Disarmament Insight


Friday, 17 August 2007

What can our ancestors teach us about building trust?

The answer is an extraordinary amount based on what I heard at a fascinating workshop held on 25 May on ‘Human Security, Human Nature, and Trust-Building in Negotiations’, as part of the Disarmament Insight initiative. Their workshop brought together disarmament diplomats from Missions in Geneva, officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UN with considerable experience of disarmament negotiations, and researchers specialising in trust issues.

The challenge posed for multilateral practitioners in the international security field attending the workshop was to think about how the information presented to them relates to their interactions, and to what extent their current community of practice leverages or impedes trust-building (something which John Borrie described at the meeting as ‘cognitive ergonomics’. Hear his podcast here.) Several speakers were invited to address the seminar, including Robin Coupland, the ICRC’s adviser on armed violence and the effects of weapons and a former war surgeon.

The starting point for his presentation was that negotiating effectively on human security issues requires understanding the role our ‘nature’ plays in the use of weapons and in restraining their use. His brief talk set the scene for the workshop’s two main speakers, Frans de Waal and Paul Seabright.

On the building of trust at the international level, an issue which he had been quite pessimistic about in his book ‘The Company of Strangers’, Seabright’s thinking reflected the dominant view in international relations theory which has been, in the words of John Mearsheimer, that ‘there is little room for trust among states’. What underlies this view is that because we can never have 100 per cent certainty about the current – and crucially the future – motives and intentions of others, we must assume the worst and plan accordingly.

State leaders have to begin with the assumption of mistrust because to trust can be dangerous in an uncertain world. But it can be equally dangerous to mistake potential friends for enemies. The security dilemma that confronts governments is to decide whether they face what one participant called a ‘trust game’ or a ‘force game’ (see my ‘Putting ourselves in the shoes of our enemies’ post of 18 May).

A category error in thinking about trust is to associate it with the elimination of uncertainty, because if we had certainty, we wouldn’t need trust. Other disciplines, notably psychology, sociology, and philosophy recognise that trust and uncertainty are mutually implicated, but these ideas haven’t been systematically applied in international relations. Ken Booth and I map out the beginnings of such an engagement in our forthcoming book The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation and Trust in World Politics, arguing that although uncertainty will always exist in world politics, this needn’t preclude processes of cooperation and trust-building.

The challenge is to explore in greater depth what other disciplines might contribute to thinking about trust at the international level – hence the 25 May event and the establishment of the interdisciplinary research network on trust-building in world politics (TrustNet) which is being set up at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth under the auspices of the David Davies Memorial Institute of International Studies.

A key theme running through the day’s discussions concerned how actors who were committed to promoting cooperation and trust might signal their peaceful intentions. The immediate response from hard-nosed realists is that it isn’t possible for states to ‘signal type’ (to use the language of U.S. theorists writing about the security dilemma) because of the impossibility of distinguishing offensive from defensive weapons.

Even if decision-makers are persuaded that certain military moves will send a decisive signal of their peaceful intentions, thereby triggering a virtuous circle of cooperation if others are committed to the ‘trust game’, they might be so fearful that such a reassuring move will expose them to great danger if it is not reciprocated, that they’re not prepared to take such risks for trust.

Seabright recognised in his presentation that this dilemma faced the earliest human groups as they had reached out to cooperate with others. We have no idea how many of our ancestors perished because they mistook an enemy for a friend. Seabright rightly praised those who took such risks as the unsung heroes of humanity.

Without these early risky experiments in cooperation and trust, humans would never have evolved the combination of ‘calculation’ and ‘reciprocity’ that, Seabright argued, has made us so good at detecting cheats and spotting co-operators. Here, the human capacity for smiling, and especially laughter, has been essential in enabling humans to signal their type. But the grand enterprise of trust between strangers that has developed from this has been far more impressive within societies than it has been between them.

If new structures of trust are to be built at the international level, then peaceful/defensive states will have to do better at signalling their intentions. Here, we might ask what the equivalent of ‘laughter’ is for diplomats negotiating, for example, to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula or resolve the uncertainties, fears, and mistrust surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme. And will decision-makers play the ‘trust game’ if the consequences of misplaced trust might be a permanent exit from the game itself?

It isn’t only our earliest human ancestors who might have something to teach us about the importance of taking risks for trust. In his presentation, de Waal explained that chimpanzees are far better at reconciling than humans, though they also seem to have a greater propensity to fight. What’s fascinating here is that a male chimpanzee signals his desire to reconcile with another male by placing himself in a position where if the other chimpanzee rejected his olive branch, he’d be vulnerable to attack – a perfect illustration of primates ‘signalling type’. Decision-makers are more likely to take risks for trust where there is what Booth and I call a margin of safety, but primates appear to reconcile without such a safety net being in place.

Given that there may be situations where it is only possible for a state to signal its peaceful intentions to its adversary by exposing itself to significant risks in the event that its trust in the peaceful motives and intentions of the other proved unwarranted, the challenge facing leaders in these cases is whether to take a ‘leap in the dark’ (the phrase comes from Robert Schuman, French Foreign Minister, when launching his bold plan for European integration in 1950).

‘Leaps in the dark’ clearly involve risks and dangers. But in weighing these up, decision-makers need to remember that ‘playing it safe’ – applying worst-case thinking because there are no guarantees about the current and future motives and intentions of others – brings with it the risks and dangers of a self-fulfilling prophecy of security competition no one intended. There is no escape from risk and uncertainty in our world, and whilst this is so, a concept like trust will remain both elusive in conception - and hence worthy of interdisciplinary study - and indispensable to our global future.

This is a guest blog from Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler, Director of the David Davies Memorial Institute of International Studies, University of Wales, Aberystwyth


More on the work of the DDMI in the area of Trust-Building is available on the Institute's website.

Booth, K. and Wheeler, N.J., The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation and Trust in World Politics (forthcoming Palgrave Macmillan 2007).

Mearsheimer, J. J. (2001) The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York: W.W. Norton.

Seabright, P. (2004) The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Charles H. Green said...

Interesting discussion, many thanks.

It seems to me that many distinctions and comparisons are made here--chimps and humans, trust games vs. force games--but I don't see one key distinction.

When trust deals with individuals, the players represent their own interests directly. But when the trust issues are those of the state, then even the least democratic of states is involved in speaking for others, and of their own legitimacy in so doing.

To my mind, that reduces our ability to draw valid inferences from primate behavior--or frankly from one-on-one metaphors, for that matter. For example, in my own work on trust, I find relationship metaphors very useful to describe trust dynamics--marriages or romantic relationships in particular, though also friendships or other family members.

But those don't necessarily apply if I'm negotiating arms agreements on behalf of a few million others. First, I have to assume least common denominators in my constituency. Second, when I'm representing someone, it's likely that my risk tolerance will be a lot less--I might personally take a lot of risk, but am likely to take much less on behalf of others, either because I feel I "owe" it to them, or because they will yank my job from me if I don't.

JB said...

Dear Charles

I think you make a valid point about the difference between negotiating for oneself as opposed to negotiating on the behalf of others.

As one of its co-organizers, I was at the workshop on 25 May that Nick Wheeler discussed in his post. I share your caution about the extent to which it's possible to extend inferences from the primate world to phenomena as complex as multilateral negotiations, though I should clarify that arguing for direct inferences wasn't our purpose on 25 May.

One of the things I found fascinating in Frans de Waal's talk was that when he showed footage of social situations involving apes, the participants immediately were able to relate what they saw happening to what they considered to be equivalent situations in their own experiences in diplomacy. (Interestingly, this followed some half-joking skepticism from some before the workshop.) There was immediate recognition of familiar social challenges, and it prompted the negotiators present to talk about their work and interactions in new ways I certainly hadn't witnessed before. (Regrettably, we were permitted to record de Waal's presentation as a pod-cast, but couldn't record the subsequent Q&A because of the Chatham House rule.)

I should add that my own background is as a government arms control negotiator. Your comments withstanding, what I think is often underestimated, especially in social science academic literature, is the extent to which personal inter-relationships actually DO influence the perceptions of negotiators - something not often appreciated outside because these negotiations aren't usually transparent. In my experience, negotiators in these situations often lean heavily on their intuitions (in other words, are susceptible to a range of cognitive constraints). And while negotiators talk in terms of "I represent", this can become rather abstract compared to the social dynamics of the environment they're immersed in, especially over the duration of a long negotiation, and "I represent" can become interchangeable with "me".

When you think about it, that's precisely why we have diplomatic negotiators, since if there was no advantage to be gained from personal trust-building, why have them at all? None of this invalidates your points, but it just underlines the difficulties in making generalizations about what guides negotiators' behaviour.

It also raises the possibility that by prompting negotiators to be more aware of cognitive constraints they might not otherwise be cognisant of, we might be able to help them better differentiate "I" with "I represent" and so be more effective when "I" thinking is an impediment.

In a related vein, environments that promote informal trust-building might lead to better outcomes. I'm of the view that many multilateral processes don't handle these "cognitive ergonomics" at all well. Meanwhile, behind all of the spin of summit diplomacy, for instance, political leaders seem to recognise that there's value in personal rapport and trust.

I haven't read your books on trust in the business context (having just Googled you, Charles) but I suspect that the differing complexities of multilateral negotiations aside, the fundamentals aren't dissimilar from other human social situations, including seller-client relationships. But that's speculation on my part, and I'd be pleased to hear your thoughts.

One final point, lest confusion has arisen, "trust" and "force" games came up separately, in the context of Paul Seabright's talk and subsequent discussion, rather than in de Waal's talk.


John Borrie