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Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford questions whether trust really matters in diplomacy

My previous Diplomat piece on the logic and policy of helping Bad Leaders become Not-Quite-So-Bad Leaders ended with a word about President Trump and trust:

President Trump is offering Kim Jong Un himself a superb deal based on trust: “If you work with us, be nice, loosen up and get rich, you can expect to stay in power for a loooong time. Why not win a Nobel Peace Prize along the way? Not bad!”

To Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei he’s saying the exact opposite, based on distrust: “You’ve had your chance. You’ve blown it. Time to go. This time the US will not pussyfoot around. We’ll be there helping your internal enemies trample you into the dust. Sad!”

So, what is this thing called ‘trust’, and why – if it is at all – is it important in diplomacy?

There’s a lot going on in the idea of trust, with no one single meaning. But as the philosopher’s philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein might have said, the different ways we use the word trust as both a noun and a verb have a clear family resemblance. Notions of belief, reliability, predictability, safety, responsibility and honesty are all there somewhere, depending on the context.

Note too that when you say, “I trust you, Vladimir!” you’re expressing some subtle combination of thoughts about how Vladimir will behave in future; about what Vladimir is like ‘as a person’ now; and about your relationship with Vladimir (and thereby about yourself). Plus, of course, you may be lying and not trust Vladimir at all, but want to tell him that you do.

One of the great examples of leaders talking about trusting each other came in 2001, when newly elected USPresident G W Bush and Russia’s President Putin met for a get-to-know-you summit in Slovenia. President Bush had some striking words about their discussions at their joint press conference:

“I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy … I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

This sounds ridiculous today in the light of events. Yet it made sense for Bush to say that, either because he meant it or even if he didn’t altogether believe it. His aim in meeting Putin was to start to build a personal relationship, so that all sorts of complicated global issues could be tackled in a spirit of hard-headed partnership.

It’s hard for anyone who has not sat in on a top-level meeting between two national leaders to grasp what in fact is happening when the exchanges start. Both sides typically talk in a high level of affable banal generalisations about any given issue. They either don’t know the policy detail or don’t care about it – their job involves the ‘Big Picture,’ leaving puny detail to their minions. Their main aim in these meetings is to size up the other side so that they get a sense of what might be done together in the future, and how long that future might be:

How strong is her domestic position? What makes her tick as a person? What does she want, and really not want? Where will what she wants cut directly across what I want, to the point where she tries to block me? Is she strong, or weak? What am I dealing with here?

This is not so much about ‘building trust’ as it is about being realistic. Trust is helpful but not essential and in any case ephemeral.

These issues were at the fore when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed. Western leaders had the bewildering but welcome new problem of trying to get to know Russian leaders as people, with a view to cooperating in a normal diplomatic way.

UK Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd made a real effort to work closely and actively with Russia’s youthful new Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev. Kozyrev knew that post-communist Russia was not a place for the faint-hearted, and that his own position would be vulnerable sooner or later. He stressed to Hurd that he wanted their relationship to be based on one simple principle: No surprises!

What did Kozyrev mean by that? He was shrewdly noting that what hurts leaders (above all Russian leaders?) the most is looking weak. If another state does something that runs against your policy, the worst possible way for you to find out about it is to read about it in the newspapers and end up playing catch-up. Forewarned is forearmed.

This is an important part of speechwriting. In any foreign ministry, the leader for whom the speech is being drafted is probably the only person in the speech-production chain who knows top colleagues around the world, and so can judge how to finesse the language for key target individuals. The very fact that the speech is being given may be part of an esoteric understanding with other leaders to shape public opinion in several countries at the same time (see choreographed EU speeches on Brexit).

Before a keynote speech is given, a leader therefore might run the boldest passages or key ideas privately past key foreign colleagues, or at least alert them to the fact that a punchy speech is coming that may put them under public pressure to respond.

Note that at the levels of top diplomatic technique one leader can send another a clear if implicit message by notsharing key elements of a controversial speech in advance:

Angela, usually we warn each other about a speech that may cause problems. This time I decided not do so. I know you’ll feel let down, and that we’re going to have a bumpy patch for a while…

The basic point in all this is that diplomatic negotiation is not like business negotiation. In diplomacy, trust has only a small yet mysterious role to play. Leader X knows that however well things are going with leader Y, leader Y’s priority is to stay in power. If that means dumping or manipulating or ignoring hard-won agreements with leader X, so be it. Cynical? Realistic? Yes.

This explains why international negotiating is so slow. And why, when issues are especially sensitive for all sides (notably on arms control or security issues), intense attention is played to verifying that what has been agreed in fact then happens.

In other words, the deal happens even though there is little or no trust between the parties. It may even happen because there is no trust. That doesn’t matter: everyone agrees that the operational trust needed to get results can be delivered by all concerned, allowing intrusive technical verification of their commitments.

This is clear in Washington’s policies towards Iran and North Koreaand their respective nuclear weapons ambitions. In each case the Americans insist on full and heavy verification (typically by the International Atomic Energy Agency, backed up by all sorts of intelligence sources) to make sure that promised programmes are being fulfilled and that there is nothing else fishy going on.

Not easy. Apart from all the fiendishly complicated scientific issues (and weighty international policy concerns) involved in these programmes, there comes a point where raw national pride kicks in. The verification regimes demanded by Washington are seen by Tehran and Pyongyang as simply too obnoxious and/or too threatening to key national security structures’ own interests.

Yet, when two national leaders do enjoy each other’s company and stay around in power for a while, they can accomplish a lot together. They can see further than the daily hubbub of domestic policies and look more strategically at things. They agree that it makes sense to invest in their relationship.

I spent an interesting but frustrating four years in Polandas UK Ambassador from 2003-07. During those years Poland’s politics were, ahem, extra-turbulent, with nine(!) finance ministers coming and going. I knew that I was wasting my time in trying to persuade UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, (by 2007 entering his tenth year in office) to take much of an interest in the thoughts of his Polish counterpart. Why bother, when there could be a new one next week?


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