Archive for ‘trust’

May, 2014

‘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 

May, 2014

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

Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler

‘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.

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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.

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.

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