Trust-building in Nuclear Worlds

Professor Nicholas Wheeler received a 3-year ESRC / AHRC fellowship to pursue the 'Trust-building in Nuclear Worlds' project as part of the Global Uncertainties programme, which brings together the activities of the UK's Research Councils to better integrate current investments and to develop and support new multi-disciplinary research in response to global security challenges.

Professor Nicholas Wheeler


Nicholas J. Wheeler is Professor of International Relations and Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation, and Security at the University of Birmingham. His publications include (with Mlada Bukovansky, Ian Clark, Robyn Eckersley, Christian Reus-Smit, and Richard Price), Special Responsibilities: Global Problems and American Power (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2012); (with Ken Booth) The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation, and Trust in World Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); (edited with Jean-Marc Coicaud) National Interest Versus Solidarity: Particular and Univeral Ethics in International Life (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2008); (with Ian Clark) The British Origins of Nuclear Strategy 1945-55 (Oxford: Oxford University Press). He is the author of Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) and is currently writing a book provisionally entitled Trusting Rivals: Alternative Paths to Security in the Nuclear Age. This is a key output of a 3-year ESRC/AHRC Fellowship on ‘The Challenges to Trust-Building in Nuclear Worlds (awarded under RCUK’s ‘Global Uncertainties: Security For All in a Changing World’ programme. He is co-editor with Professor Christian Reus-Smit of the prestigious Cambridge Series in International Relations.

The project was inspired and developed out of Ken Booth and Wheeler's book The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation, and Trust in World Politics, Palgrave Macmillan  2008). 

The Security-DilemmaIt began in October 2009 and was based until February 2012 in the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University. Its new home is in the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security which was established at the University of Birmingham in February 2012. From October 2009 to July 2011, Wheeler was ably assisted by Dr Jan Ruzicka. The current research assistant on the project is Dani Nedal.

There is a rich literature on trust in other fields – notably Philosophy, Sociology, and Psychology, but those who have addressed trust in these other fields have not considered the relevance of their work to building trust at the international level. At the same time, it is only recently that International Relations scholars have begun to take the concept of trust seriously (key works include Larson 1997; Kydd 2000, 2005; Booth and Wheeler 2008; Rathbun 2011). There has been some work on trust in the related field of Peace Research (key works include Deutsch 1957; Mitchell 2000) but none of this work has been systematically applied to the challenge of building trust between nuclear (and potential nuclear) rivals, and to strengthening the foundations of the global nuclear order. 

The project is investigating the following research questions:

  • How can multidisciplinary theorising about trust contribute to international relations theory?
  • What role can trust play in mitigating and eliminating nuclear rivalries?
  • In what contexts can trust facilitate cooperation?
  • What ideas and beliefs promote conflict and insecurity between nuclear-armed states and what ideas and beliefs can transform relations so as to promote cooperation and peace?
  • What lessons can we draw from successful cases of trust building?

The project is supported by a multidisciplinary core group which brings together scholars working on trust in a range of disciplines with experts on nuclear weapons and security.

A key contribution of the project is the development of a new interdisciplinary model of trust-building which is being applied to four key case studies on the project. These are:

  1. the avoidance of nuclear rivalry and conflict between Argentina and Brazil in the late 1970s and 1980s
  2. the transformation of US-Soviet nuclear relations in the 1980s
  3. the short-lived cooperation between India and Pakistan in the nuclear field in early 1999 which ended with the war between the two countries over Kargil
  4. the conflict between the United States and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme in the 2000s

The purpose of these theoretical and applied activities is to develop new policy agendas aimed at creating opportunities for promoting trust in relation to one of the most significant issues of global security, namely the management and ending of nuclear rivalries.