From Distrust to Trust in Adversarial Relationships

These blogs were written by Professor Nicholas Wheeler as part of his contribution to the ‘Saving Humans’ blog. Wheeler’s blogs showcase the development of his research from the book he published with Ken Booth in 2008, on the security dilemma, to the new book he is writing, Trusting Enemies.

The latter explores the conditions under which actors make what Wheeler calls ‘frame-breaking conciliatory’ moves. It makes the case that existing explanations of trust in the International Relations literature fail to explain how such moves become possible. Wheeler argues that what he calls ‘communicative dynamics’, especially face-to-face encounters between leaders at the highest levels of diplomacy, has been neglected in the literature as an explanation for how trust builds between enemies.

Trust as a Path to De-Escalation and Frame-Breaking in International Politics

‘There is little room for trust among states’, so wrote the Chicago based professor of International Relations, John Mearsheimer, in his 2001 opus, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Trust, Mearsheimer argued, is virtually impossible because states coexist in a condition of international anarchy (defined in the field of International Relations as the absence of a global government) that generates a perpetual competition for security. Mearsheimer contended that as a consequence of international anarchy, there is no escape from unending security competition among the most powerful states in the international system, and this despite the fact that one of his key starting assumptions is that states are motivated by the search for survival, and only seek to be secure (2001: 30). Consequently, Mearsheimer has no difficulty in explaining the current crisis over Ukraine between the United States and Russia; for him, competition might wax and wane, and there might even be temporary periods of cooperation, but security competition is inescapable between great powers in a condition of anarchy. The situation is genuinely tragic because even if states have peaceful motives, they can never be certain about other states intentions. Although his critics have often failed to pick up this crucial caveat, Mearsheimer was emphatic that his theory did not make the assumption that states necessarily have hostile motives and intentions. Indeed, as he argued, ‘all of the states in the system may be reliably benign, but it is impossible to be sure of that judgment because intentions are impossible to divine with 100 percent certainty’ (2001: 31).

Writing in our 2008 book, The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation and Trust In World Politics, Ken Booth and I agreed with Mearsheimer that international politics takes place in an existential condition of uncertainty and, as a result, actors have to make inferences about the motives and intentions of others with the military capability to do them harm. Indeed, we advance the claim that this is the defining element of the ‘security dilemma’, a foundational concept in the field of International Relations, but the definition of which remains contested. I do not have the space to open up this controversy, but interested readers can pursue it in our book. Where Booth and I fundamentally disagree with Mearsheimer is on the question of whether the existential condition of uncertainty generated by international anarchy (I will use the shorthand of the ‘security dilemma’ to describe this predicament in subsequent blogs) prevents the great powers from establishing significant levels of security cooperation.

One of the most important contributions of trust researchers in the social sciences and humanities is the claim that relations of trust and uncertainty go hand-in-hand; after all, if you had certainty, you would not need trust. The conclusion of our 2008 book – a direct riposte to Mearsheimer – was that if actors could accept uncertainty, and crucially its logical corollary vulnerability, a space opens up – even for adversaries – to build trust at the international level.

I began research in October 2009 that was aimed at exploring this contention in relation to conflicts between nuclear-armed and arming states. I was fortunate enough to receive one of 14 ‘Ideas and Beliefs’ Fellowships in the social sciences and humanities under RCUK’s Global Uncertainties Programme: Security for All in a Changing World. This project was funded by the ESRC and AHRC until September 2013. The research continues at the University of Birmingham under the auspices of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) where I am Director.

The central research question guiding the project is: how far is trust a critical causal variable in promoting the de-escalation and transformation of adversarial relationships into peaceful ones (Wheeler 2013). The key conclusion of the project is that cooperation between adversaries is possible without trust, but that any significant process of de-escalation (defined as reducing the salience of force as an instrument of interstate relations) requires increased empathy for the security interests and concerns of one’s adversary, and crucially reassuring actions (taking steps that increase the security of one’s adversary) that are based on this new empathetic awareness. At the same time, I argue that the growth of trust is a significant enabling condition if actors in an adversarial relationship are to make what (building on Roderick Kramer’s earlier formulation) I call ‘frame-breaking’ or game-changing moves. The latter concept is designed to capture situations where one or both sides act in such a way that it becomes extremely difficult for the other side to draw inferences from an opponent’s behaviour that would continue to support an ‘enemy image.’ I will explore in tomorrow’s blog how deeply entrenched such enemy images can be, and how they can seriously obstruct any process of trust building. The measure of a frame- breaking move is that it breaks down such an enemy image. The classic case of frame-breaking moves between nuclear adversaries would be Mikhail Gorbachev’s series of highly conciliatory actions in the second half of the 1980s. The highly cooperative moves that the Soviet Union made under Gorbachev’s leadership robbed the Reagan administration of its image of the Soviet Union as an enemy, and played a crucial role in paving the way out of the Cold War.

Some trust research scholars in the field of International Relations have recognized the importance of trust in leading actors to initiate frame-breaking moves, but their accounts of how trust gets built to make possible such moves have been unsatisfactory. Most theorists argue that trust develops out of initial rounds of reciprocated cooperation on lower stake issues, but this begs the question as to how adversaries move to that level of trust that gives them the confidence to make frame-breaking move(s). On this question, the existing literature has little to say.

Mearsheimer would argue that even asking this question is a corruption of thinking about international politics, and that history is littered with examples of state leaders who forgot to act on the imperatives of power politics. Mearsheimer and his fellow-travellers in the realist camp of International Relations theory are right to caution us against the dangers of misplaced trust in the high-stakes, no forgiving arena of great power politics, but it is equally important to guard against the dangers of misplaced suspicion.

Realism advises leaders to assume the worst about the intentions of others, but if we always assume the worst about the motives of others, we risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of spiralling insecurity. Mearsheimer tells the story of international politics as a structural one in which a particular logic of anarchy drives out trusting relationships. But perhaps our beliefs and values lead us astray here; changing those beliefs and values, and recognizing that trust might offer a viable path to de-escalation, as I will carry on exploring tomorrow, might enable new possibilities of building trust between enemies at the international level.

Psychological Drivers of Distrust Between Adversaries

I concluded yesterday’s blog by suggesting that perhaps our values and beliefs lead us astray when it comes to thinking about the possibilities for building trust in International politics. I want to pursue this theme today by exploring two key beliefs that promote distrust, and hence fuel security competition. By contrast with Mearsheimer’s structural approach, these beliefs reside in the individual psychology of decision-makers, and the societal narratives that constrain and enable foreign policy decision-making. The two beliefs are: (1) peaceful/defensive self images; and (2) ideological fundamentalism, and its logical corollary, a bad faith model of the adversary.

The British historian, Herbert Butterfield, was the first to capture the psychological dynamics which give rise to decision-makers holding peaceful/defensive self-images (the idea is explored in Chapter 2 of Booth and Wheeler 2008). Butterfield’s contribution was to show how governments with defensive motives failed to understand that others did not see them as they saw themselves. The following much-quoted passage reveals how he thought a spiral of fear and insecurity could develop between two actors, even when neither had malign motives towards the other:

‘For you know that you yourself mean him no harm, and that you want nothing from him save guarantees for your own safety; and it is never possible for you to realize or remember properly that since he cannot see the inside of your mind, he can never have the same assurance of your intentions that you have. As this operates on both sides the Chinese puzzle is complete in all its interlockings – and neither party sees the nature of the predicament he is in, for each only imagines that the other party is being hostile and unreasonable. It is even possible for each to feel that the other is willfully withholding the guarantees that would have enabled him to have a sense of security.’ (Butterfield 1951: 21)

Developing and elaborating Butterfield’s work, Robert Jervis in the 1970s described these psychological dynamics as the spiral model. Jervis explained this as a situation where two states (mis)perceive each other as having aggressive motives and intent when each is only acting defensively; the result is a spiral of mutual hostility that might have been avoided through a better understanding of these dynamics. As Jervis wrote, what drives the spiral is the inability of policy-makers to ‘recognize that one’s own actions could be seen as menacing and the concomitant belief that the other’s hostility can only be explained by its aggressiveness’ (1976: 75, 354 – see also 1978: 181; Booth and Wheeler 2008: 46-8; White, 1984). It is interesting to reflect how far NATO and Russian interactions over Ukraine in recent weeks are an example of the interaction between NATO and Russian peaceful/defensive self images, giving rise to spiral model dynamics. Accepting that NATO governments have no malign motives or intentions towards Russia, Butterfield and Jervis remind us that since Russian policy-makers don’t have a crystal ball that allows them to see into the minds of decision-makers in NATO states, they can never have that level of reassurance about the motives and intentions of NATO governments.

The key corrective to decision-makers operating with a peaceful/defensive self-image is increased empathy for an adversary’s security concerns and interests. The importance of empathy in statecraft was recognised by Butterfield, though he was very doubtful that decision-makers would be capable of exercising this level of empathy in conflict situations, and Jervis, who has also been sceptical that the idea of empathy could overcome the structural dynamics of anarchy. One of the key claims of Booth and Wheeler (2008) was to elevate the importance of empathy in de-escalating conflicts, and to this end, we introduced into the literature the concept of security dilemma sensibility. We defined this as: ‘an actor’s intention and capacity to perceive the motives behind, and to show responsiveness towards, the potential complexity of the military intentions of others. In particular, it refers to the ability to understand the role that fear might play in their attitudes and behaviour, including, crucially, the role that one’s own actions may play in provoking that fear’ (Booth and Wheeler 2008: 7, emphasis added). Unfortunately, the exercise of security dilemma sensibility is a rarity among decision-makers, who as a result expect an adversary to make the first move in ending any conflict.

Security competition can be generated between two states operating with peaceful/defensive self-images, but the resulting level of insecurity and distrust will be escalated still further if one, or both sides, operate with a mindset of ideological fundamentalism. The latter was defined by Booth and I as a belief that ‘assigns enemy status because of what the other is – its political identity – rather than how it actually behaves (Booth and Wheeler 2008: 65 – see also Booth 1987: 42-3; Wheeler and Booth 1987: 331). Ralph White had earlier coined the term ‘diabolical enemy image’ to capture how ideological values lead decision-makers and societies to impute malign motives and intentions to others who are seen as holding antithetical beliefs and values (1984: 133-34, 170).

Decision-makers who operate with a mindset of ideological fundamentalism will infer threatening and untrustworthy motives from the behaviour of an adversary, and they will see this as determined by inherent characteristics and values that are not changeable. Such thinking gives rise to what Ole Holsti called an ‘inherent bad faith model’ of an adversary (Holsti 1967: 26). A highly pernicious consequence of bad faith thinking is that decision-makers will believe that they face an implacable foe, with which there can be no accommodation. Arguments that a particular conflict is driven by Jervis’s spiral model and that what is needed is increased empathy for an adversary will be dismissed as wishful thinking and dangerous. Moreover, actors running this programme will view any apparent conciliatory moves on the part of an adversary as either a trick to lull them into a false sense of security, or a sign of weakness which can be exploited (Larson 1997: 22; Bennett 2003: 190-1).

Now, I am not saying that applying such a mindset to national security policy-making is always wrong, and there are cases, as with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, when it can be extremely costly to misplace empathy in an adversary as Neville Chamberlain’s government did in relation to the appeasement of Hitler. But it is also the case that if decision-makers hold peaceful/defensive self-images and operate with a mindset of ideological fundamentalism, two states with peaceful motives and intentions could find themselves in a spiralling competition of fear, insecurity, and distrust. In such situations the space for building trust is very limited, and the first step is for one side to appreciate the possibility that conflict is driven by spiral dynamics (though because of the security dilemma there can be no guarantee here). But the exercise of security dilemma sensibility has to be translated into new policies that conciliate an adversary and signal potential trustworthiness. Tomorrow, I will explore how the US social-psychologist Charles Osgood believed this process might operate through his strategy of graduated and reciprocated initiatives in tension-reduction (GRIT), and suggest that President Obama tried such a strategy in his outreach to Iran in 2009.

Building “A Spiral of Trust” through GRIT

Yesterday’s blog explored how peaceful/defensive self-images and ideological fundamentalist beliefs can generate security competition, even between states with peaceful motives and intentions. How, then, might a spiral of distrust be substituted for a ‘spiral of trust’. The latter idea was invoked by the US social-psychologist Charles Osgood in his 1962 book, An Alternative to War or Surrender. Writing nine months before the Cuban missile crisis which took the world the closest it has been to nuclear war, Osgood argued that such a virtuous spiral could be achieved if one side in an adversarial relationship broke the stalemate by making a unilateral conciliatory gesture. As I discussed yesterday, decision-makers operating with peaceful/defensive self-images always look to their opponent to make the first gesture of peace. But Osgood appreciated that if both sides in a conflict expect the other to make the first conciliatory move, then the result will be deadlock. Osgood called his strategy ‘graduated and reciprocated initiatives in tension-reduction’ (GRIT), and its great virtue is that one side recognising this predicament, seizes the initiative and acts unilaterally to break the spiral of distrust.

Although the word empathy does not figure in the book (perhaps surprisingly given his psychological background), the book can be read as a direct appeal to US political leaders, politicians, and citizens to empathise with their Soviet enemy. Osgood argued that the United States was operating with a mindset of ‘ideological fundamentalism’ (though he used the term ‘Neanderthal mentality’ to describe the US ideological stereotyping its Soviet enemy) and that this was compounded by a US peaceful/defensive self-image. Osgood warned against US policy makers projecting their own ‘self-image of peaceful intent upon others and assume that they must see us the same way we see ourselves’ (1969: 140). This fed the US image of the Soviet Union as an implacable foe because Soviet hostility could only be the result of its innate aggressiveness to US values and interests. Ethnocentric thinking of this kind operated on both sides and it served to blind the two superpowers from understanding that their enemy also had legitimate fears and interests that had to be satisfied if humanity was to avoid nuclear Armageddon (1969: 18-36).

Increased empathy, and the exercise of security dilemma sensibility (see yesterday’s blog for this idea), is the first crucial step on the road to trust building, but this has to be translated into unilateral conciliatory moves that might build trust (Wheeler 2011a, 2011b, 2013). GRIT begins when one state publicly announces that it is planning to carry out a cooperative move as a way of promoting de-escalation, and then proceeds to implement this in line with the new strategy. These moves are designed to induce reciprocation and it is part of GRIT that the announcement of a unilateral initiative(s) is coupled with an explicit invitation to reciprocate.

What makes GRIT such a potentially important approach to de-escalation and trust building is that unlike most negotiation and bargaining strategies, it is not conditioned on reciprocation. Crucially, the strategy is not pronounced a failure if the other side does not immediately reciprocate, though the ultimate test of the strategy is securing reciprocation. Osgood believed that if GRIT was continued for a long enough period of time, and the Soviet government saw itself reaping the benefits from US concessions in terms of a decrease in tensions, then Moscow would come to reciprocate US concessions. Ultimately, Osgood saw no reason why, if ‘The Neanderthal Mentality’ could be broken, the superpowers could not develop an ‘atmosphere of mutual trust’ which would not only reduce tensions and the risks of war, but increase the likelihood of successful negotiations on ‘critical political and military issues’ (1969: 88).

The importance of Osgood’s case for de-escalation was hammered home only a few months later when the United States and Soviet Union went ‘eyeball to eyeball’ (in US National Security Advisor’s Dean Rusk’s memorable phrase uttered at the height of the crisis). Set against the risks that the Cold War could lead to this apocalyptic outcome, Osgood claimed that ‘GRIT balances limited risks extended over a long time-scale against at least the hope of ultimate survival and preservation of our way of life’ (1969: 158).

Few students read about GRIT these days (I’m pleased to say that Osgood’s book has an important place on the reading list of my module, ‘Theories of Global Cooperation’ at Birmingham) which is a pity because Osgood’s work deserves a wider audience. Although some scholars have argued that Gorbachev put into practice policies of GRIT, Gorbachev actually, as I will discuss tomorrow, went even further than Osgood had recommended, with far-reaching and highly beneficial consequences for international security. That said, the opening conciliatory moves that Gorbachev made towards the United States after he took over the leadership of the Soviet Union in March 1985 could be read as a textbook example of GRIT.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for President Obama’s outreach to Iran at the beginning of his first administration. Although as far as I am aware, no administration officials talked in terms of GRIT (perhaps reflecting the lack of awareness of these ideas in the wider diplomatic community), it could be argued that the Obama administration’s initial gestures of conciliation was an example of GRIT. The President took an important symbolic step in his March 2009 Nowruz message (marking the Iranian New Year) to the people and leaders of Iran by calling it ‘The ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’. This was language that no previous US President had used, and Obama called for ‘engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.’ At the same time, the Obama administration suggested that it was open to lifting the Bush administration’s precondition that negotiations on Iran’s disputed nuclear programme could only take place if Iran suspended its uranium enrichment activities first.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded to Obama’s New Year message by saying, ‘They chant the slogan of change but no change is seen in practice.’ Khamenei viewed the US move as a propaganda gimmick designed to win Obama the moral high ground, and not as a genuine gesture of conciliation. I would argue that the Supreme Leader was operating – and continues to operate today – with what K.J. Holsti (see yesterday’s blog for this idea) called ‘an inherent bad faith model’ (1967: 26) of an adversary. Osgood was aware in relation to the Soviet Union that its most likely initial response to the US government announcing a strategy of GRIT would be to view it as ‘a Cold War trick.’ But he claimed that as each publicly announced initiative was followed by another, then the Soviet ‘bogey man conception’ or bad faith model of the United States would increasingly be at odds with US actions (1969: 104). Osgood’s lesson for Obama, then, would have been to keep pursuing low-level conciliatory initiatives that might break down the enemy image held by the Supreme Leader. But it was exactly this which Obama was unable to do. As Trita Parsi shows in his excellent book, a Single Roll of the Dice, US domestic politics and the need to reassure Israel that the United States was not caving in on the question of Iran’s uranium enrichment, made it extremely difficult for the president to continue in the way that GRIT would prescribe. The violence and crackdown following the disputed election in Iran in early June 2009 constrained Obama still further, and spelt the end of the administrations short-lived experiment with GRIT.

The perverse consequence of Obama’s experimentation with GRIT was that he and his advisers were disillusioned by the lack of Iranian reciprocation, believing that it showed that Iranian decision-makers, crucially the Supreme Leader, did not want to cooperate. This strengthened the hand of those in the administration, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who wanted to increase the diplomatic leverage against Tehran through stronger sanctions. That said, the administration did not give up pursuing avenues for de-escalation, but in the end, these failed to stem the pressures supporting a more confrontational posture. What is more, any subsequent cooperative initiatives were pursued in a multilateral context, and conditioned on Iranian reciprocation.

The case of Obama and Iran raises the question, which Osgood never satisfactorily answered, as to whether a strategy of GRIT could be legitimated in a US domestic political context, if it entailed making even limited concessions to an ideological enemy that were not immediately reciprocated. At the same time, because Osgood wanted to limit the type of concessions to those that would not jeopardise national security, the question has to be asked as to whether unilateral cooperative moves of this kind will ever be sufficient – even if repeated – to overcome the suspicion and distrust that is generated in the minds of decision-makers who adopt a ‘bad faith model’ of an adversary. Tomorrow, I will explore the possibility of building trust through what I call ‘frame-breaking moves.’ These are game changing actions, taken by one state in an adversarial relationship, that are aimed at decisively signalling its peaceful motives and intentions. Such moves, in contrast to GRIT, have the potential to convince decision-makers to jettison a previously held ‘bad faith model’ of an adversary.

‘Frame-Breaking Conciliatory Moves between Enemies’

In his 2010 book, How Enemies Become Friends, the US International Relations theorist Charles Kupchan evoked for his readers a scene from the 1990 film, The Hunt for Red October in which captain Marko Ramius (played by Sean Connery) commanding a Soviet ballistic missile submarine wants to defect with his submarine and crew to the United States. However, a US Navy Captain, Bart Mancuso, (played in the film by Scott Glenn) tracking the Soviet submarine in the USS Dallas, has orders to destroy the Soviet vessel which US political and military leaders fear could be commanded by a renegade intent on launching a nuclear attack against the United States. At a crucial moment in the underwater game of cat and mouse, the CIA agent on board the US submarine, Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), persuades Mancuso to take a gamble (it is apparent in the subsequent dialogue just how much of a gamble) on the Soviet captain’s peaceful motives and intentions. Ryan has a hunch – no more – that Ramius is intent on defection and not attack. Mancuso is highly doubtful, after all what Ryan is asking for, risks the potential destruction of the US submarine if the gamble on Ramius’s potential trustworthiness turns out to be wrong. Nevertheless, the story requires the dramatic leap of trust (this idea is discussed in Lewis and Weigert 1985: 970; Booth and Wheeler 2008: 234-237; Wheeler 2011: 160-2) that Mancuso makes when he orders that the submarine’s propeller be reversed, thereby revealing to the Soviet submariners the position of the US submarine, and exposing it to possible destruction. The Soviet captain fortunately interprets the US commander’s decision to make his vessel vulnerable as clear evidence of his peaceful intent, and reciprocates by not taking any hostile actions. A sequence of deescalation follows through a series of unilateral-reciprocated non-verbal communicative acts (using sonar, periscopes and Morse code) and this leads eventually to a face-to-face meeting aboard the Soviet vessel in which arrangements are made for the Soviet submarine and crew to defect to the United States (Kupchan 2010: 39-40; Clancy 1984).

The US captain’s decision to reverse his submarine’s propeller and expose the submarine to possible attack as a way of signalling his peaceful motives and intentions is what I have in mind by a ‘frame-breaking conciliatory’ move (I am grateful to the US trust researcher Roderick Kramer’s for suggesting this formulation to me). The comparison with Osgood’s ‘gradualist’ (the term was coined by Amitai Etzioni who developed similar, though distinctive ideas to Charles Osgood in the early 1960s and continues to apply these ideas today to contemporary challenges) approach is clear. Osgood had called for low-risk initiatives that would build trust that could then establish a platform for bolder unilateral-reciprocal moves. However, as we saw yesterday, such moves might prove too limited to convince decision-makers in an adversary state who are operating with a mindset of ideological fundamentalism and applying bad faith thinking to any conciliatory gestures by an opponent.

‘Red October’ type signalling, in contrast, promises to send a powerful signal of peaceful motives and intent that is hard to discount. Some US International Relations theorists have dubbed what I am calling ‘frame-breaking conciliatory’ moves as ‘costly signalling’. To illustrate this idea, the trust researcher Diego Gambetta wrote that, ‘No poisoner seeks to demonstrate his honesty by drinking from the poisoned chalice. Drinking from a chalice…is a reliable signal that the drink is clean’ (2009: xviii– see also Bacharach and Gambetta 2001; Möllering 2009: 143). In the International Relations context, the idea of costly signalling is used to capture the idea, in Andrew Kydd’s words, that states ‘would hesitate to send [such signals] if [they] were untrustworthy (2000: 326 – see also 2005). However, Kydd argued that there is an explicit link between the costliness of the signal – the extent to which the signal communicates peaceful motives and intent – and ‘the level of trust’ (2005: 198). What Kydd is saying here is that because costly signalling entails a level of risk which increases as the signal becomes more costly, then states should not send such signals until they have built up a corresponding level of trust. However, as I have argued elsewhere (Wheeler 2013), and am developing at greater length in my book, Trusting Enemies, which will be published in 2015, Kydd has no adequate explanation for how this level of trust can be developed.

However, in the case of Red October, Ryan – and crucially Mancuso – have almost no basis for trusting Ramius’s intentions before Ryan convinces Mancuso to send the dramatic signal. In this case, Ryan and Mancuso act as if Ramius could be trusted, and in so doing, they hope to conjure into existence the very trust that they need in order for their gamble to pay-off. This is very different from Kydd’s idea of costly signalling which presupposes a prior level of trust before the costly signal can be sent.

The Red October vignette is the stuff of fiction and Hollywood, and the question is whether it has any relevance to building trust in the contemporary world. Kupchan used the story to argue in his book that it was dramatic, frame-breaking moves of this kind that are necessary for adversaries to begin a process of diplomatic accommodation, but the cases he discussed in the second part of his book (especially the Anglo-American rapprochement in the late 19th Century) provide little evidence for this claim. More broadly, there is scant evidence that state leaders gamble in the way the captain of the USS Dallas did, and of course, in the real world, it is most likely that Mancuso would have been court-martialled (despite the positive outcome) for endangering the USS Dallas so cavalierly. Mancuso only put at risk his command, but what about leaders who have a primary responsibility for the security of their citizens? They face decisions under the security dilemma (the existential condition of uncertainty) as to whether to trust in which the costs of misplaced trust could – thinking of a nuclear context – be weighed not in the loss of one submarine, but the lives of millions of their citizens.

My point here is not to argue that ‘frame-breaking conciliatory’ moves should only be discussed in the context of novels and films; rather, it is to advance the point that examples of leaders acting as if trust existed in relations with their adversaries will be rare indeed. My best example of this would be Anwar Sadat’s courageous decision to visit Jerusalem in November 1977 and in a speech before the Knesset, publicly recognise Israel’s right to exist. This was close to being a leap of trust, though there had been prior communication between the two sides, and Sadat was working through trusted intermediaries, as well as knowing that he had US president Jimmy Carter supporting his unilateral conciliatory initiative. If it was a leap then, it was one furnished with something of a safety net, though this is not to detract from the game-changing nature of his move in visiting Israel, since it opened the door to the spectacular breakthrough that took place in Egypt-Israel relations through the US sponsored Camp David peace process.

Sadat is the outlier here, and the real challenge is to think creatively about how to build the trust that can lead the leaders in conflict situations to make frame-breaking conciliatory moves. I suggested yesterday that Osgood’s GRIT fails as a trust-building mechanism for two reasons: first, it may not be possible to domestically legitimate a strategy of making unilateral low-risk concessions if these are pocketed by an opponent without reciprocation, and second, the limited nature of the moves (to hedge against exploitation by an adversary) may be insufficient to break down a deeply embedded ‘diabolical enemy image’ (to return to Ralph White’s idea discussed in Tuesday’s blog) which dismisses GRIT type moves as tokenistic, or worse, a trap. In my final blog tomorrow, I will explore how far face-to-face encounters at the highest level of diplomacy are a critical, yet neglected mechanism for building trust between enemies, and making possible conciliatory frame-breaking moves.

‘Face-to-Face Encounters of the Diplomatic Kind’

In my blogs this week, I have explored the challenges that face decision-makers in building trust with adversaries, and shown the limitations of approaches like Osgood’s GRIT (see Wednesday’s blog) and Kupchan’s ‘Red October’ analogy (see yesterday’s blog). In my final blog today, I want to explore the proposition that I am developing at length in my new book that face-to-face encounters between leaders and top-level diplomats hold out the possibility of building trust across the enemy divide. In making this argument, I am not falling into the trap of claiming that all that is necessary for a conflict to be transformed is that enemies meet and talk as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain discovered when he met Adolf Hitler at Munich in September 1938.

Even if adversaries meet without the intention of deception, putting enemy leaders in the same room can simply have the effect of heightening their awareness of what is at stake in the conflict, how much they fear and distrust each other, and how determined they are not to make concessions. This was certainly the outcome of the disastrous summit meeting between US President John F. Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961. Neither leader was able to exercise that particular kind of empathy which I called ‘security dilemma sensibility’ (see Tuesday’s blog). Over the two days that they met, Kennedy and Khrushchev hammered away at each other on the ideological failings of the other’s political system – a textbook case of the ideological fundamentalism (see Tuesday’s blog) which blocks empathyand trust.

The research that I have conducted to date as part of my ESRC/AHRC Global Uncertainties project on ‘The Challenges to Trust-Building in Nuclear Worlds’ suggests three key conditions that are necessary for the success of face-to-face diplomacy in building trust between adversaries. First, leaders must exercise security dilemma sensibility; ideally, they will have begun the process of empathising with each other prior to their meeting, but situations might arise where the exercise of empathy develops through the encounter itself, or is deepened as a result of meeting face-to-face.

The second condition for successful face-to-face diplomacy is political risk-taking on the part of leaders. I discussed yesterday Sadat’s leap of trust in going to Jerusalem in November 1977; the Egyptian leader paid the ultimate price for this gesture of trustworthiness in that he was assassinated from within the Egyptian army four years later, and his opening to Israel played a major part in this. I am not suggesting that this is the measure of ‘political risk-taking’, but the two adversarial leaders need to be able to see that the other is serious about building trust, and a litmus test of this is how far each leader is prepared to take on new vulnerabilities as a signal of their potential trustworthiness. As Annette Baier has put it: ‘Trust is acceptance of vulnerability to harm that others could inflict, but which we judge that they will not in fact inflict’ (1995: 152). These vulnerabilities could, as in the case of Sadat, be personal life-threatening ones, but they could extend well beyond personal risks and dangers to encompass national risks and dangers. It is often argued that Khrushchev left the Vienna summit in June 1961 with the belief that the new and young US President could be pushed around, and this was one factor in the nuclear brinkmanship that the Soviet leader tried with his audacious move of deploying medium range nuclear missiles to Cuba in October 1962.

The third condition for building trust through face-to-face encounters is that both leaders and top decision-makers recognise a common interest and shared responsibility in de-escalating a conflict. Trust will never grow in a context where one side believes that they can only be secure if the other side is insecure; rather, there must be a commitment to common or mutual security. Put differently, each leader must be looking for ways to increase and not decrease the security of an adversary. Indeed, the critical test of a trusting relationship is whether an actor refrains from exploiting opportunities that might arise to make gains at the other’s expense.

In the book I am writing, I test this model of what I call ‘communicative dynamics’ in both face-to-face encounters and written communication between actors.

The best case we have of ‘face-to-face diplomacy’ (the term is Marcus Holmes’s) is the Reagan-Gorbachev one. The summits that these two leaders held at Geneva in 1985, Reykjavik in October 1986, Washington in December 1987, and Moscow in March 1988 offer a fascinating contrast to the cases of Munich in 1938 and Vienna in 1961. Taking the first element in my model, both leaders arrived for their first summit in Geneva in November 1985 with a strong disposition to exercise security dilemma sensibility (this proposition is developed in Booth and Wheeler 2008; Wheeler 2013 – see also Reynolds 2007). With regard to the second condition, both leaders embarked on the summit process knowing that there was strong domestic opposition to a rapprochement of this kind, and yet each proceeded to take the political risks to build trust. Turning to the third condition for successful face-to-face trust-building, Reagan and Gorbachev shared a common vision to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and this created an emotional bond between them – transcending their ideological divisions – which led them to act as ‘nuclear trustees’ (the term was Hedley Bull’s) for common humanity. Reagan and Gorbachev trusted each other because they came to realise through meeting face-to-face that what divided them was ultimately far less important than what united them.

I would argue that face-to-face encounters of the kind that Reagan and Gorbachev had constitute a mechanism of trust building that overcomes the limitations that I identified in relation to other approaches in earlier blogs. Nevertheless, it still remains to be shown that face-to-face trust building enables frame breaking conciliatory moves (the subject of yesterday’s blog). Gorbachev made a series of cooperative moves in 1987-88 that can only be described as frame breaking (discussed in detail in Wheeler 2013). These were costly signals (to use Andrew Kydd’s terminology from yesterday’s blog) because the Soviet Union would never have sent these signals of its potential trustworthiness had it harboured malign motives. Stated boldly, my argument is that Gorbachev felt able to make those moves in significant part because of the trust that he had developed with Reagan. I am not claiming that the frame breaking conciliatory moves that Gorbachev made as Soviet leader would not have happened in the absence of this trust; the available evidence does not permit such a strong claim.

But what has to be explained is how Gorbachev went from making GRIT (see Wednesday’s blog) type moves in the 1985-86 to the more dramatic frame breaking moves in 1987-88. According to Osgood, ratcheting up to bolder cooperative moves should only follow after reciprocation by an adversary; Gorbachev threw Osgood’s GRIT strategy out of the window when in the absence of US positive reciprocation, Gorbachev moved to the frame-breaking level. Realist scholars like Mearsheimer (see Monday’s blog) would argue that Gorbachev made these moves because the Soviet Union was on the ropes as a consequence of economic failure and US competitive arms racing. I would agree that the material pressures exerted by a declining Soviet economy were a critical enabling condition of Gorbachev actions. But this is not to say that these conciliatory frame-breaking moves would have been possible in the absence of the trusting relationship that developed between US and Soviet leaders. In short, a full explanation of the end of the Cold War requires attention to both the material and the ideational, the latter being expressed significantly in the form of the trust that developed through Reagan and Gorbachev’s face-to-face diplomacy.

Our research on the conditions under which face-to-face diplomacy succeeds is only in its infancy, and my book is only the springboard to further research in this area. One exciting area of enquiry here concerns the implication of the latest research in neuroscience for trust building between adversaries, and in particular, the work of Marcus Holmes who is exploring how far mirror neuron theory might offer an escape from the security dilemma (the existential condition of uncertainty about the motives and intentions of others with the capability to do us harm). I am leading a partnership at the University of Birmingham in conjunction with the School of Psychology to take forward this research agenda, bringing in other scholars internationally. As part of taking this research project forward, the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) in conjunction with the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) under the latter’s ‘Saving Humans’ theme, is co-hosting a workshop in June at Birmingham that will investigate theoretical issues, and explore further the case of Munich as well as evidence from the Israel-Palestine case. I look forward to reporting back on this work through the ICCS blog and other publications in due course.

Image Source: Flickr/ Aaron Brown

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