Building “A Spiral of Trust” through GRIT

Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler


Yesterday’s blog explored how peaceful/defensive self-images and ideological fundamentalist beliefs can generate security competition, even between states with peaceful motives and intentions. How, then, might a spiral of distrust be substituted for a ‘spiral of trust’. The latter idea was invoked by the US social-psychologist Charles Osgood in his 1962 book, An Alternative to War or Surrender. Writing nine months before the Cuban missile crisis which took the world the closest it has been to nuclear war, Osgood argued that such a virtuous spiral could be achieved if one side in an adversarial relationship broke the stalemate by making a unilateral conciliatory gesture. As I discussed yesterday, decision-makers operating with peaceful/defensive self-images always look to their opponent to make the first gesture of peace. But Osgood appreciated that if both sides in a conflict expect the other to make the first conciliatory move, then the result will be deadlock. Osgood called his strategy ‘graduated and reciprocated initiatives in tension-reduction’ (GRIT), and its great virtue is that one side recognising this predicament, seizes the initiative and acts unilaterally to break the spiral of distrust.

Although the word empathy does not figure in the book (perhaps surprisingly given his psychological background), the book can be read as a direct appeal to US political leaders, politicians, and citizens to empathise with their Soviet enemy. Osgood argued that the United States was operating with a mindset of ‘ideological fundamentalism’ (though he used the term ‘Neanderthal mentality’ to describe the US ideological stereotyping its Soviet enemy) and that this was compounded by a US peaceful/defensive self-image. Osgood warned against US policy makers projecting their own ‘self-image of peaceful intent upon others and assume that they must see us the same way we see ourselves’ (1969: 140). This fed the US image of the Soviet Union as an implacable foe because Soviet hostility could only be the result of its innate aggressiveness to US values and interests. Ethnocentric thinking of this kind operated on both sides and it served to blind the two superpowers from understanding that their enemy also had legitimate fears and interests that had to be satisfied if humanity was to avoid nuclear Armageddon (1969: 18-36).

Increased empathy, and the exercise of security dilemma sensibility (see yesterday’s blog for this idea), is the first crucial step on the road to trust building, but this has to be translated into unilateral conciliatory moves that might build trust (Wheeler 2011a, 2011b, 2013). GRIT begins when one state publicly announces that it is planning to carry out a cooperative move as a way of promoting de-escalation, and then proceeds to implement this in line with the new strategy. These moves are designed to induce reciprocation and it is part of GRIT that the announcement of a unilateral initiative(s) is coupled with an explicit invitation to reciprocate.

What makes GRIT such a potentially important approach to de-escalation and trust building is that unlike most negotiation and bargaining strategies, it is not conditioned on reciprocation. Crucially, the strategy is not pronounced a failure if the other side does not immediately reciprocate, though the ultimate test of the strategy is securing reciprocation. Osgood believed that if GRIT was continued for a long enough period of time, and the Soviet government saw itself reaping the benefits from US concessions in terms of a decrease in tensions, then Moscow would come to reciprocate US concessions. Ultimately, Osgood saw no reason why, if ‘The Neanderthal Mentality’ could be broken, the superpowers could not develop an ‘atmosphere of mutual trust’ which would not only reduce tensions and the risks of war, but increase the likelihood of successful negotiations on ‘critical political and military issues’ (1969: 88).

The importance of Osgood’s case for de-escalation was hammered home only a few months later when the United States and Soviet Union went ‘eyeball to eyeball’ (in US National Security Advisor’s Dean Rusk’s memorable phrase uttered at the height of the crisis). Set against the risks that the Cold War could lead to this apocalyptic outcome, Osgood claimed that ‘GRIT balances limited risks extended over a long time-scale against at least the hope of ultimate survival and preservation of our way of life’ (1969: 158).

Few students read about GRIT these days (I’m pleased to say that Osgood’s book has an important place on the reading list of my module, ‘Theories of Global Cooperation’ at Birmingham) which is a pity because Osgood’s work deserves a wider audience. Although some scholars have argued that Gorbachev put into practice policies of GRIT, Gorbachev actually, as I will discuss tomorrow, went even further than Osgood had recommended, with far-reaching and highly beneficial consequences for international security. That said, the opening conciliatory moves that Gorbachev made towards the United States after he took over the leadership of the Soviet Union in March 1985 could be read as a textbook example of GRIT.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for President Obama’s outreach to Iran at the beginning of his first administration. Although as far as I am aware, no administration officials talked in terms of GRIT (perhaps reflecting the lack of awareness of these ideas in the wider diplomatic community), it could be argued that the Obama administration’s initial gestures of conciliation was an example of GRIT. The President took an important symbolic step in his March 2009 Nowruz message (marking the Iranian New Year) to the people and leaders of Iran by calling it ‘The ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’. This was language that no previous US President had used, and Obama called for ‘engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.’ At the same time, the Obama administration suggested that it was open to lifting the Bush administration’s precondition that negotiations on Iran’s disputed nuclear programme could only take place if Iran suspended its uranium enrichment activities first.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded to Obama’s New Year message by saying, ‘They chant the slogan of change but no change is seen in practice.’ Khamenei viewed the US move as a propaganda gimmick designed to win Obama the moral high ground, and not as a genuine gesture of conciliation. I would argue that the Supreme Leader was operating – and continues to operate today – with what K.J. Holsti (see yesterday’s blog for this idea) called ‘an inherent bad faith model’ (1967: 26) of an adversary. Osgood was aware in relation to the Soviet Union that its most likely initial response to the US government announcing a strategy of GRIT would be to view it as ‘a Cold War trick.’ But he claimed that as each publicly announced initiative was followed by another, then the Soviet ‘bogey man conception’ or bad faith model of the United States would increasingly be at odds with US actions (1969: 104). Osgood’s lesson for Obama, then, would have been to keep pursuing low-level conciliatory initiatives that might break down the enemy image held by the Supreme Leader. But it was exactly this which Obama was unable to do. As Trita Parsi shows in his excellent book, a Single Roll of the Dice, US domestic politics and the need to reassure Israel that the United States was not caving in on the question of Iran’s uranium enrichment, made it extremely difficult for the president to continue in the way that GRIT would prescribe. The violence and crackdown following the disputed election in Iran in early June 2009 constrained Obama still further, and spelt the end of the administrations short-lived experiment with GRIT.

The perverse consequence of Obama’s experimentation with GRIT was that he and his advisers were disillusioned by the lack of Iranian reciprocation, believing that it showed that Iranian decision-makers, crucially the Supreme Leader, did not want to cooperate. This strengthened the hand of those in the administration, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who wanted to increase the diplomatic leverage against Tehran through stronger sanctions. That said, the administration did not give up pursuing avenues for de-escalation, but in the end, these failed to stem the pressures supporting a more confrontational posture. What is more, any subsequent cooperative initiatives were pursued in a multilateral context, and conditioned on Iranian reciprocation.

The case of Obama and Iran raises the question, which Osgood never satisfactorily answered, as to whether a strategy of GRIT could be legitimated in a US domestic political context, if it entailed making even limited concessions to an ideological enemy that were not immediately reciprocated. At the same time, because Osgood wanted to limit the type of concessions to those that would not jeopardise national security, the question has to be asked as to whether unilateral cooperative moves of this kind will ever be sufficient – even if repeated – to overcome the suspicion and distrust that is generated in the minds of decision-makers who adopt a ‘bad faith model’ of an adversary. Tomorrow, I will explore the possibility of building trust through what I call ‘frame-breaking moves.’ These are game changing actions, taken by one state in an adversarial relationship, that are aimed at decisively signalling its peaceful motives and intentions. Such moves, in contrast to GRIT, have the potential to convince decision-makers to jettison a previously held ‘bad faith model’ of an adversary.

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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