The Personal Chemistry of Trust in International Politics

Professor Nicholas Wheeler

In March 1970, the West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, travelled by train to meet with his East German counterpart, Willi Stoph, in the East German town of Erfurt. Brandt, the architect of the Ostpolitik policy that led to a relaxation of tensions between West Germany and East Germany, believed it was important that leaders ‘get a smell of each other’.Brandt appreciated that personal chemistry matters in international politics and if personal relationships are strong between state leaders, then it is possible to make progress on substantive issues, including, as Brandt and Stoph showed, the de-escalation of conflict between two adversaries. Brand’s intuition is a common one among leaders in adversarial relationships. President Ronald Reagan wrote in his memoir that he had come to believe that if the United States and the Soviet Union were ever ‘going to break down the barriers of mistrust that divided our countries, we had to begin by establishing a personal relationship between the leaders of the two most powerful nations on earth’ (quoted in Wheeler 2018: 1). But if state leaders recognize the potential for personal chemistry arising out of their face-to-face interactions, the discipline of International Relations (IR) has not properly theorized the conditions under which some face-to-face encounters lead to bonding of this kind, and equally importantly, why others lead to disappointment and failure.

My new book 'Trusting Enemies: Interpersonal Relationships in International Conflict' develops a theory about the conditions necessary for leaders to ‘hit it off’ in face-to-face interaction and the mutual trust that can develop out of such encounters. I define trust as the ‘expectation of no harm in contexts where betrayal is always a possibility’ (Wheeler 2018: 3). I argue that trust is an emergent and collective property of social interaction by which I mean that it is not reducible to one or both of the individuals involved in the interaction. Such an approach locates my work within the social constructivist camp of IR theory, but what is distinct about the position I take in Trusting Enemies is that I develop a new level of analysis in trust research, namely, the interpersonal dimension of social interaction (see also Holmes 2018). A focus on the interpersonal dimension of state behavior should not be confused with what I call the ‘individualistic’ approach to trust. This locates trust and trusting behaviour in individual predispositions to trust, predispositions that crucially shape the possibilities of social interaction. By contrast, a social interactionist approach to trust focuses on how expectations of trust develop as a result of a process of social interaction.

The causal mechanism that leads to the development of trust between two individuals in face-to-face interaction – including state leaders – is a process of social bonding. ‘Bonding trust’ as I call it has three key stages of development. Stage 1 is the exercise of what has been called ‘security dilemma sensibility’which is recognition on the part of two leaders how their own state’s actions have made the other fearful and insecure. The reason why Reagan’s first summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Geneva in November 1985 was successful is because both leaders had exercised security dilemma sensibility prior to their meeting.

Stage 2 in the theory of bonding trust is that both leaders have to acquire an ‘index’ of each other’s trustworthiness. Following Robert Jervis in The Logic of Images in International Relations, I define an index as ‘verbal and non-verbal behaviours that convey inherent credibility’ as to an image projected by a particular actor. I extend this approach to how actors ascertain the trustworthiness of others in face-to-face interaction, and argue that a process of social bonding can only occur if both actors believe they have acquired an index of the other. Now, as I discuss in the Conclusion to Trusting Enemies, it is possible that a leader might believe he or she has acquired an index of another leader when that leader is actually faking it. If so, the leader who is practicing deception would be in a strong position to manipulate the leader who mistakenly thinks they have acquired a credible signal of the other’s trustworthiness. This is one reading of how Hitler was able to manipulate Chamberlain at their ill-fated summit meeting at Munich in September 1938.

The exercise of security dilemma sensibility and the acquisition of an index are necessary preconditions for a process of social bonding to occur, but they do not guarantee that a social bond will form. For a social bond to develop, two further mutually reinforcing conditions have to be present. These constitute stage 3 of the theory of bonding trust and involve the activation of two key components. The first is the positive identification of interests. This refers to two leaders who see the other’s interests as their own interests, and the other’s security and well-being as their own security and well-being. The second component that leads to the development of a social bond is what I call, following others like Karin Fierke and Harmonie Toros, humanization. This refers to the process whereby two state leaders who meet face-to-face begin to see the ‘human’ in their counterpart’s attitudes and behaviour, rather than just a representative of cold state interests.

A fundamental claim of my research is that if the process of social bonding between two leaders reaches a certain point – what I call ‘identity transformation’ – the mental state of trust on the part of these leaders (but no one else) changes to what I call ‘trust as suspension’. At this point, two leaders are so secure in their trust with each other that neither calculates the risks of defection in relation to the other’s peaceful intent and integrity. Leaders who inhabit a mental space of trust as suspension share a relationship of what I call ‘bonded trust’ – a term that I owe to Justin Morris. Individuals who inhabit this mental state of trust as suspension can be disappointed, and even betrayed – the objective possibility of betrayal always exists. However, for individuals who inhabit a mental state of suspension, such dangers are not factored into the decision-making process, though this does not mean that leaders are not aware that others in the government who have not been part of the bonding process may interpret the risks and dangers very differently.

Having developed the theory of bonding trust, the second part of the book applies the theory to three case studies: the personal interactions between Reagan and Gorbachev in ending the Cold War; the face-to-face interactions between Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in reducing conflict between India and Pakistan in 1998-1999; and the interactions in 2009-10 between Barack Obama and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that failed to achieve a breakthrough in US-Iran nuclear relations.The Iran case is important because there is a complete absence of social bonding and trust between US and Iranian leaders, and this occurs at a time when there is no face-to-face interaction at the leader level. The India-Pakistan case study provides a fascinating insight into the emergence and decay of trust in the interpersonal interactions of Vajpayee and Sharif. I argue that both leaders entered a mental state of trust as suspension as a result of a process of social bonding made possible by face-to-face interaction, but this bond weakened on the part of Sharif, leading him to fail to resist pressures from the military to behave opportunistically against India. The trust that had briefly flourished between the two leaders at the Lahore summit in February 1999 was crushed a few months later when the Pakistani military conducted its covert military operation against India at Kargil.

The best case of a relationship of ‘bonded trust’ in the book, because it did not erode in the way that Vajpayee and Sharif’s did, is the trust that developed Reagan and Gorbachev as a result of their face-to-face summitry. The bonding process between Reagan and Gorbachev was evident from their first summit in Geneva in November 1985, and it deepened still further at their meeting in Iceland the following year when the two leaders came tantalizingly close to achieving a historic agreement on US-Soviet nuclear disarmament. There is no available evidence that after the Reykjavik summit, either leader was risk calculating the intent or the integrity of the other. They did fail to reach agreement on massively cutting their nuclear arsenals, but what is important here is that it was not the issue of trust between the two leaders that blocked agreement. Instead, it was Gorbachev’s fear that if he agreed to allow Reagan to test defensive systems in space, future US leaders might not be as trustworthy as he believed Reagan to be.

This point highlights a major challenge facing the theory of trust that I develop in my book, namely, the problem of how a leader who is in a relationship of trust with another leader can be assured that the other leader’s successors will not develop malign intent? This requires further research, but I argue that disarming the future uncertainty problem requires thinking about how to build a bridge from interpersonal trust to the institutionalization of trust in the form of ‘security communities’ (Deutsch et al. 1957) where the threat or use of force has become unthinkable as an instrument of national security policy. The best example we have of this type of interstate arrangement is the EU, notwithstanding the long-term implications of Brexit for the European security community.

There are two further theoretical implications that develop out of my model of bonding trust. The first is that better understanding is needed of why social bond formation and trust emergence takes place in some face-to-face encounters and not others. Put differently, why do some dyads hit it off like Reagan and Gorbachev when others end in flat encounters with personal chemistry non-existent as with Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. Yet, others like the disastrous summit between US and Soviet leaders John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev are anything but flat encounters, though the ‘emotional energy’ (Collins 2004) released in this interaction was negative and not positive. Kennedy described his summit meeting with Khrushchev to The New York Times writer James Reston as the ‘Worst thing in my life. He savaged me’. Khrushchev ‘got a smell’ of Kennedy and he sensed weakness and indecision, leading him to try his bold gambit of secretly deploying nuclear armed missiles to Cuba the following year. This highlights that leaders who use face-to-face diplomacy to better read the intentions of their adversaries, can also be read by those adversaries in turn. The resulting crisis saw the superpowers teetering perilously on the edge of the nuclear precipice. Understanding why social bonds form in some cases of face-to-face diplomacy but not others is the subject of ongoing research by Marcus Holmes and I, applying the insights of microsociology, and especially the path-breaking work of Randall Collins on interaction rituals, to interpersonal diplomatic encounters.

The second issue that needs further research is what Holmes and I call ‘fake bonding’. What happens if one leader believes a personal bond has formed between them, but the other leader is faking it?  President Trump claims that he and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un have developed “a special bond” and that, ‘I think he trusts me, and I trust him’ as a result of the personal chemistry that developed between them at the Singapore summit. The problem is that even if Trump genuinely believes he and Kim bonded at their meeting, the North Korean leader might be faking what Trump appears to believe is the personal chemistry between them. Trump’s summit meeting with Putin at Helsinki last month appears to be a replay of the Singapore playbook. Trump appears in contravention of the reports of US intelligence agencies to believe Putin’s denial that Russia was responsible for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. How far Putin is playing Trump, with the Russian leader contriving a personal bond between the two men that is fictional, remains to be seen. But the risk is that Putin is using a strategy of fake bonding to manipulate the US President into making a series of damaging concessions to his Russian counterpart. The alternative possibility is that the two leaders recognise that what unites their two countries in terms of shared global risks (nuclear risk reduction, cybersecurity, transnational terrorism etc.) is more important than what divides the United States and Russia. As a result, Trump and Putin might develop a genuine bond, leading to the emergence of interpersonal trust.

To sum up, the interpersonal dimension of diplomatic interaction – especially between state leaders - deserves greater attention as a potential source of trust building in adversarial interstate relations. Personal chemistry should not be juxtaposed to substance as though the optics of personal interactions between leaders is an epiphenomenon; instead, as Brandt and Reagan intuitively understood, building personal relationships, especially between the leaders of adversary states, opens the door to potentially game-changing diplomatic moves. Yet for trust to emerge out of a process of social bonding engendered by face-to-face interaction, leaders have to exercise security dilemma sensibility and acquire an index of the other’s trustworthiness. Trump’s instinctive recourse to personalized diplomacy to cut deals with his adversaries is unlikely to lead those adversaries to acquire an index of his trustworthiness when his personal reaching out to those leaders oscillates so unpredictability with a twitter storm of threats against them. What is needed instead, to quote a few lines from the closing paragraph of my book, are leaders ‘who . . . appreciate the promise of trust, learn to trust others who genuinely show their empathy and humanity, and respect and honour those who place their trust in them’. If this can be achieved, then the world will be in better shape to face the challenges of global security in the decades ahead. 



Nicholas J. Wheeler is Professor of International Relations and Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham. His book Trusting Enemies: Interpersonal Relationships in International Conflict was published in March 2018 with Oxford University Press.

Tags: trust, ICCS, North Korea, fake bonding, Putin, security dilemma

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