Psychological Drivers of Distrust Between Adversaries

Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler

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I concluded yesterday’s blog by suggesting that perhaps our values and beliefs lead us astray when it comes to thinking about the possibilities for building trust in International politics. I want to pursue this theme today by exploring two key beliefs that promote distrust, and hence fuel security competition. By contrast with Mearsheimer’s structural approach, these beliefs reside in the individual psychology of decision-makers, and the societal narratives that constrain and enable foreign policy decision-making. The two beliefs are: (1) peaceful/defensive self images; and (2) ideological fundamentalism, and its logical corollary, a bad faith model of the adversary.

The British historian, Herbert Butterfield, was the first to capture the psychological dynamics which give rise to decision-makers holding peaceful/defensive self-images (the idea is explored in Chapter 2 of Booth and Wheeler 2008). Butterfield’s contribution was to show how governments with defensive motives failed to understand that others did not see them as they saw themselves. The following much-quoted passage reveals how he thought a spiral of fear and insecurity could develop between two actors, even when neither had malign motives towards the other:

‘For you know that you yourself mean him no harm, and that you want nothing from him save guarantees for your own safety; and it  is never possible for you to realize or remember properly that since he cannot see the inside of your mind, he can never have the same assurance of your intentions that you have. As this operates on both sides the Chinese puzzle is complete in all its interlockings – and neither party sees the nature of the predicament he is in, for each only imagines that the other party is being hostile and unreasonable. It is even possible for each to feel that the other is willfully withholding the guarantees that would have enabled him to have a sense of security.’ (Butterfield 1951: 21)

Developing and elaborating Butterfield’s work, Robert Jervis in the 1970s described these psychological dynamics as the spiral model. Jervis explained this as a situation where two states (mis)perceive each other as having aggressive motives and intent when each is only acting defensively; the result is a spiral of mutual hostility that might have been avoided through a better understanding of these dynamics. As Jervis wrote, what drives the spiral is the inability of policy-makers to ‘recognize that one’s own actions could be seen as menacing and the concomitant belief that the other’s hostility can only be explained by its aggressiveness’ (1976: 75, 354 – see also 1978: 181; Booth and Wheeler 2008: 46-8; White, 1984). It is interesting to reflect how far NATO and Russian interactions over Ukraine in recent weeks are an example of the interaction between NATO and Russian peaceful/defensive self images, giving rise to spiral model dynamics. Accepting that NATO governments have no malign motives or intentions towards Russia, Butterfield and Jervis remind us that since Russian policy-makers don’t have a crystal ball that allows them to see into the minds of decision-makers in NATO states, they can never have that level of reassurance about the motives and intentions of NATO governments.

The key corrective to decision-makers operating with a peaceful/defensive self-image is increased empathy for an adversary’s security concerns and interests. The importance of empathy in statecraft was recognised by Butterfield, though he was very doubtful that decision-makers would be capable of exercising this level of empathy in conflict situations, and Jervis, who has also been sceptical that the idea of empathy could overcome the structural dynamics of anarchy. One of the key claims of Booth and Wheeler (2008) was to elevate the importance of empathy in de-escalating conflicts, and to this end, we introduced into the literature the concept of security dilemma sensibility. We defined this as: ‘an actor’s intention and capacity to perceive the motives behind, and to show responsiveness towards, the potential complexity of the military intentions of others. In particular, it refers to the ability to understand the role that fear might play in their attitudes and behaviour, including, crucially, the role that one’s own actions may play in provoking that fear’ (Booth and Wheeler 2008: 7, emphasis added). Unfortunately, the exercise of security dilemma sensibility is a rarity among decision-makers, who as a result expect an adversary to make the first move in ending any conflict.

Security competition can be generated between two states operating with peaceful/defensive self-images, but the resulting level of insecurity and distrust will be escalated still further if one, or both sides, operate with a mindset of ideological fundamentalism. The latter was defined by Booth and I as a belief that ‘assigns enemy status because of what the other is – its political identity – rather than how it actually behaves (Booth and Wheeler 2008: 65 – see also Booth 1987: 42-3; Wheeler and Booth 1987: 331). Ralph White had earlier coined the term ‘diabolical enemy image’ to capture how ideological values lead decision-makers and societies to impute malign motives and intentions to others who are seen as holding antithetical beliefs and values (1984: 133-34, 170).

Decision-makers who operate with a mindset of ideological fundamentalism will infer threatening and untrustworthy motives from the behaviour of an adversary, and they will see this as determined by inherent characteristics and values that are not changeable. Such thinking gives rise to what Ole Holsti called an ‘inherent bad faith model’ of an adversary (Holsti 1967: 26). A highly pernicious consequence of bad faith thinking is that decision-makers will believe that they face an implacable foe, with which there can be no accommodation. Arguments that a particular conflict is driven by Jervis’s spiral model and that what is needed is increased empathy for an adversary will be dismissed as wishful thinking and dangerous. Moreover, actors running this programme will view any apparent conciliatory moves on the part of an adversary as either a trick to lull them into a false sense of security, or a sign of weakness which can be exploited (Larson 1997: 22; Bennett 2003: 190-1).

Now, I am not saying that applying such a mindset to national security policy-making is always wrong, and there are cases, as with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, when it can be extremely costly to misplace empathy in an adversary as Neville Chamberlain’s government did in relation to the appeasement of Hitler. But it is also the case that if decision-makers hold peaceful/defensive self-images and operate with a mindset of ideological fundamentalism, two states with peaceful motives and intentions could find themselves in a spiralling competition of fear, insecurity, and distrust. In such situations the space for building trust is very limited, and the first step is for one side to appreciate the possibility that conflict is driven by spiral dynamics (though because of the security dilemma there can be no guarantee here). But the exercise of security dilemma sensibility has to be translated into new policies that conciliate an adversary and signal potential trustworthiness. Tomorrow, I will explore how the US social-psychologist Charles Osgood believed this process might operate through his strategy of graduated and reciprocated initiatives in tension-reduction (GRIT), and suggest that President Obama tried such a strategy in his outreach to Iran in 2009.

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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