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A New Psychologically Informed Diplomacy

Deep listening to collective past traumas.

Key points

  • A new form of diplomacy based on psychological insights encourages diplomats to talk about their feelings.
  • Shared trauma can distort diplomatic interactions, undermine trust, and warp one's perception of who one is negotiating with.
  • Psychological diplomacy works alongside traditional diplomacy but helps participants observe the effects of collective trauma.
Vladymyr Vorobiov
Source: Vladymyr Vorobiov

Psychoanalysis has something valuable to offer diplomacy: the ability to listen deeply. Psychoanalyst Theodor Reik called it "listening with the third ear" to problems that lie beneath the surface of language, to things unstated, disassociated, or even unthought.

Psychoanalytically informed diplomacy reaches beyond political speeches to an unconscious agenda. It contributes psychological insights to diplomatic dialogue.

Psychoanalyst Jerry Fromm, Director of the International Dialogue Initiative (IDI), declares the “capacity to speak of feelings” is overlooked in diplomacy yet is key to all conflict resolution.

When listening to delegates in negotiation, one is liable to hear threads of a traumatic history, one bigger than the individual telling it, a trauma of big history. Such is a loss of land, war, or prestige. This is the Caliphate for Muslims, the Battle of Kosovo for Serbs, and the fall of Constantinople for Greeks.

Consider also what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century: the collapse of the Soviet empire.

New psychological insights draw a crucial connection between shared trauma and national identity. In the early 1990s, psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan and his team at the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction at the University of Virginia's Medical School conducted diplomatic work with Estonians and Russians in border towns of newly independent Estonia.

During dialogue about conflicts over citizenship and the official language, Russians began lamenting the Tartar Invasion of the 13th century, which subjected their ancestors to the yoke of the Mongols.

Historical trauma can be a pervasive impediment to peace. Leaders and their emissaries refer to it in oblique ways and, to some degree, relive parts of this history at the negotiating table. The feelings of humiliation and shame accompanying an old injury can infuse interactions in the present.

Helplessness, the primary experience of trauma, inflames the perception of present danger and is typically countered with reassertions of power, dominance, and national identity.

The task of overcoming existential anxieties and fears of annihilation constitutes the most difficult task of diplomacy. Such apprehensions are expressed in Putin’s dread of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expanding eastward, which he construes as a threat to Russia's security.

A collective memory of hurt often undercuts the basic trust required for good-faith dialogue. In the grips of traumatic memory, a leader will often resolve to recover what was lost. Revenge is seen through the veil of “justice” as the compensatory righting a grievous wrong.

This kind of political movement to restore a nation's loss is what Italians call “irredenta” or “unredeemed.” Irredentist views coincide with Putin’s attempts to reclaim “lost” territory and his restitution of the old Soviet anthem with updated lyrics.

Psychologically informed diplomacy deciphers efforts such as these to regain a nation’s narcissistic integrity. Those working in the field prick up their ears to the workings of an unconscious agenda and transfer new awareness to those responsible for diplomatic communication. They use empathy as the mode of observation, enabling one person to understand another peoples’ emotional experience from within the other's historical frame of reference.

The International Dialogue Initiative spearheads interventions that enhance reflective thinking so leaders can listen better to each other and themselves. Facilitators steward painful feelings into awareness so they may be spoken of rather than enacted through warfare and civilian slaughter. In this way, such work provides a stabilizing force between representatives of "enemy" groups and contains aggressions stirred in the wake of a victimized state.

Among IDI’s facilitators is the psychiatrist and member of the House of Lords, John Alderdice, a chief negotiator of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended most of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

New knowledge about group dynamics sheds light on how shared trauma can sabotage negotiations and sometimes portend catastrophe. Volkan described an unusual kind of criminal that uses an unconventional weapon: the memory of a people.

History is replete with leaders who wave a red cape calling up a group’s memory of loss to incite retribution and vengeance. As we know it, official diplomacy has no effective methods for dealing with this tool of mass destruction.

Understanding the psychological basis of international relations does not negate the importance of more concrete issues such as economic policy or military might. Yet it helps negotiators understand the effects of collective trauma and separate past injury from present reality. It diminishes the psychic obstacles that distort one’s experience of who one is negotiating with.

Psychologically informed dialogue works alongside traditional interest-based diplomacy to cultivate an environment for listening to and reflecting on shared trauma. When painful experiences are better acknowledged, this then prepares the groundwork for delegates to work more fruitfully together on concrete matters.

Envoys of warring groups are often far better at talking than listening, typically hearing the other party on a superficial level while preparing for their turn at the microphone. Intractable conflicts between nations and large groups frequently signal difficulties in shared mourning over loss. Yet who will hear the sorrow beneath the fury?

There is a need for deep listening in diplomacy to help heal us from history and calm intergenerational cycles of violence. Would that Putin and Zelensky know this.

As an instrument of perception, psychoanalytic listening should be part of every ambassador’s training.