Origins matter. The stories we tell about when something began are used to define it. When it comes to societies this statement would be seen by many as redundant. The United States’ use of the ‘Spirit of 1776’ to define its politics, of both the right and the left, is a good example of this. Yet, this is not unique to nations, as the deployment of ‘founding principles’ in political parties demonstrates. Despite this, it is harder to sell the idea that academic disciplines work under the same logic. After all, logical and rational thought should not be defined by emotive appeals to an origin moment or to founding principles. Yet, as human societies in the stream of time, disciplines are no more immune from the appeal of origin narratives as any other society. These stories have their uses: they pull together an otherwise disparate community spread over both space and time, and help give structure and definition to the topic in need of explanation. Origin narratives play an important role in helping us understand our world, but they are also gatekeeping devices that can unnecessarily exclude.
The attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo brings to attention, yet again, the threat of those who seek to use Islamism for violence. But our attention needs to be drawn across a wide plain of extremes. In contemporary Western society, often feeding off Islamophobia, are people with racist and neo-Nazi commitments. Some have acted violently. But many others perform their neo-Nazi and Far Right identities in simple ways: through enjoying music, by openly purchasing merchandise, through tattoos, in small groups and, above all, online. There are, then, many non-violent ways to perform a Far Right lifestyle in the contemporary West, of which the following five are probably the most important.
Last Wednesday in Geneva, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and US Secretary of State, John Kerry, took a 15-minute walk around the city during bilateral talks on Iran’s nuclear programme. Zarif was immediately condemned by Iranian hardliners for connecting with the US Secretary of State in this way. The head of Iran's paramilitary Basij force, Mohammad Reza Naghdi, was reported as saying that Zarif's walk with an ‘enemy of humanity’ violated ‘the blood of the martyrs’(1). The Iranian foreign minister is a seasoned diplomat, and he must have known that walking with Kerry would attract such condemnation at home. But he presumably reasoned that it was worth incurring the resulting opprobrium in order to deepen his personal connection with Kerry, in the expectation that this might help yield a breakthrough at the negotiating table. Is Zarif on solid ground in thinking that a stroll with Kerry might overcome some of the suspicion and distrust between the two countries that they represent? Former leaders, retired diplomats, and historians have all commented on the importance of personal relationships at the highest levels of diplomacy, but the role of these relationships and connections in building trust in adversarial contexts has not been systematically studied. My research, first begun at Aberystwyth University, and now continuing in the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) at the University of Birmingham, seeks to understand the conditions under which trust grows between leaders and elite-level decision-makers in adversarial relationships. It also investigates the potential for this kind of interpersonal trust to transform interstate relationships of enmity into ones of amity.