At the end of March, the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) hosted a visit from Dr Marcus Holmes, Assistant Professor of Government at the College of William & Mary, who, in 2014, became an Honorary Research Fellow in Social Neuroscience and International Relations at the ICCS. During his visit to Birmingham, Dr Holmes spent time exploring the Chamberlain Collection in the Cadbury Research Library, which includes letters describing Neville Chamberlain’s meetings with Hitler in the 1930s. This research forms a key historical case-study in Dr Holmes’ forthcoming book, tentatively titled: ‘Face Value: Social Neuroscience and the Problem of Intentions’, which attempts to explain the unique value of face-to-face diplomacy.


The visit culminated in a workshop on Saturday 28th March, on ‘Face-to-face Diplomacy and Interpersonal Trust in IR’, which looked in depth at chapters from Dr Holmes’ current work-in-progress, and also from Professor Nicholas J Wheeler’s forthcoming book, ‘Trusting Enemies’ (under contract with OUP). Contributors to the workshop included Professor Ken Booth (Aberystwyth University), Justin Morris (University of Hull) and Dr Heather Williams (King’s College London), as well as Paul Schulte (Honorary Professor, ICCS) and various members of the ICCS research community.

The purpose of the workshop was to outline the central arguments of the books, identify some of the problems and potential pitfalls, and invite feedback on how to tackle these challenges. The key aim of Dr Holmes’ book is to draw on recent work in social neuroscience and cognitive psychology to unravel the “problem of intentions” in IR theory.  He argues that face-to-face (f2f) encounters have traditionally been seen as the cornerstone of international politics, with leaders extolling the value of meeting to discuss issues in person. However, these encounters have been treated by scholars as largely irrelevant in the wider context of International Relations, and therefore have not been studied in great detail. In addition, the leaders themselves have been unable to articulate why these meetings are so important, beyond acknowledging their value on an instinctive, intuitive level. Dr Holmes argues that initial studies of mirror neurons – highly advanced neural synchronisation – provide a mechanism to explain why f2f interactions are different to less proximate forms of communication, and why they are therefore significant. In essence, the book explores the factors which lead to understanding the intention of others, which in turn can lead to trust between both individual leaders, and the states they represent.


Trust, and the conditions in which it can be created and cultivated, is the central theme of Professor Wheeler’s book ‘Trusting Enemies’, which was explored in the afternoon session of the workshop. The book challenges the existing literature, which is dominated by the ‘state as trusting actor’ assumption and considers states to be the principal component in building trusting relationships. Professor Wheeler instead argues that only individuals are capable of trusting behaviour and seeks to understand the dynamics that influence this condition, explore the strategies that individuals (particularly leaders) employ to signal their intentions, and assess the impact that this has on inter-state relations. In essence, the book explores how trust can be developed between individual leaders, and then embedded within their respective governments, bureaucracies, and societies.

The workshop provided a an invaluable opportunity to delve into the key issues currently facing the authors, and draw on contributions from leading scholars in both International Relations and neuroscience to test the originality of the central theses, together with the added value of neuroscientific insights to the question of face-to-face diplomacy. The ICCS is committed to promoting and developing  forums for discussion that bridge the gap between the disciplines, focusing in particular on applying theories of social neuroscience and cognitive psychology to issues of international politics. We look forward to hosting similar events in the future.