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.