The Empathic Foundations of Security Dilemma De‐escalation

Joshua Baker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
154 Downloads (Pure)


Security dilemma theorists have long recognized the importance of empathy to the de‐escalation of conflict between actors caught in security dilemma dynamics, but they have left empathy undertheorized and have neglected to recognize its deeply contested nature. This article responds to this omission by bringing multidisciplinary literature on empathy to bear on security dilemma thinking. Contrary to some contemporary empathy research that draws attention to its automatic, unconscious, and intuitive properties, the article highlights the deliberate, effortful, and reflexive capacity to empathize across complex social contexts such as security dilemma dynamics. It shows how empathy of this kind can lead actors to moderate their positions on key issues at the heart of a conflict, reinterpret their interests, and broaden the zone of possible agreement between themselves and an adversary. The article demonstrates these notions empirically by locating empathy within the de‐escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran between 2009 and 2016. Drawing on primary interview material with former U.S. officials, the argument is made that the development of specific empathic capacities by key U.S. officials played an important and unrecognized role in the de‐escalation of security dilemma dynamics between the United States and Iran.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1251-1266
Number of pages16
JournalPolitical Psychology
Issue number6
Early online date20 Sept 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2019


  • U.S.-Iran
  • de-escalation
  • empathy
  • security dilemma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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