Posts tagged ‘politics’

May, 2014

Trust as a Path to De-Escalation and Frame-Breaking in International Politics

Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler

‘There is little room for trust among states’, so wrote the Chicago based professor of International Relations, John Mearsheimer, in his 2001 opus, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Trust, Mearsheimer argued, is virtually impossible because states coexist in a condition of international anarchy (defined in the field of International Relations as the absence of a global government) that generates a perpetual competition for security. Mearsheimer contended that as a consequence of international anarchy, there is no escape from unending security competition among the most powerful states in the international system, and this despite the fact that one of his key starting assumptions is that states are motivated by the search for survival, and only seek to be secure (2001: 30). Consequently, Mearsheimer has no difficulty in explaining the current crisis over Ukraine between the United States and Russia; for him, competition might wax and wane, and there might even be temporary periods of cooperation, but security competition is inescapable between great powers in a condition of anarchy. The situation is genuinely tragic because even if states have peaceful motives, they can never be certain about other states intentions. Although his critics have often failed to pick up this crucial caveat, Mearsheimer was emphatic that his theory did not make the assumption that states necessarily have hostile motives and intentions. Indeed, as he argued, ‘all of the states in the system may be reliably benign, but it is impossible to be sure of that judgment because intentions are impossible to divine with 100 percent certainty’ (2001: 31).

Writing in our 2008 book, The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation and Trust In World Politics, Ken Booth and I agreed with Mearsheimer that international politics takes place in an existential condition of uncertainty and, as a result, actors have to make inferences about the motives and intentions of others with the military capability to do them harm. Indeed, we advance the claim that this is the defining element of the ‘security dilemma’, a foundational concept in the field of International Relations, but the definition of which remains contested. I do not have the space to open up this controversy, but interested readers can pursue it in our book. Where Booth and I fundamentally disagree with Mearsheimer is on the question of whether the existential condition of uncertainty generated by international anarchy (I will use the shorthand of the ‘security dilemma’ to describe this predicament in subsequent blogs) prevents the great powers from establishing significant levels of security cooperation.


One of the most important contributions of trust researchers in the social sciences and humanities is the claim that relations of trust and uncertainty go hand-in-hand; after all, if you had certainty, you would not need trust. The conclusion of our 2008 book – a direct riposte to Mearsheimer – was that if actors could accept uncertainty, and crucially its logical corollary vulnerability, a space opens up – even for adversaries – to build trust at the international level.

I began research in October 2009 that was aimed at exploring this contention in relation to conflicts between nuclear-armed and arming states. I was fortunate enough to receive one of 14 ‘Ideas and Beliefs’ Fellowships in the social sciences and humanities under RCUK’s Global Uncertainties Programme: Security for All in a Changing World. This project was funded by the ESRC and AHRC until September 2013. The research continues at the University of Birmingham under the auspices of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) where I am Director.

The central research question guiding the project is: how far is trust a critical causal variable in promoting the de-escalation and transformation of adversarial relationships into peaceful ones (Wheeler 2013). The key conclusion of the project is that cooperation between adversaries is possible without trust, but that any significant process of de-escalation (defined as reducing the salience of force as an instrument of interstate relations) requires increased empathy for the security interests and concerns of one’s adversary, and crucially reassuring actions (taking steps that increase the security of one’s adversary) that are based on this new empathetic awareness. At the same time, I argue that the growth of trust is a significant enabling condition if actors in an adversarial relationship are to make what (building on Roderick Kramer’s earlier formulation) I call ‘frame-breaking’ or game-changing moves. The latter concept is designed to capture situations where one or both sides act in such a way that it becomes extremely difficult for the other side to draw inferences from an opponent’s behaviour that would continue to support an ‘enemy image.’ I will explore in tomorrow’s blog how deeply entrenched such enemy images can be, and how they can seriously obstruct any process of trust building. The measure of a frame- breaking move is that it breaks down such an enemy image. The classic case of frame-breaking moves between nuclear adversaries would be Mikhail Gorbachev’s series of highly conciliatory actions in the second half of the 1980s. The highly cooperative moves that the Soviet Union made under Gorbachev’s leadership robbed the Reagan administration of its image of the Soviet Union as an enemy, and played a crucial role in paving the way out of the Cold War.

Some trust research scholars in the field of International Relations have recognized the importance of trust in leading actors to initiate frame-breaking moves, but their accounts of how trust gets built to make possible such moves have been unsatisfactory. Most theorists argue that trust develops out of initial rounds of reciprocated cooperation on lower stake issues, but this begs the question as to how adversaries move to that level of trust that gives them the confidence to make frame-breaking move(s). On this question, the existing literature has little to say.

Mearsheimer would argue that even asking this question is a corruption of thinking about international politics, and that history is littered with examples of state leaders who forgot to act on the imperatives of power politics. Mearsheimer and his fellow-travellers in the realist camp of International Relations theory are right to caution us against the dangers of misplaced trust in the high-stakes, no forgiving arena of great power politics, but it is equally important to guard against the dangers of misplaced suspicion.

Realism advises leaders to assume the worst about the intentions of others, but if we always assume the worst about the motives of others, we risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of spiralling insecurity. Mearsheimer tells the story of international politics as a structural one in which a particular logic of anarchy drives out trusting relationships. But perhaps our beliefs and values lead us astray here; changing those beliefs and values, and recognizing that trust might offer a viable path to de-escalation, as I will carry on exploring tomorrow, might enable new possibilities of building trust between enemies at the international level.

Nicholas J. Wheeler is Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and International Studies, and Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham.

Other useful links:

November, 2013

“Thinking politically” Part III:

2: Not ‘the problem’:

Another way in which ‘politics’ has often been understood by donor officials has been as a ‘problem’ – as Laura Routley and David Hulme have recently pointed out (Routley and Hulme 2013: 15-16). The introduction of ‘political economy analyses’ (see tomorrow’s blog) of development programmes and interventions in recent years has – for many donors – simply flagged-up all the obstacles ‘politics’ poses to the successful implementation of an otherwise well-designed project. ‘Politics’ is the corrupt official embezzling part of the budget. ‘Politics’ is the inter-agency rivalry between local government bureaucracies standing in the way of smooth implementation of policy. ‘Politics’ is a nuisance and an enemy of development and something which policy-makers and practitioners must find a way to neutralize in order for their work to make the difference it is meant to make.

“Thinking politically”, however, means getting out of this mindset – particularly difficult in the ‘project cycle’ environment within many donor agencies and NGOs. Apart from anything else, ‘politics’ is not something one can avoid – it is everywhere and exists in every relationship and organization. There are few more politicized situations than those which are commonplace in development interventions: foreigners delivering services because a government can – or will – not, local elites losing resources (or gaining them) at the expense of others etc. Seeing this reality as a ‘problem’ is counterproductive at best.

Supporters of political thinking would also argue that this reality opens up opportunities for development actors. If we as outsiders can understand and appreciate the dynamics of power relationships within societies we can also work with – or through – them to deliver development projects and objectives. This is something increasingly advocated by leading public policy scholars such as Merilee Grindle and even by donors themselves – see, for example, the World Bank Institute’s Leadership for Development programme. This may mean making awkward choices – working through patronage networks instead of government ministries or with warlords instead of NGOs – but ultimately politics can be a solution and not just a problem.

3: About relationships

Building on this a range of commentators and organizations – including the Development Leadership Programme, led initially by Adrian Leftwich and now by the University of Birmingham International Development Department’s Heather Marquette – advocate focusing on relationships as the core of ‘thinking politically’. Emphasizing human agency rather than (or, at least, within) the formal and informal structures that govern a society, these thinkers stress that positive change happens through building coalitions between different groups and that, therefore, donors should focus on organizing ‘coalitions for change’ – bringing actors and organizations together around common goals. This involves understanding incentives – why people do the things they do – and appreciating the fact that incentives change and relationships evolve; politics is dynamic, complex and messy.

4: ‘How things really are’

My own favourite definition of ‘thinking politically’ is perhaps summarized as ‘seeing things for how they really are’. This means trying to avoid applying too many general frameworks or models to societies, or processes occurring within them, for fear of missing important issues and developments that don’t fit into those models.

Astute readers may have noticed that I have not yet even attempted to define ‘politics’ itself…..perhaps I will try and do this before the week is out!

Dr Jonathan Fisher is a Lecturer in International Development at the University of Birmingham.


Laura Routley and David Hulme (2013): Donors, Development Agencies and the use of Political Economic Analysis: Getting to grips with the politics of development, Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) Research Centre Working Paper No 19, University of Manchester.

Development Leadership Programme 

Further links:

What are some of the ways in which donors have tried to get their staff to ‘think politically’ in recent years?

How to think and work politically in development

Discussion paper

Second paper

November, 2013

“Thinking politically” Part II:

What, however, do we mean by ‘political’ in the context of development policy and thinking? Almost absent from development discourse prior to the 2000s – as scholar and practitioner Sue Unsworth points out (2009:883) – the word ‘politics’ has now become an integral part of development language albeit without ever having been clearly defined. Along with terms like ‘ownership’, ‘agency’ and even ‘development’ itself, ‘politics’ seems to mean something so intuitive and obvious to all that exploring its actual meaning seems like ivory tower navel-gazing to many policy-makers. Indeed, at a World Bank event I attended last year, participants being told about political economy thinking by their superiors protested on several occasions that ‘we know this’!

The problem is, of course, that when people talk about an issue being ‘political’ they often mean different things with their understandings shaped by a wide range of cultural, intellectual, sociological and environmental contexts. This definitional pluralism matters in development interventions for a whole host of reasons; if two donors both talk about delivering ‘development’ with one meaning ‘democratization’ by this and another ‘poverty alleviation’ then their actions to achieve these goals will be very different – and possibly undermine one another’s. If two donors reassure a recipient government that they wish to support ‘local ownership’ it matters if they define this as that government’s ‘commitment to pre-determined donor policies’ or ‘control of the policy-making agenda itself’.

Tuesday and Wednesday’s blog entries will therefore explore some of the main ways in which ‘politics’ is defined – explicitly or implicitly – by scholars, practitioners and policy-makers involved in ‘saving humans’.

1: Not technical:

The most common understanding of ‘political thinking’ in the development world defines the term against ‘technical thinking’. This contrast ultimately focuses on the assumptions underlying our thinking on how development happens. Those with a ‘technical’ mindset assume that development is a linear process that requires the correct inputs in order to be progressed. As the late Adrian Leftwich emphasized, this has often meant an emphasis being placed on institutions and structures by donor agencies – the things we in the West have that we can ‘build’ in the developing world to mechanically move developing states along the development conveyor belt.

Like the ‘big push’ thinkers of the 1950s ‘modernization theory’ era, this group believes that ‘getting to Norway’ (that is, to an economically developed state with minimal poverty or disparity) is just a question of applying the right formula of interventions and medicines. Donors, in this model, are the purveyors of advice, tools and instruments to developing states moving along this path at varying speeds with World Bank staff (many of whom are economists by training) often seen as the most influential group in this category.

Proponents of “thinking politically”, however, reject this conceptualization of development as naïve, simplistic and ahistorical. They argue that development – however defined – has not happened in quite the same way in any two states and thus why should we expect it to start doing so now? Moreover, they contend that technicalist understandings of development underplay the role of people and societies in shaping their futures. Institutions such as parliaments or political parties have delivered certain public goods in the West not simply because they are there but because important societal coalitions built them and gave them their continued support – and not without significant and continuous reforms and alterations.

“Thinking politically”, according to this strand of thought, therefore means two key things: 1) understanding the contexts and nuances of the environments we work in – people, regions and states are different and ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions are therefore likely to fail in most cases; 2) focusing on the agency of local actors and seeking to support the institutions, relationships and organizations that they view as legitimate and developmental.

Dr Jonathan Fisher is a Lecturer in International Development at the University of Birmingham.


Sue Unsworth (2009): “What’s politics got to do with it?” Why donors find it so hard to come to terms with politics, and why this matters.’, Journal of International Development  21 (6): 883-894

Further links:

Thinking politically about development

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