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.


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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