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Trust Building in Nuclear Worlds

Trust Building in Nuclear Worlds

In January, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with the University of Birmingham’s Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler to discuss his work on Trust Building in Nuclear Worlds.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about your history of collaboration with the Global Uncertainties project and your research background and more broadly?

Professor Nicholas J Wheeler: I have been awarded two major grants through the Global Uncertainties Project. The first, which goes back to 2009, was a Professorial Research Fellowship under RCUK’s ideas and beliefs leadership fellowship stream of the ESRC/AHRC Global Uncertainties program. From that emerged a multidisciplinary project on ‘Trust Building in Nuclear Worlds’ (TBNW) which I began at Aberystwyth and brought with me to the University of Birmingham in 2012 when I became the Inaugural Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation, and Security (ICCS). Then, in 2014, I was awarded a grant under the ethics and rights in a security context stream, to explore nuclear ethics, global security, and reforming the global nuclear order. The 2009 grant led to research, impact, and engagement in the area of international trust-building (e.g. Ruzicka and Wheeler 2010; Wheeler 2013, 2018) and the 2014 grant, with co-investigators Anthony Burke (UNSW) and David Norman (Portsmouth), has led to research impact and engagement in the area of nuclear weapons and responsibility (Burke 2016a, 2016b, 2017; Norman 2018). The two grants became the foundation of the working partnership between ICCS and BASIC in the form of the ‘Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities’ which is directed by Sebastian Brixey-Williams (co-director of BASIC) and which I am the academic lead on. The Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities explores the potential for developing trust between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon possessors, and between nuclear armed adversaries, through a method of empathic dialogue that explores how actors understand their nuclear responsibilities and how these might be reimagined to promote new forms of security cooperation (Brixey-Williams and Wheeler 2020).

Can you tell me more about your work on trust building and nuclear responsibilities?

The key launching point for our work on trust in international relations was assembling a multidisciplinary core group of scholars, and to apply the insights and ideas from trust research in other fields to thinking about the challenge of reducing distrust and building trust between nuclear armed and arming adversaries. One of the key methodological innovations of the ESRC/AHRC TBNW project was applying a ‘Critical Oral History’ (COH) approach to a case where cooperation and not conflict had developed out of bilateral nuclear interactions. The COH method, pioneered notably by James Blight and Janet Lang, and by Blight and David Welch, brings former participants together with scholars expert in these cases and using archival materials, to see if it is possible to better understand the decisions that the former officials and policy-makers made at the time. Previously, the COH method has only been applied to conflict situations, but my project broke new ground by applying the method to the successful case of the Argentina-Brazil nuclear rapprochement.

Working with Matias Spektor, Rodrigo Mallea, and the team of researchers at the Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV), we held in Rio the first critical oral history conference where negotiators from both sides had an opportunity to share their memories on the back of newly-released secret documents and with the support of a group of academics. A major output of this work was our 2012 edited work The Origins of Nuclear Cooperation: A Critical Oral History between Brazil and Argentina. The COH transcript and film that accompanies it reveals how it was the empathy and trust that developed between Brazilian and Argentine decision-makers at the highest levels of diplomacy that was decisive to a cooperative outcome. Through a series of face-to-face meetings, Brazilian President José Sarney and his Argentinean counterpart, President Raúl Alfonsin, developed a trusting relationship, and it was this interpersonal trust that made possible agreement on mutual nuclear inspections.

The key finding from the Argentina-Brazil COH as to the importance of face-to-face interaction in the development interpersonal trust became the key proposition that guided my book Trusting Enemies: Interpersonal Relationships in International Conflict that was published by Oxford University Press in 2018. The book was the first to theorize interpersonal trust at the international level and I applied my model of interpersonal trust to three cases of nuclear enmity. I excluded the Argentina-Brazil case from the book because it is best conceived as a case of rivalry and not deep distrust and I wanted to explore how far interpersonal trust could develop even in situations of nuclear enmity. The book draws on the following three case studies (US/Soviet Union, India/Pakistan, and US/Iran) arguing that face-to-face diplomacy at the leader-to-leader level opened up diplomatic breakthroughs in these cases.

A key precondition for interpersonal trust development in adversarial situation is the exercise of empathy, and in particular the exercise of what Ken Booth and I call ‘security dilemma sensibility’ (SDS), a concept we developed in our 2008 book The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation and Trust in World Politics (Palgrave Macmillan 2008). SDS is a form of empathy that is predicated on an intuition or belief that an adversary may be acting out of fear and insecurity and not malign intent; crucially, it involves the recognition as to how one’s own actions have contributed to these fears and insecurity. I argue in Trusting Enemies that the best modality of interaction for testing out these intuitions and conveying them to the other side is face-to-face diplomacy. If both sides can develop and experience SDS through face-to-face interaction, this opens up the possibility for trust to develop through a process of interpersonal bonding (Wheeler 2018; see also Holmes and Wheeler 2020 for a model of social bonding in interpersonal diplomatic interaction).

The importance of empathy in nuclear diplomacy also guides the BASIC-ICCS Programme on nuclear responsibilities which is funded by the UK government’s Counter-Proliferation and Arms Control Centre (CPACC) and the ESRC through the Collaborative PhD Studentship (awarded to Alice Spilman) it funds between BASIC and the University of Birmingham (UoB). Here, we have identified a dialogical method involving two key processes: (i) critical introspection which invites participants representing different states to critically reflect on their own perceptions of their nuclear responsibilities and the responsibilities of others and (ii) empathic dialogue that brings participants into a facilitated process of dialogue aimed at achieving a better understanding of how each views the other’s conception of their responsibilities, opening up space for the development of new shared responsibilities. A full discussion of the approach and the method is set out in our report Nuclear Responsibilities: A New Approach for Thinking and Talking About Nuclear Weapons. BASIC and ICCS launched the report at a side event of the United Nations First Committee in November 2020. The report distills the findings of policy roundtables held with officials and other stakeholders in London, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Geneva, the Hague, and São Paulo, states with very different approaches to the legitimacy of nuclear weapons. We then brought representatives together in London for a multistate dialogue in January 2020. The results suggested considerable potential for the Nuclear Responsibilities Approach to promote a more constructive dialogue on nuclear weapons, as well as to be adapted in the future to facilitate a wider dialogue encompassing cyber, space and other strategic domains.

The next phase of the BASIC-ICCS Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities, supported by CPACC and the ESRC, is focused on the Asia-Pacific. Given the challenges of Covid-19, we are conducting a series of semi-structured interviews with key practitioners in India, Pakistan, China, Australia, and several ASEAN states aimed at preparing the ground for a series of virtual dialogues to be held later in the year. It is our intention to follow this up with face-to-face meetings as soon as circumstances permit. A key feature of the first phase of this work (2018-2020) was the participation of only one Nuclear Weapons State (the UK) and the absence of relationships of nuclear distrust between the members of the dialogue. By contrast, the second phase of the research focuses on exploring the potential of the Nuclear Responsibilities Approach and Method to reduce distrust and promote trust between three nuclear possessor states (India, Pakistan, and China) in a regional context where varying degrees of distrust characterise interstate relationships.

This research proceeds from the core premise that distrust reduction and trust-building should be conceived as distinct analytical processes. However, existing international relations scholarship on trust has not theorised these two processes as separate ones; rather, practitioners and scholars have focused almost exclusively on how to build trust between enemies, without exploring how to initiate processes of distrust reduction. A key goal of our dialogues in the Asia-Pacific is facilitating the cultivation of new empathic sensibilities on the part of practitioners towards the security concerns of others in a way that will promote new practices of mutual security and nuclear risk-reduction.

How has the field of trust research in international relations evolved during the period that you have been working on these questions?

When I began work in this area in the early 2000s, there was very little research on trust in the field of International Relations (IR) (key exceptions were works by Deborah Welch Larson, Andrew Kydd, and Emmanuel Adler and Michael Barnett), especially outside of the United States, though there was a lot of work on trust outside of IR.  The same verdict would not apply now, and I think it is fair to say the TBNW project and the successor projects that have grown out of it have made a significant contribution to filling that gap, especially in the UK context. In the last ten years, a new network of scholars has emerged working on trust and empathy who have had varying degrees of connection with the project. Examples include Laura Considine (Leeds and previously the linked PhD Studentship on the TBNW project); Naomi Head (Glasgow); Vincent Keating (Aberystwyth and now University of Southern Denmark); Dani Nedal (Pittsburgh and formerly research assistant on the TBNW project and a key researcher and organiser of the Argentina-Brazil COH); Jan Ruzicka (Aberystwyth and a former research assistant on the TBNW project); Nicola Horsburgh (King’s College, London), Kate Sullivan (Oxford), Heather Williams (King’s College, London), Marion Messmer (Co-Director of BASIC), and a number of PhD students who have worked with me at Birmingham (Josh Baker, Ana Alecsandru, Daniel Rio Tinto, and Chiara Cervasio), the first two funded by the ESRC.        

Can you tell me more about the work of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham?

The fundamental rationale behind the setting up of the ICCS in 2012 was to develop a multidisciplinary approach to thinking about security problems. Under my directorship from 2012 to 2020, the Institute’s work focused on how to understand the obstacles to developing new forms of cooperation and trust in the context of global interconnectedness. While humanity faces global security challenges such as nuclear annihilation, climate catastrophe, and global pandemics, the Institute has sought to be the destination of choice for students seeking knowledge and skills about the possibilities for developing trust and cooperation in twenty-first century international relations. The long-term impact of the earlier ESRC/AHRC Global Uncertainties investments has been the institutionalisation of the ideas in the form of the ICCS supported by further investments from the university. The ideas developed in the earlier Global Uncertainties project have been and are disseminated through a range of ICCS training programmes and activities. We have made practitioner engagement a key focus of our work; run an annual training program since 2013 titled ‘Trust, Diplomacy, and Conflict Transformation’; and set up the MSc degree in ‘Global Cooperation and Security’, and the MSc Political Psychology of International Relations – the first ever postgraduate degree globally. This is a research focus that we are continuing to develop and strengthen with Tereza Capelos as the new ICCS director and president-elect of the International Society of Political Psychology (ISPP). 

You mentioned that reaching practitioners has been a big part of your work over the past decade. What are some of your key takeaways for practitioners and policymakers based on your research? What would you want them to read?

I recently co-authored a piece in The Conversation with Professor Mark NK Saunders, my colleague in the Birmingham Business School and co-convenor with me of the university’s trust research group, and Dr Marcus Holmes, Associate Professor at William & Mary in the United States, on the challenges of building trust in virtual spaces. This year, the UN General Assembly met virtually for the first time. We were interested in looking at how far the opportunities for developing trust and social networks between diplomats and leaders at the UN could be replicated in and through digitally mediated interaction. The big takeaway from our research is that the signal and cue reading that is made possible by face-to-face interaction cannot be substituted for in virtual environments. However, there are good reasons to think that social bonds and trust can form in virtual spaces, but these bonds will not be as strong as when there is body-to-body interaction (the theory is developed in Holmes and Wheeler 2021 forthcoming), and we are developing empirical research to test this claim.

The core thesis of Trusting Enemies that face-to-face encounters are a critical modality of interaction in the development of trust between the leaders of two adversary states should not be interpreted as saying that all that is needed to solve conflicts is increased face-to-face contact. Instead, it is an invitation to identify the conditions under which leaders develop social bonds and trust (Holmes and Wheeler 2020). However, it is important to recognize that trust is not always a good thing, and that the challenge in Geoffrey Hosking’s (a member of the TBNW multidisciplinary core group) words is to ‘trust in the trustworthy’ (Hosking 2010). My research has identified face-to-face interaction as a key site for reading the trustworthiness of others, but as Hitler’s deception of Chamberlain at the Munich summit in September 1938 shows, it is possible for leaders to fake trustworthy signals and lull adversaries into a false sense of security. The disastrous outcome at Munich reminds us that not all conflicts are driven by misunderstandings and misperceptions.

However, the importance of the concept of security dilemma sensibility, and the bridge to trusting relationships it makes possible, is that it draws our attention to the possibility that two adversaries may be trapped in a conflict that is driven at root by decision-makers mistakenly imputing malign intent to the other. If leaders come to understands the dynamics of a conflict in this way, as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were able to do as leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1980s, the challenge becomes one of each side reassuring the other as to their peaceful intent. Decision-makers and diplomats should always be open to the possibilities for reassurance, whilst recognizing that trust is not always a good thing. The challenge in international relations, if leaders have peaceful intent, is to find ways of signaling this to adversaries who are believed to be open to reassurance, without leaving themselves exposed if the other side’s decision-makers turn out to have malign intent.