June, 2014

Consultation, Respect, and Inclusivity: DIY Democracy in Turkey

Dr Christalla Yakinthou

Protest in Tunisia

Last week marked the first-year anniversary of the Gezi Park protests in Turkey. The following piece reflects on the protests and their meaning.

The 2013 uprisings in Turkey took the world by surprise, and both the themes of the protests and the state’s response has punctured international ability to point to the Turkish model as the flagbearer of democracy in the Arab world. Over the course of the protests, the response of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his government has been consistently heavy-handed, using both police force and a divide-and-conquor political strategy by mining old divisions between disparate groups that had unified during the protests. At the same time, Erdogan’s international credibility and local respectability has been seriously damaged by his (and police) responses to both the ongoing protests and events like the recent mine tragedy in Soma. Events like the mine fire, which killed 301 people, have fed into the ongoing protests around the country.

As the protests continue to spark around events like Soma, they highlight a change in the way democracy is lived and performed, about communication across formerly deep divides, about community engagement with the state, and about the impact on national politics.

As with other recent social change movements, the Turkish protests began small but grew quickly. On 28 May, a small group of mostly locals to Taksim square in central Istanbul set up on site to protest an AKP government decision to build a shopping centre over a small public park; one of the few remaining green spaces in the city centre. The protesters received little media attention until police moved into the park, trying to disperse them by firing tear gas and water cannons directly into the group, and later setting fire to their tents. From there, the disproportionate use of police power and the government’s continued cavalier attitude to the issues being raised sparked broader protests first across Istanbul and then the rest of the country, including all the major cities.

The protests traverse not just Turkey’s geographical landscape but also the socio-economic and ideological: pulling onto its page people from across the entire spectrum of political and social divisions. This is unique.

The protests have been remarkable for two primary reasons. First, they have given the Turkish public its voice.

The AKP’s approach to decision-making over the past ten years and particularly over the course of its third term in office has left many groups sidelined and disgruntled. The protests have become a lightning rod for calls for change that centre on three main themes: respect, inclusivity, and consultation. In that regard, people comparing the Turkish uprisings to the Arab spring are not entirely correct. This is not a protest to overthrow a dictatorship, or a ‘Turkish spring’, but a warning shot to the AKP to take heed of the interests, demands, and expectations of those who don’t form the party’s core constituency.

Every day I’m Çapuling’.

 The protests have in part been about taking the power back, and opening up alternative pathways for expressing opinions and demands in a context in which official avenues are no longer viable. Moreover, they have pulled in the so-called ‘apolitical youth’ who had no previous experience with activism; surveys point out that the average age of the protesters is 28. The original Gezi Park protest, and the broader country-wide demonstrations have emphasized Erdogan’s perceived lack of respect for the broad swaths of the Turkish public affiliated with the protests. This was captured early when in a now-famous statement, Erdogan dismissively called the demonstrators ‘çapulcu’ – looters and miscreants. This phrase was immediately usurped across the country and the world by people who wished to show solidarity. A music video was quickly created and You Tubed called ‘Every Day I’m Chapulling’, with the protests as a backdrop, to the tune of LMFAO’s Every Day I’m Shuffling, on Facebook sites people continue to include the word ‘çapulcu’ in their name, and Urban Dictionary now includes a definition of ‘chapulling’ as “resistance to force, demand justice, seek one’s right.”

‘Don’t ride over us and don’t play us against each other’.

Many of the messages to the Turkish government have focused on limitations on freedom of speech, the deep widespread fear of speaking against the government, and the lack of consultation in large-scale development and redevelopment projects including last year’s announcement of a new airport in Istanbul, the Istanbul canal project, the naming of a third major bridge across the city after a sultan who massacred a portion of the Turkish population, various shopping and residential projects, bans on the sale of alcohol after 10 pm, and the increasing Islamicisation of public spaces. These have been perceived as efforts to micromanage people’s lifestyles, and dictate cultural patterns.

A pre-existing history of excessive use of violence by the police, and Erdogan’s dismissive and at times threatening choice of language to respond to the protesters have reinforced their claims and appears to have strengthened their resolve to work together. In addition, the mainstream Turkish media’s complete lack of coverage of the issue, the blocking of Turkish Facebook and YouTube, and Erdogan’s comment slating the use of twitter by protesters, have contrasted sharply with heavy international attention to the protests, and have underlined the calls for respect, consultation, and dialogue. Interestingly, social media sites, which have been a main form of communication, were also used in the early days of the protests to shoot warnings to political parties that the public was sick of political manipulation and divisions.

Second, the uprisings are deeply unusual for Turkey.

While the clashes have been violent in places, and the state has been criticized by organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for its excessive use of force, the protests have also been characterized by celebration, humour, joyfulness, and cooperation between groups of people who would otherwise not cooperate. A recent commentary piece by Ozan Varol titled ‘How Turks Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Tear Gas’ captures the protests’ overwhelming response to violence with humour.

‘Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance’.

There have been remarkable scenes of solidarity and cooperation. Protests in Turkey are usually large affairs, organized by trade unions or political parties, and divided clearly down one of the country’s many deep politico-religious fault lines. Protesters will be left-wing or right, pro-Ataturk and fiercely secular or religious and conservative, Kurdish or nationalist, supporters of one football team or another. By contrast, these events have marked the very first time in Turkish political history that all the above groups, as well as the LGBT communities and the to-date entirely apolitical have stood side by side in the same space, and also given space to each other’s concerns. In other words, the last year has seen a maturation of concepts of democratic inclusiveness in Turkey that is by far one of the country’s most important markers of change.

‘DIY democracy’, and a lesson in empathy.

The protests have evolved into one of Turkey’s first real experiments with direct democracy (especially for the youth), springboarding into series of spontaneous dialogues between the different ideological communities, and into the creation of people’s forums. In Istanbul alone, 40 city forums ran in parks across the city, with anywhere between 100 and 2000 people regularly in attendance. What this frames, as Ayça Çubukçu has pointed out, is people’s desire to reorganize their political lives; for more autonomy outside of the established political structures through which the relationship between people and politics is normally conducted.

In addition, Erdogan and the state’s actions have changed people’s perception of how issues are ‘delivered’ to them. People have begun to see that alternative truths to the government’s are possible. Widespread direct experience with police violence, a first for most protesters, has collapsed the gap between groups that have historically suffered at the hands of the state and military, and those who were formerly hostile or indifferent to their struggles.

Questions surround how the protests might affect the process for redrafting the constitution as well as peace negotiations with the PKK, and especially around whether Erdogan will try to sure up his nationalist support by resuming hardline tactics on the Kurdish issue.

The tension between the government and the people is increasing, especially through sometimes overt but mainly subtle clampdowns on social media, corporate bodies, and universities. The government’s neoconservative position regarding privatization and industry development will also be open to criticism in a way it previously was not. There may also be more self-consciousness internally that the Turkish economic miracle came at the expense of people’s, and particularly workers’, rights.

It has been a year now, and people’s responses to events like Soma show that the Gezi spirit is not gone. Looking forward, questions sit around whether the experiments with direct democracy will develop into a less ideologically-pillared, and deeper democratic engagement. Forums like those occurring throughout the country are still evolving, and their power to create lasting change is difficult to guess.

June, 2014

The concept and realities of post-revolution reform in Tunisia.

Dr Christalla Yakinthou

Tunisian society has been engaging with both the concept and realities of post-revolution reform for the last three years. As last week’s attack at the Tunisian minister of interior’s house shows, the process has been hard going.

The transformation of an entire country where there are multiple pressing priorities is an extraordinary project. Extending far beyond traditional transitional justice profiles, everything is on the table: security sector reform, the justice system, the structures of state, the relationship between religion and politics, the role of citizens in the media, the distribution of the country’s wealth and economic and social justice, gender and patriarchies and institutionalized (and non-) power dynamics. All at the same time. And with varying and contested levels of legitimacy and urgency.

In December 2010, Tunisian grocery seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest what he and his family said was unabated harassment and humiliation by police. His action came out of a broader context of economic desperation, and sparked country-wide demonstrations against political repression and massive economic disparity, which led to the rapid flight of its president, Europe’s darling dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to Saudi Arabia where he remains.

The Tunisian revolution is the primary catalyst for what is now known as the Arab Spring; setting off a chain of events that includes revolution in Egypt, Yemen and Libya, civil war in Syria and its subsequent spillover into Lebanon, and massive protests and consequent police and military crackdowns in Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Algeria, and Sudan. Some commentators consider the Arab Spring inspiration for protests in Spain, Greece, and parts of the US; it has certainly had a global impact on many fronts, not least of which how we think about the power of people to create change in their societies, as well as the vast and reciprocal support networks that exist across activist circles globally that have not only acted as demonstrations of solidarity, but also as tools for amplifying and sharpening the voices of protestors.

Tunisians have created a situation that is the envy of activists the world over: the leveling of old structures of power and the chance to recreate their country anew. In Tunisia, that discussion is taking place not just in the constitutional committees and between political parties, where a new constitution and subsequent transitional justice law have recently been passed, but also on the streets, online, in the expanding civil society sector, and within institutions that were formerly vehicles of the Ben Ali regime.

This revolution’s vanguard, and its watchdog, has been civil society and internet activists, and critical voices especially linked to independent media online. Where mainstream media is silent and owned by a shrinking group of key political actors, bloggers online have been forcing issues into public consciousness continuously.

It is fitting, then, that the one institution that has undergone constant and steady reform to general widespread satisfaction is internet governance. The Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) was the former regime’s sole internet service provider and the body which was the technical arm of the regime’s practice of surveillance and censorship of its citizens. Internet governance has shifted considerably since the fall of Ben Ali, and the ATI’s approach to reform has been inclusive, creative, and almost entirely under the radar of the transitional justice process.




May, 2014

The Risks of #BringBackOurGirls

Dr Scott Wisor

Two years ago, the #Kony2012 campaign was launched by the activist group Invisible Children, and the accompanying video quickly became the most watched in the history of youtube. The campaign aimed to make the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army ‘famous’, so that his crimes would be known and governments would be pressured to capture him, ending the LRA’s reign of terror in Central Africa. Despite the initial popularity of the campaign, it was widely derided by activists and academics, especially from Uganda. Among other complaints, the campaign was factually inaccurate, completely detached from the actual social and political context, focused on one particular strategy (military intervention) to the exclusion of a more comprehensive approach to peacebuilding and development, and it overrode the priorities of local civil society groups.

A number of commentators have discussed the similarities and differences between #Kony2012 and #BringBackOurGirls. Unlike #Kony2012, #BringBackOurGirls was started by local activists, and is at least somewhat consistent with their goals—namely, to pressure the Nigerian government to secure the release of the kidnapped girls.

Nonetheless, there are still risks that the campaign will prove counterproductive. First, local activists may lose control of the campaign’s message, especially with regard to policy requests that are being made of governments.

Second, the immediate reaction of many public officials has been to call for Western military intervention. It is hard to think of a greater recruiting tool for Boko Haram than a Western military presence in Nigeria. And if US troops were deployed, and some injured or killed, would they be drawn into further conflict? Might the risk of foreign intervention jeopardize negotiations for the girls’ release?

Third, many people embracing the campaign are entirely unaware of the context in which these kidnappings have occurred. Perhaps there was no more blatant dismissal of the national level political and economic dynamics in which Boko Haram has arisen than when Senator John McCain, never one to turn down an opportunity for military intervention, proclaimed that he would send in troops to rescue the girls “in a New York minute”, without the permission “of some guy named Goodluck Jonathan”. That some guy, President of Nigeria, Africa’s second largest economy, is precisely the person Nigerian activists are pushing to secure the release of the kidnapped. Perhaps best for the girls, and more general diplomatic reasons, not to brush him aside.

Fourth, and most importantly, the huge amounts of publicity being generated by the campaign are playing directly into Boko Haram’s hands. The entire point of terrorist activities is to spread a message among a wider population (in contrast to tactical military attacks). This message may be used for a variety of purposes (recruiting new members, portraying an adversary as weak, drawing an adversary into drawn out asymmetric warfare, etc.), but it requires a megaphone to work. With the spread of #BringBackOurGirls, in the words of Will Moore, “Boko Haram is winning, and you are helping”.

Fifth, by portraying Boko Haram as terrorist kidnappers, the Nigerian government may be portrayed as the good guy, escaping criticism for its own poor record on human rights. Many critics of the #Kony2012 campaign noted that the Ugandan government deliberately protects Kony when international forces are close to capturing him. This allows the Ugandan government to continue to receive military assistance for its efforts and to avoid scrutiny for its own violations of human rights.

And finally, the campaign focuses exclusively on domestic causes of human rights violations, ignoring the causal role played, for example, by the conduct of Western oil majors in harming local communities and the role of oil revenues in undermining the capacity and responsiveness of the Nigerian state.

So while there are important differences between #Kony2012 and #BringBackOurGirls, activists must still reflect on their own power, the context of human rights violations, and the unintended consequences of well-intentioned advocacy. It is possible to contribute to local activist efforts to prevent and remedy human rights abuse, but outsiders must tread lightly, be aware of local context, and guard against unintended harm.

Further links:

Mahmoud Mamdani, Saviours and Survivors

Alison Jaggar, Saving Amina

Linda Martin Alcoff, The Problem of Speaking for Others

International Crisis Group, Background to the Conflict

Beyond Kony2012

May, 2014

Piketty and the Vicious Circle of Inequality

Dr Scott Wisor


The academic book of the moment (perhaps the decade) is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century. You are not a serious member of the public commentariat unless you have aired your views on the book’s length or the author’s looks. Capital is primarily about the evolution of economic inequality in developed economies. Piketty has built an enormous dataset tracking inequality over time in France, Britain, the US, and the UK. To a lesser extent the book examines inequality in other countries.

Some commentators on the book have argued that Piketty’s predictions that inequality will continue to grow in this century will not pan out. They argue that rising global growth rates, driven by ongoing industrialization in emerging markets, may outpace the rate of growth of capital. Or that the rate of growth of capital may decrease if technological advances slow or some other exogenous shock reduces returns on investment.

But the important insight from Piketty is not that there is an iron law by which inequality grows under capitalism, but a risk that it will grow if constraints are not in place. Important here is not simply the economics of inequality, but the politics.

In the US in particular, there is a risk of entering (perhaps this has already happened) an inequality spiral. Two previous ‘big books’ in development make just this prediction. James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu argue in Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Povertythat countries with extractive political institutions fail to prosper because entrenched special interests prevent innovative growth from occurring. The authors suggest that the US may be moving from inclusive to extractive institutional arrangements. Similarly, Angus Deaton, in The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, suggests that high income inequality risks turning a democracy into a plutocracy, which in turn will undermine the possibility of innovative growth and shared prosperity.

What is the mechanism by which this occurs, and what is its impact on individual lives?

Think of an individual’s well-being as a function of three features of their economic life: the value of the income they receive, the loss (or gain) from taxation and post-tax transfers, and the value of publicly provided goods, both direct (such as health care, security, and environment) and indirect (such as a clean environment) from which they benefit.

In a highly unequal country, where pre-tax income rises for the best off and stagnates or falls for others, if there are not strong constraints blocking the excess political influence of the best off, one anticipates several inequality-causing political phenomena. First, the very well-off will work to restrict the political influence of the worse off. This may happen through limiting restrictions on campaign finance or increasing restrictions on political participation. Second, one expects this increased political power to be used to reduce taxes (especially but not only for the best off) and a related reduction in post-tax transfers. Third, one expects reduced support for publicly provided goods, like health care and education. Because the financially wealthy and politically powerful can afford to educate their kids and pay their doctors, they see less need to support public health and education.

So perhaps it matters less whether an inherent feature of capitalism is rising economic inequality and more that there is a likely connection between economic inequality and political inequality, which threatens to create greater inequalities not just in income, but in public goods more generally.

Further useful links:

Capital in the 21st Century 

Why Nations Fail 

The Great Escape 

‘Fixing’ campaign finance is only making it worse

Supreme Court Invalidates Key Part of Voting Rights Act

The Rise of the Super-Rich Power Resources, Taxes, Financial Markets, and the Dynamics of the Top 1 Percent, 1949 to 2008 

Power fluctuations and political economy 

Inequality and Unsustainable Growth: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Image: http://www.cagle.com/2011/11/seesaw-inequality-2/



May, 2014

Taking Global Poverty Stats for a Joyride

Dr Scott Wisor

Earlier this month, some very committed and talented people at one of my favourite think tanks, the Centre for Global Development, took global poverty estimates for a bit of joyride. (A similar effort occurred at the Brookings Institution, but I will focus on CGD here). The occasion was the release of the International Comparison Program’s latest round of price information. To compare economic activity across countries, it is necessary to compare the purchasing power of different currencies. This information cannot be gleaned from currency exchange markets, which fluctuate wildly and don’t tell you anything about how much you can buy once you change your pounds into rupees and arrive in India to spend them. To compare purchasing power across countries, the International Comparison Program tracks prices for a huge range of goods from all across the globe. By comparing like to like, you should be able to determine how many rupees are required to purchase the same quality items you purchase in the UK.

If you think the World Bank’s method of calculating absolute poverty at USD 1.25 per day is a reliable way of tracking the levels and trends of global poverty (I don’t), you might think a quick update on global poverty statistics based on the latest ICP is in order. Although the method used by researchers at CGD and Brookings cannot give any meaningful interpretation of the state of global poverty, they nonetheless gave it a try. By using the new ICP data, the authors estimated new poverty counts for all countries and found a considerable drop in the number of poor people. However, these efforts mistakenly assume that the new price information applies to national consumption and income figures but not to the setting of the poverty line itself. (Instead, the authors simply update the global poverty line using US inflation). As Martin Ravallion, former architect of the Bank’s poverty assessments notes, this is misguided and deceptive. The poverty line itself needs updating using the new price information, rather than simply updating the line using the US consumer price index. Kashuk Basu ,chief economist at the World Bank, also cautioned against using the new ICP data for international poverty comparison.

I don’t like the Bank’s method for measuring global poverty, and its flaws are inherited by other efforts undertaken by Brookings and CGD. Briefly, the method for setting the poverty line is implausible (an averaging of the poorest countries national poverty lines even though those poverty lines may not be plausibly anchored or even democratically discussed), and the method of making comparisons across contexts and over time takes account of the amount and prices of goods consumed across the whole economy, rather than focusing on those goods that are most consumed by poor people. This greatly risks understating the extent of global poverty. Why? Because if the prices of basic necessities rise (for example, the price of food) while the prices of goods consumed by middle and upper classes fall (for example, the price of big screen televisions), both will affect calculations of global poverty, even though only one is relevant to determining how well or badly poor people are faring.

One way to independently assess whether the global poverty figures are giving good information is to examine other indicators of human deprivation that are not related to figures on income and consumption. For example, how did it come to be that only 8.3% of Indians are poor after the new poverty calculations, but according a recent report on India’s children “approximately 60 million – are underweight, about 45% are stunted (too short for their age), 20% are wasted (too thin for their height, indicating acute malnutrition), 75% are anemic, and 57% are Vitamin A deficient.” Surely it cannot be that a child is at once free from poverty and unable to meet minimal nutritional requirements to grow.

Consider how a single country was treated in these revisions. The Philippines’ poverty rate plummeted dramatically according to CGD’s PPP revisions. Only 2.5 million people (about 2.6%) in the country are poor. On the Philippines’ own national poverty lines (one based on the cost of only simple foodstuffs, the other based on the cost of basic foodstuffs and other basic needs) the figures are much higher (10% and 24%, respectively). Using the multidimensional poverty index, the Philippines poverty rate is also higher than CGD estimated. In measurements using the Individual Deprivation Measure developed with several colleagues over the last four years (to be debuted later this summer), we found in a nationally representative survey that 48% of Filipinos count as deprived, very deprived, or severely deprived. Using the World Bank’s old method of calculating poverty at the higher 2.50 USD 2005 PPP line, 41% of Filipinos are poor. When CGD pronounces that almost no one in the Philippines is poor, as opposed to half the populations as other measures indicate, then one gets the impression that poverty is a small problem.

In my view, it is professionally irresponsible and morally objectionable to proceed with analysis of global poverty statistics in a way that implausibly suggests poverty is in fact much less of problem than previously supposed. (I equally think it is irresponsible to overstate the extent or trend of global poverty, as much commentary does). Why? Because how people perceive global poverty matters. If it is a problem that is not so big after all, and diminishing over time, then it is not very urgent that people take steps to end it.

Once this information is posted, it spreads. The Washington Examiner (as one example) ran an article headlined ‘Number of global poor falls in half’. Well, that is great news. Except that it probably isn’t true.

The CGD blog post ends on a puzzling note. They write: “Perhaps most importantly, it is worth repeating what didn’t change between Tuesday and Wednesday.  The people who have just been classified as ‘not absolutely poor’ don’t actually have any more money than they did yesterday, and will still struggle in terms of getting a decent job, and many still face grim daily tradeoffs between buying school supplies or ensuring their kids are well nourished.  In fact, if the new PPP numbers suggest anything it is that the quality of health or education or access to services associated with a given income has just gone down. The new numbers are good news for people who care about poverty, but they matter much less for people who are poor.”

But there aren’t two moral perspectives here, one the view of the poverty statistician and the other the view of the poor person. The only morally relevant consideration is the deprivation and hardship that people face. It is hard to see what good came from proclaiming that much of this deprivation and hardship is not evident in a rough calculation of new poverty numbers. Better to not make any pronouncement at all on the implications of the new price comparisons than to proclaim rapid poverty reduction as a result of calculations which are arguably mistaken and misleading.


May, 2014

Offsetters or Activists?

leaf 270514

Dr Scott Wisor

Last month the IPCC released the third of four reports due out this year, updating assessments from 2007 on the problem of climate change. The findings are stark, but more or less consistent with past estimates. Despite ongoing international attention since at least 1992 (in the form of the Kyoto process), concerns by governments dating back to the 1950s, and a global financial crisis that slowed some of the economic activity that contributes to climate change, in the 5 years since the last IPCC report, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have continued to increase. The IPCC now gives us about a decade to begin to turn the rising tide of GHG emissions, or the costs of avoiding catastrophic climate change (exceeding 2 degrees Celsius global temperature) will be extremely high.

What are individuals morally required to do in light of the ongoing harm caused by GHG emissions? Perhaps no one in the world is better positioned to answer this than John Broome. Initially trained in economics and having held a full Professorship in Economics at the University of Bristol, before shifting to full time appointments in philosophy, Broome is now White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford University, one of the most distinguished positions in the field. He is also a lead author of the IPCC reports.

The ethics of climate change involves some difficult questions, including how to compare various apparently incommensurable values, how to make decisions under uncertainty, how to weight lives existing today against those that have not yet come into existence in the future, and how to compare harms against humans versus those against non-humans. Broome’s previous books, Weighing Reasons and Weighing Lives, discuss many of the key philosophical issues one must address to develop a comprehensive answer to how humans ought to deal with climate change. Furthermore, he is no newcomer to the field—his first publication on climate change was released in 1992.

Given this background, I was surprised to find how thoroughly I disagreed with Broome’s recommendations in Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World (Norton, 2012). In that book, he argues that individuals have duties of justice and duties of beneficence. Duties of justice are strict, to not harm others, and duties of goodness are imperfect, to improve the wellbeing of others. If this is right, individuals have strict duties not to harm others through their GHG emissions. Given this strict duty, Broome argues that individuals have a strict duty to offset all of their emissions. Offsetting involves making payments to organizations that undertake activities, such as replanting forests that recapture GHGs which have been released into the atmosphere. This is not the sole duty—individuals also have an obligation to support governments that are willing to combat climate change. But Broome believes that first they are required to offset their emissions.

There are four reasons to think Broome is wrong in prescribing offsets as what justice requires of individuals in the face of climate change. First, by offsetting an individual’s net emissions, rather than offsetting emissions with each purchase, consumers and companies face no precise incentives to shift away from carbon-intensive activities and towards low-carbon activities. When you go to the grocery store and consider buying a British steak or a Brazilian banana, you have no price signal telling you which required less carbon. Second, the proposal relies on the remarkable goodwill of an astounding number of individuals to have an appreciable impact on climate change. People are meant to tally up at the end of the year their carbon emissions and offset them. But even well-intentioned people are going to reach the end of the budget year and find it hard to turn down the extra Christmas gift or holiday that they could get with the money set aside for offsetting. Third, the proposal has no impact on the underlying structure of economic activity that permits greenhouse gas emissions to continue growing. It creates no reasons for manufacturers to move toward energy sources that emit few GHGs or for fossil fuel companies to figure out ways to reduce emissions. Finally, I am less optimistic than Broome that most offsetting programs actually pay for new GHG reductions rather than for projects which were already underway. It is striking that Broome concedes many of these points, but believes nonetheless that strict duties of justice require offsetting, and a separate political morality should govern the solution to climate change.

In my view, individuals seeking to discharge their duties of justice that are considering donating money (or time) should direct their efforts to organizations seeking to find a political solution to the problem. They can fulfil their duties of justice by committing to (admittedly uncertain) efforts to find political solutions to climate change. Individuals should back organizations that work to place a price on carbon. By putting a price on carbon that rises over time (a proposal Broome endorses), the prices of low carbon activities naturally fall in comparison to high carbon activities. This shifts consumption towards low carbon activities, and gives companies reasons to develop low carbon ways of providing goods and services to consumers. Individuals have a moral obligation to fight climate change. This is best undertaken through joint political activity rather than individual carbon offsets.

Further useful links:

Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis

Weighing Lives

Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World (Book Review)

Ethics & Global Climate Change

Climate ethics: Essential readings

Ethics of International Action on Climate Change: How Would Mahatma Gandhi Have Looked at it?

Climate change and hybrid ethics: a review of four ethical theories

EPA Social Cost of Carbon

Carbon pricing Policy (Au)

Image: By Vera Buhl (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


May, 2014

‘Face-to-Face Encounters of the Diplomatic Kind’

Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler


In my blogs this week, I have explored the challenges that face decision-makers in building trust with adversaries, and shown the limitations of approaches like Osgood’s GRIT (see Wednesday’s blog) and Kupchan’s ‘Red October’ analogy (see yesterday’s blog). In my final blog today, I want to explore the proposition that I am developing at length in my new book that face-to-face encounters between leaders and top-level diplomats hold out the possibility of building trust across the enemy divide. In making this argument, I am not falling into the trap of claiming that all that is necessary for a conflict to be transformed is that enemies meet and talk as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain discovered when he met Adolf Hitler at Munich in September 1938.

Even if adversaries meet without the intention of deception, putting enemy leaders in the same room can simply have the effect of heightening their awareness of what is at stake in the conflict, how much they fear and distrust each other, and how determined they are not to make concessions. This was certainly the outcome of the disastrous summit meeting between US President John F. Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961. Neither leader was able to exercise that particular kind of empathy which I called ‘security dilemma sensibility’ (see Tuesday’s blog). Over the two days that they met, Kennedy and Khrushchev hammered away at each other on the ideological failings of the other’s political system – a textbook case of the ideological fundamentalism (see Tuesday’s blog) which blocks empathyand trust.

The research that I have conducted to date as part of my ESRC/AHRC Global Uncertainties project on ‘The Challenges to Trust-Building in Nuclear Worlds’ suggests three key conditions that are necessary for the success of face-to-face diplomacy in building trust between adversaries. First, leaders must exercise security dilemma sensibility; ideally, they will have begun the process of empathising with each other prior to their meeting, but situations might arise where the exercise of empathy develops through the encounter itself, or is deepened as a result of meeting face-to-face.

The second condition for successful face-to-face diplomacy is political risk-taking on the part of leaders. I discussed yesterday Sadat’s leap of trust in going to Jerusalem in November 1977; the Egyptian leader paid the ultimate price for this gesture of trustworthiness in that he was assassinated from within the Egyptian army four years later, and his opening to Israel played a major part in this. I am not suggesting that this is the measure of ‘political risk-taking’, but the two adversarial leaders need to be able to see that the other is serious about building trust, and a litmus test of this is how far each leader is prepared to take on new vulnerabilities as a signal of their potential trustworthiness. As Annette Baier has put it: ‘Trust is acceptance of vulnerability to harm that others could inflict, but which we judge that they will not in fact inflict’ (1995: 152). These vulnerabilities could, as in the case of Sadat, be personal life-threatening ones, but they could extend well beyond personal risks and dangers to encompass national risks and dangers. It is often argued that Khrushchev left the Vienna summit in June 1961 with the belief that the new and young US President could be pushed around, and this was one factor in the nuclear brinkmanship that the Soviet leader tried with his audacious move of deploying medium range nuclear missiles to Cuba in October 1962.

The third condition for building trust through face-to-face encounters is that both leaders and top decision-makers recognise a common interest and shared responsibility in de-escalating a conflict. Trust will never grow in a context where one side believes that they can only be secure if the other side is insecure; rather, there must be a commitment to common or mutual security. Put differently, each leader must be looking for ways to increase and not decrease the security of an adversary. Indeed, the critical test of a trusting relationship is whether an actor refrains from exploiting opportunities that might arise to make gains at the other’s expense.

In the book I am writing, I test this model of what I call ‘communicative dynamics’ in both face-to-face encounters and written communication between actors.

The best case we have of ‘face-to-face diplomacy’ (the term is Marcus Holmes’s) is the Reagan-Gorbachev one. The summits that these two leaders held at Geneva in 1985, Reykjavik in October 1986, Washington in December 1987, and Moscow in March 1988 offer a fascinating contrast to the cases of Munich in 1938 and Vienna in 1961. Taking the first element in my model, both leaders arrived for their first summit in Geneva in November 1985 with a strong disposition to exercise security dilemma sensibility (this proposition is developed in Booth and Wheeler 2008; Wheeler 2013 – see also Reynolds 2007). With regard to the second condition, both leaders embarked on the summit process knowing that there was strong domestic opposition to a rapprochement of this kind, and yet each proceeded to take the political risks to build trust. Turning to the third condition for successful face-to-face trust-building, Reagan and Gorbachev shared a common vision to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and this created an emotional bond between them – transcending their ideological divisions – which led them to act as ‘nuclear trustees’ (the term was Hedley Bull’s) for common humanity. Reagan and Gorbachev trusted each other because they came to realise through meeting face-to-face that what divided them was ultimately far less important than what united them.

I would argue that face-to-face encounters of the kind that Reagan and Gorbachev had constitute a mechanism of trust building that overcomes the limitations that I identified in relation to other approaches in earlier blogs. Nevertheless, it still remains to be shown that face-to-face trust building enables frame breaking conciliatory moves (the subject of yesterday’s blog). Gorbachev made a series of cooperative moves in 1987-88 that can only be described as frame breaking (discussed in detail in Wheeler 2013). These were costly signals (to use Andrew Kydd’s terminology from yesterday’s blog) because the Soviet Union would never have sent these signals of its potential trustworthiness had it harboured malign motives. Stated boldly, my argument is that Gorbachev felt able to make those moves in significant part because of the trust that he had developed with Reagan. I am not claiming that the frame breaking conciliatory moves that Gorbachev made as Soviet leader would not have happened in the absence of this trust; the available evidence does not permit such a strong claim.

But what has to be explained is how Gorbachev went from making GRIT (see Wednesday’s blog) type moves in the 1985-86 to the more dramatic frame breaking moves in 1987-88. According to Osgood, ratcheting up to bolder cooperative moves should only follow after reciprocation by an adversary; Gorbachev threw Osgood’s GRIT strategy out of the window when in the absence of US positive reciprocation, Gorbachev moved to the frame-breaking level. Realist scholars like Mearsheimer (see Monday’s blog) would argue that Gorbachev made these moves because the Soviet Union was on the ropes as a consequence of economic failure and US competitive arms racing. I would agree that the material pressures exerted by a declining Soviet economy were a critical enabling condition of Gorbachev actions. But this is not to say that these conciliatory frame-breaking moves would have been possible in the absence of the trusting relationship that developed between US and Soviet leaders. In short, a full explanation of the end of the Cold War requires attention to both the material and the ideational, the latter being expressed significantly in the form of the trust that developed through Reagan and Gorbachev’s face-to-face diplomacy.

Our research on the conditions under which face-to-face diplomacy succeeds is only in its infancy, and my book is only the springboard to further research in this area. One exciting area of enquiry here concerns the implication of the latest research in neuroscience for trust building between adversaries, and in particular, the work of Marcus Holmes who is exploring how far mirror neuron theory might offer an escape from the security dilemma (the existential condition of uncertainty about the motives and intentions of others with the capability to do us harm). I am leading a partnership at the University of Birmingham in conjunction with the School of Psychology to take forward this research agenda, bringing in other scholars internationally. As part of taking this research project forward, the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) in conjunction with the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) under the latter’s ‘Saving Humans’ theme, is co-hosting a workshop in June at Birmingham that will investigate theoretical issues, and explore further the case of Munich as well as evidence from the Israel-Palestine case. I look forward to reporting back on this work through the ICCS blog and other publications in due course.

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.

Follow Professor Wheeler on Twitter: @WheelerICCS

Click here for further information on the work of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) at the University of Birmingham.

Further useful links:

Investigating diplomatic transformations

The force of Face-to-face diplomacy

International Politics at the Brain’s edge

The Neuroscience of Diplomacy


Vienna 1961: when Cold War tensions came to the boil

What’s the context? 30 September 1938: The Munich Agreement 

May, 2014

‘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.

Other useful links:


May, 2014

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.

Other useful links:

May, 2014

Psychological Drivers of Distrust Between Adversaries

Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler


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.

Other useful links:










%d bloggers like this: