts as negotiations stall over seemingly irreconcilable differences.

An understanding of political psychology may also allow diplomats to build a stronger appreciation of the importance of social justice in the negotiating process. This offers an alternative approach to unconscious moral exceptionalism, but requires intense self-scrutiny and a willingness to put immediate goals aside to achieve results that contribute to a bigger picture of global cooperation. When the result of negotiations is seen as imperfect but just, the involved parties respond positively and can move forward.

Insights Into Biases

In negotiations, multiple parties seek to resolve incompatible goals through a process of compromise. Cognitive psychology contributes to our understanding of biases, emotions, and motivations that can influence the success of any arbitration. International negotiations and diplomatic relations can go well if participants are open to the idea of multidimensional outcomes, rather than focusing on a single goal, and have attuned sensitivity to cultural differences.

In today’s geopolitical landscape and tensions, where multilateral cooperation has taken a backseat compared with recent decades, understanding cultural sensitivities and where they fit into the geopolitical landscape can provide valuable insight toward the complex issues that will shape our world in the future.

The best way to lower tensions and promote prosperity remains through dialogue.


Baekgaard, M., Christensen, J., Dahlmann, C., Mathiasen, A., & Petersen, N. (2019). The Role of Evidence in Politics: Motivated Reasoning and Persuasion among Politicians. British Journal of Political Science, 49(3), 1117-1140.