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

Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler

Reagan_and_Gorbachev_hold_discussions

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.

Nicholas J. Wheeler is Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and International Studies, and Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham.

Follow Professor Wheeler on Twitter: @WheelerICCS

Click here for further information on the work of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) at the University of Birmingham.

Further useful links:

Investigating diplomatic transformations

The force of Face-to-face diplomacy

International Politics at the Brain’s edge

The Neuroscience of Diplomacy

Summits 

Vienna 1961: when Cold War tensions came to the boil

What’s the context? 30 September 1938: The Munich Agreement 

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