‘Frame-Breaking Conciliatory Moves between Enemies’

Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler


In his 2010 book, How Enemies Become Friends, the US International Relations theorist Charles Kupchan evoked for his readers a scene from the 1990 film, The Hunt for Red October in which captain Marko Ramius (played by Sean Connery) commanding a Soviet ballistic missile submarine wants to defect with his submarine and crew to the United States. However, a US Navy Captain, Bart Mancuso, (played in the film by Scott Glenn) tracking the Soviet submarine in the USS Dallas, has orders to destroy the Soviet vessel which US political and military leaders fear could be commanded by a renegade intent on launching a nuclear attack against the United States. At a crucial moment in the underwater game of cat and mouse, the CIA agent on board the US submarine, Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), persuades Mancuso to take a gamble (it is apparent in the subsequent dialogue just how much of a gamble) on the Soviet captain’s peaceful motives and intentions. Ryan has a hunch – no more – that Ramius is intent on defection and not attack. Mancuso is highly doubtful, after all what Ryan is asking for, risks the potential destruction of the US submarine if the gamble on Ramius’s potential trustworthiness turns out to be wrong. Nevertheless, the story requires the dramatic leap of trust (this idea is discussed in Lewis and Weigert 1985: 970; Booth and Wheeler 2008: 234-237; Wheeler 2011: 160-2) that Mancuso makes when he orders that the submarine’s propeller be reversed, thereby revealing to the Soviet submariners the position of the US submarine, and exposing it to possible destruction. The Soviet captain fortunately interprets the US commander’s decision to make his vessel vulnerable as clear evidence of his peaceful intent, and reciprocates by not taking any hostile actions. A sequence of deescalation follows through a series of unilateral-reciprocated non-verbal communicative acts (using sonar, periscopes and Morse code) and this leads eventually to a face-to-face meeting aboard the Soviet vessel in which arrangements are made for the Soviet submarine and crew to defect to the United States (Kupchan 2010: 39-40; Clancy 1984).

The US captain’s decision to reverse his submarine’s propeller and expose the submarine to possible attack as a way of signalling his peaceful motives and intentions is what I have in mind by a ‘frame-breaking conciliatory’ move (I am grateful to the US trust researcher Roderick Kramer’s for suggesting this formulation to me). The comparison with Osgood’s ‘gradualist’ (the term was coined by Amitai Etzioni who developed similar, though distinctive ideas to Charles Osgood in the early 1960s and continues to apply these ideas today to contemporary challenges) approach is clear. Osgood had called for low-risk initiatives that would build trust that could then establish a platform for bolder unilateral-reciprocal moves. However, as we saw yesterday, such moves might prove too limited to convince decision-makers in an adversary state who are operating with a mindset of ideological fundamentalism and applying bad faith thinking to any conciliatory gestures by an opponent.

‘Red October’ type signalling, in contrast, promises to send a powerful signal of peaceful motives and intent that is hard to discount. Some US International Relations theorists have dubbed what I am calling ‘frame-breaking conciliatory’ moves as ‘costly signalling’. To illustrate this idea, the trust researcher Diego Gambetta wrote that, ‘No poisoner seeks to demonstrate his honesty by drinking from the poisoned chalice. Drinking from a chalice…is a reliable signal that the drink is clean’ (2009: xviii– see also Bacharach and Gambetta 2001; Möllering 2009: 143). In the International Relations context, the idea of costly signalling is used to capture the idea, in Andrew Kydd’s words, that states ‘would hesitate to send [such signals] if [they] were untrustworthy (2000: 326 – see also 2005). However, Kydd argued that there is an explicit link between the costliness of the signal – the extent to which the signal communicates peaceful motives and intent – and ‘the level of trust’ (2005: 198). What Kydd is saying here is that because costly signalling entails a level of risk which increases as the signal becomes more costly, then states should not send such signals until they have built up a corresponding level of trust. However, as I have argued elsewhere (Wheeler 2013), and am developing at greater length in my book, Trusting Enemies, which will be published in 2015, Kydd has no adequate explanation for how this level of trust can be developed.

However, in the case of Red October, Ryan – and crucially Mancuso – have almost no basis for trusting Ramius’s intentions before Ryan convinces Mancuso to send the dramatic signal. In this case, Ryan and Mancuso act as if Ramius could be trusted, and in so doing, they hope to conjure into existence the very trust that they need in order for their gamble to pay-off. This is very different from Kydd’s idea of costly signalling which presupposes a prior level of trust before the costly signal can be sent.

The Red October vignette is the stuff of fiction and Hollywood, and the question is whether it has any relevance to building trust in the contemporary world. Kupchan used the story to argue in his book that it was dramatic, frame-breaking moves of this kind that are necessary for adversaries to begin a process of diplomatic accommodation, but the cases he discussed in the second part of his book (especially the Anglo-American rapprochement in the late 19th Century) provide little evidence for this claim. More broadly, there is scant evidence that state leaders gamble in the way the captain of the USS Dallas did, and of course, in the real world, it is most likely that Mancuso would have been court-martialled (despite the positive outcome) for endangering the USS Dallas so cavalierly. Mancuso only put at risk his command, but what about leaders who have a primary responsibility for the security of their citizens? They face decisions under the security dilemma (the existential condition of uncertainty) as to whether to trust in which the costs of misplaced trust could – thinking of a nuclear context – be weighed not in the loss of one submarine, but the lives of millions of their citizens.

My point here is not to argue that ‘frame-breaking conciliatory’ moves should only be discussed in the context of novels and films; rather, it is to advance the point that examples of leaders acting as if trust existed in relations with their adversaries will be rare indeed. My best example of this would be Anwar Sadat’s courageous decision to visit Jerusalem in November 1977 and in a speech before the Knesset, publicly recognise Israel’s right to exist. This was close to being a leap of trust, though there had been prior communication between the two sides, and Sadat was working through trusted intermediaries, as well as knowing that he had US president Jimmy Carter supporting his unilateral conciliatory initiative. If it was a leap then, it was one furnished with something of a safety net, though this is not to detract from the game-changing nature of his move in visiting Israel, since it opened the door to the spectacular breakthrough that took place in Egypt-Israel relations through the US sponsored Camp David peace process.

Sadat is the outlier here, and the real challenge is to think creatively about how to build the trust that can lead the leaders in conflict situations to make frame-breaking conciliatory moves. I suggested yesterday that Osgood’s GRIT fails as a trust-building mechanism for two reasons: first, it may not be possible to domestically legitimate a strategy of making unilateral low-risk concessions if these are pocketed by an opponent without reciprocation, and second, the limited nature of the moves (to hedge against exploitation by an adversary) may be insufficient to break down a deeply embedded ‘diabolical enemy image’ (to return to Ralph White’s idea discussed in Tuesday’s blog) which dismisses GRIT type moves as tokenistic, or worse, a trap. In my final blog tomorrow, I will explore how far face-to-face encounters at the highest level of diplomacy are a critical, yet neglected mechanism for building trust between enemies, and making possible conciliatory frame-breaking moves.

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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