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Trust in face-to-face diplomacy

President Donald Trump and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-un, are due to meet for a historic summit in an as yet undisclosed location to try and resolve the nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula. For academics that study the potential of face-to-face diplomacy to de-escalate and transform conflicts, the summit – assuming it actually takes place – is a fascinating case for testing the validity of their theories and prescriptions. The meeting of Trump and Kim raises the tantalizing possibility that these two leaders might be able to cut a deal which reduces the threat that each fear from the other, but for that to happen, each will have to trust in the other’s assurances that they do not have malign intent. The question is: can these two leaders develop this level of trust through a face-to-face meeting? Or, alternatively, could both leave the meeting feeling that they had been played, leading to a psychological backlash on the part of both leaders that could drive up the risks of war?

The strongest claim for advocates of face-to-face interaction between state leaders and top-level policymakers is that it makes possible a better understanding of each other’s intentions, and crucially, the promise of interpersonal trust. For Marcus Holmes, diplomats and state leaders meeting face-to-face are not only able to approximate one another’s intentions, but actually simulate them through the operation of the mirror neuron system in the brain. Holmes’s bold claim is that face-to-face interaction in promoting unparalleled access to the intentions of others escapes the security dilemma problem in international relations that is defined in terms of the existential condition of uncertainty that confronts decision-makers about the current and future behavior of others. The implication of Holmes’s argument for Trump and Kim’s meeting is that if both can be reassured that the other does not frame their state’s security needs in a way that requires the insecurity of the other, a deal that meets the security concerns of both sides might be possible. Indeed, writing with the author, Holmes argues that the success of the summit should be judged, not in terms of whether it promotes the denuclearization of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, but how far it promotes increased mutual reassurance.

The challenge posed by Holmes’ work is how far increased intention understanding can lead to a diplomatic breakthrough when both leaders meet in a context where they actively distrust the other’s intentions. In the case of Trump and Kim, Kim needs assurance that if he ceases further development of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Capability (ICBM) that can hold US cities nuclear hostage, the United States will not feel emboldened to press what Kim fears is its long-standing goal of regime change. Conversely, the lack of trust between the two sides means US decision-makers need concrete and verifiable assurances that Kim is committed to giving up North Korea’s nuclear arsenal in return for security guarantees from the United States and the lifting of sanctions. The problem is that if Trump and his key advisors believe that Kim is only offering a summit because of continuing US sanctions and the credible threat of military action, they will not want to slacken those pressures until they have achieved the goal of North Korea’s complete denuclearization. The North Korean leader’s unilateral announcement last weekend that North Korea will suspend nuclear testing and ICBM launches was greeted by Trump tweeting that the move was ‘big progress.’

 The meeting of Trump and Kim raises the tantalizing possibility that these two leaders might be able to cut a deal which reduces the threat that each fear from the other.

However, will such a concession be enough to satisfy the United States since there is no commitment here on Kim’s part to remove North Korea’s nuclear deterrent? US decision-makers, especially those like the newly appointed National Security Advisor John Bolton, apply to North Korean intentions what Ole Hoslti calls ‘an “inherent bad faith” model.’ This leads decision-makers to interpret any conciliatory move on the part of an adversary as a trick aimed at lulling their opponent into a false sense of security. The past history of negotiating efforts between the two sides, especially the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework, has left US decision-makers strongly of the belief that North Korea cannot be trusted to keep to its promises, a position mirrored in North Korean perceptions of the US record of honoring its promises. Consequently, even if Kim has committed to restraining his nuclear testing and missile programme, can he – and crucially his successors – be trusted to honour this promise?

The potential for face-to-face interaction to develop trust at the highest levels of diplomacy has been recognized by practitioners themselves, including state leaders. Consider this reflection from President Ronald Reagan in his memoir on the eve of his first summit meeting in Geneva in November 1985 with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan wrote: ‘if we were ever going to break down the barriers of mistrust that divided our countries, we had to begin by establishing a personal relationship between the leaders of the two most powerful nations on earth’. But if practitioners appreciate the potential of face-to-face interaction in developing trust, the discipline of International Relations has not properly theorized the conditions under which some of these encounters lead to interpersonal trust, and equally importantly, why others lead to disappointment and failure.

My research into how interpersonal trust can develop through face-to-face interaction highlights the importance of state leaders exercising empathy for their counterparts. This can be called ‘security dilemma sensibility’ which is a recognition on the part of two adversaries as to how their actions have made the other fearful and insecure. In the case of Reagan and Gorbachev, both had exercised security dilemma sensibility prior to their first encounter. By contrast, in the case of Trump and Kim, each enters the room holding a ‘bad faith model’ of the other, and the hope has to be that empathy of the kind displayed by Reagan and Gorbachev can develop out of the face-to-face encounter itself.

The reciprocal exercise of security dilemma sensibility is a prior condition for the development of interpersonal trust, but it is not a sufficient one. Trust of this kind develops out of a process of social bonding that is engendered by face-to-face interaction. To be sure, Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan and Kim is no Gorbachev, but it is too soon to say that they could not develop a personal bond through meeting face-to-face. Trump has said in the context of past US leaders that they lacked the ‘chemistry’ to achieve a breakthrough with Russian leaders, but one of the fascinating questions that will be answered if Trump and Kim meet is whether they can ‘hit it off’ together. The likely odds of the Korean nuclear conflict ending in war or a peaceful accommodation hangs on the answer the two leaders give to this question.

Featured image credit: Donald-Trump und Kim-Jong-un Graffiti von Lush Sux by Bwag. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. […] summits and a gush of commentary on “presidential diplomacy”, “face-to-face diplomacy”, “summit diplomacy”, and even “Trumpian diplomacy”, we’ve somehow come to accept […]

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