Trust-building in Nuclear Worlds

Trust-Building in Nuclear Worlds (September 2009 to September 2013).


A major research project in the area of trust and cooperation is ‘The Challenges to Trust-Building in Nuclear Worlds’ (TBNW). This project was funded from September 2009 until September 2013 as one of 14 Fellowships under the ‘Ideas and Beliefs’ stream of Research Council UK’s ‘Global Uncertainties Programme: Security for All in a Changing World.’ The project, funded primarily by the ESRC and AHRC, was inspired and developed out of Ken Booth and Nicholas Wheeler's book, The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation, and Trust in World Politics, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). The TBNW project 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 assisted by Dr. Jan Ruzicka (now a lecturer at Aberystwyth University) and from August 2011 until August 2012, the project research assistant was Dani Nedal (now a PhD at Georgetown University).

There is a rich literature on trust in other fields – notably Philosophy, Sociology, and Psychology, but these have not considered the relevance of their work to building trust between adversaries 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; Hoffman 2006; 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-armed and arming adversaries. 

The fundamental question facing scholars and practitioners of trust is whether the trust available between individuals, within families, and in settled societies is possible in the anarchical world of international politics. For some, it is too risky to act on the basis of trust at the international level where uncertainty, the existential condition of human relations, manifests itself in a particularly acute and dangerous way. The rationale guiding this research programme is that a multidisciplinary focus on the concept of trust-building can open up new theoretical perspectives that can contribute to developing and sustaining peaceful international relations. This programme of work has aimed, and continues to aim, on how a multidisciplinary scholarly community and relevant practitioner communities think about trust in the context of the new age of uncertainty in relation to one of the most significant issues of global public policy, namely the future of nuclear weapons.

The project has been supported by a multidisciplinary core group which brought together scholars working on trust in a range of disciplines with experts on nuclear weapons and security (members of the group included established scholars like Ken Booth, William Walker, John Simpson, Geoffrey Hosking, and Guido Moellering, as well as early career researchers like Naomi Head, Vincent Keating, Nicola Horsburgh, Jan Ruzicka, Kate Sullivan, and Sara Kutchesfarani). Indeed, the growth of a new cluster of early career researchers, especially in the UK, exploring the role of trust in international security, especially nuclear issues, has been one of the outstanding achievements of the project.

Aims and Research Findings

The aim of this project was to explore which particular ideas and beliefs promote or obstruct trust-building between nuclear adversaries. The key research question that has evolved from the original application is: how far is the building of trust a critical causal variable in a transformative process which leads to a de-escalation of formerly adversarial nuclear relations into peaceful ones?

The conclusion from the research is that the genesis and growth of trust has been, and potentially will in future cases, prove to be a critical causal variable in the transformation of adversarial nuclear relationships into peaceful ones (Wheeler 2013 – to be fully developed in Wheeler’s book that is under contract with OUP and soon to be in press).

Ideas and beliefs that obstruct trust between nuclear adversaries

  • Ideological fundamentalism (the belief that cooperation is not possible because of   the nature of an opponent’s political system and its core values);
  • Perpetual bad faith views of the adversary (leading to suspicion of any moves that are presented by an opponent as conciliatory ones);
  • The belief that an adversary must make the first cooperative move.

Ideas and beliefs that promote trust between nuclear adversaries

  • Empathy: the theoretical and empirical findings suggest that the first steps of cooperation are possible in the absence of trust provided that actors can put into practice policies based on empathy for an opponent’s security needs and interests;
  • An acceptance of vulnerability on the part of actors, despite such actions incurring risks in the event that the other side exploits such actions;
  • A sense of common interest and shared responsibility between key decision-makers for reducing the risks of nuclear war;
  • The importance of face-to-face interactions and other forms of communication (letters, telephone calls) between leaders and key policy-makers in overcoming the ideas and beliefs that block trust. Reynolds (2007) explored this from the perspective of diplomatic history, but he did not develop a theory to explain the conditions under which face-to-face diplomacy can build trust. By contrast, Holmes (2011, 2013) has recognised its critical importance to the growth of empathy and trust, but he has restricted his explanation to social neuroscience, crucially mirror neuron theory. Wheeler’s research has gone beyond Holmes’s enquiry and three conditions have been identified as critical to the success of face-to-face diplomacy in building trust: (1) empathy; (2) personal and political risk-taking; and (3) common interests and shared responsibilities.

A key finding of the project is that even if trusting relationships can be built between leaders/key decision-makers, this does not guarantee that actors will make what the project calls ‘conciliatory frame-breaking’ moves (the concept is explored in Wheeler 2013, 2014, and in detail in Wheeler’s new book). This is because other factors can undermine the possibilities of such moves taking place (e.g. the competence of actors to make promises stick in domestic political settings, the survivability of political leaders, and the role of third parties). Empirical cases reflect these points: for example, domestic spoilers inside Pakistan led to the collapse of cooperation between India and Pakistan after the Lahore peace process (Wheeler 2011).

A further finding of the project is that cooperation can develop in the absence of trust provided that actors exercise and act upon that particular form of empathy that has been called security dilemma sensibility (SDS is developed in Booth and Wheeler 2008: 7). SDS is not sufficient by itself to lead actors to build trust, though it is a crucial precondition for the success of face-to-face diplomacy to build trust. But without the growth of trust, SDS is not sufficient by itself to lead actors to make frame-breaking moves (Wheeler 2011, 2013).

Wheeler argues that trust-building has failed in the Iranian context because mutual SDS and reciprocity have been absent (Nedal and Wheeler 2012; Baker, Lucas, and Wheeler 2012; Wheeler 2013; Head and Wheeler 2013).

The project has also supplied a ground-breaking re-conceptualization of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a series of trusting relationships among states. Ruzicka and Wheeler 2010 presented a novel approach to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by engaging with multidisciplinary thinking about the nature of trusting relationships that opened up new perspectives on the relationship between interests and promises in understanding the future of the NPT.


The project has employed three broad methodological approaches in its research design: (1) a deductive approach to theory building; (2) a comparative analysis of cases (involving process tracing); and (3) critical oral history (focused on the Argentina-Brazil and Iranian nuclear cases).

A Deductive Approach to Theory Building

The central hypothesis that the research has generated concerns the claim that the development of trust is a critical enabling condition in leading actors to make (following Roderick Kramer’s earlier formulation) what I call ‘frame-breaking’ moves. The latter have the potential (if reciprocated) to begin the process by which adversarial nuclear relations can be transformed into peaceful ones (Wheeler 2013 and in Wheeler’s book that will be published by OUP in 2015). The methodological challenge has been: (1) how to identify and explain the genesis and growth of trust in adversarial nuclear contexts; and (2) evidencing and tracing the impact, if any, of trust in the decision of one or both sides to de-escalate conflicts, and crucially make frame-breaking moves. The first challenge has been met by showing the limitations of existing attempts to explain the growth of trust between adversaries (e.g. Larson 1997; Kydd 2005; Rathbun 2011) and the contribution of a new trust-building mechanism centred on the role that face-to-face diplomacy and other forms of communicative dynamics can play in building new trusting relationships between leaders and top-level policy-makers (building on Reynolds in his 2007 book Summits and the more recent work of Holmes (2011, 2013) who has applied social neuroscience to IR).

Methodologically, trusting relationships at the interpersonal diplomatic level have been identified in three ways: first, the discursive justifications and reasoning of the actors (e.g. speeches, archival materials, memoirs etc.); second, this material has been, where possible, supplemented by and triangulated with semi-structured interviews with those officials who were close to key decisions; and third, the methodology of process tracing has been used to identify those key actions during or after the face-to-face interactions that stand as indicators of the growth of a trusting relationship.

Comparative case study analysis

The project employs three case studies (the end of the Cold War, the rise and fall of the 1999 Lahore peace process between India and Pakistan, and the failure of the US outreach to Iran in President Obama’s first term) and uses process tracing (George and Bennett 2005) to investigate the conditions – ideational and material – which enable or constrain the building of trusting relationships at the interpersonal diplomatic level. Rival accounts that claim to explain processes of trust-building and frame-breaking moves (e.g. Osgood 1962; Etzioni 1962; Kydd 1995; Larson 1997; Kupchan 2010; Rathbun 2011) are tested against the explanatory claims of the project that the genesis and growth of trust is a significant enabling condition for actors to make frame-breaking moves.

The original research design had been premised on studying the Argentine-Brazilian case to understand through a ‘critical oral history’ approach (see below) the ideas and beliefs that had allowed these two countries to avoid an escalating nuclear rivalry. The original aim had then been to apply these lessons using Kelman’s ‘interactive problem solving workshops’ to the cases of India and Pakistan, and the Middle East (focusing on the Iranian nuclear file). However, in the course of conducting the research, and especially after holding the March 2012 critical oral history workshop in Rio (co-organised and sponsored by Dr. Matias Spektor of the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV), it became clear that the Argentina-Brazil case did not support the received wisdom that this relationship at the end of the 1970s constituted an escalating nuclear rivalry.

Critical Oral History Workshops

The March 2012 Critical Oral History (COH) workshop has made a major empirical contribution to our knowledge of how the Brazil-Argentina rapprochement became possible Dr. Spektor and Wheeler will shortly be posting the transcript of the workshop online and there is a film that can be viewed to accompany this. In addition, there will be a co-edited book exploring the implications of the new findings for received historical scholarship. In addition, Dani Nedal (who was actively involved in the research leading up to the COH in Rio) and Wheeler are co-authoring a chapter in this book that considers the implications of the COH findings for wider trust research in International Relations (see Nedal and Wheeler forthcoming 2014; Transcript 2014; Film 2014).

Wheeler has participated in a number of critical oral history (COH) workshops (in addition the one held in Rio) with former US and Iranian decision-makers. These workshops have been aimed at gaining an understanding of the barriers to trust in past interactions.

The Project's Impact so Far

The first major impact of the project has been on the activities of specific NGOs in the security field who have incorporated the project’s research on trust into their work, namely:  

Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

The research that I have conducted on the ideas and beliefs that inhibit trust, and those that can promote it, was influential in Sir Richard Dalton’s Chatham House paper on the Iran nuclear negotiations in February 2013. The paper grew out of a closed meeting at Chatham House where I delivered the only paper (testimonial on file from Dalton – see also Baker, Lucas and Wheeler 2012; Nedal and Wheeler 2012; Wheeler 2013; Baker and Wheeler 2014).

The European Leadership Network 

Dr Ian Kearns (Director of the European Leadership Network) has acknowledged the impact of my research on the ELN’s work on NATO-Russia trust-building (see Durkelac, Kulesa, and Kearns 2013; testimony on file from Kearns).

Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace

My research has had a valuable impact on the Indian-based NGO, WISCOMP. I delivered training on the theory and practice of trust building in 2010 (using a variant of Herbert Kelman’s ‘interactive problem-solving’ method) to Indian early-career scholars, government officials, and representatives from industry, the Media, and the Arts. My research has had an important impact on how WISCOMP has framed its own trust-building and conflict transformation activities (Sewak 2011; testimonial on file from the Director of WISCOMP; Wheeler 2011, 2012).

All these activities have the potential for generating further, longer-term impact in the years ahead. In addition, the new project Wheeler is leading on ‘Nuclear Ethics and Global Nuclear Governance’ under the ESRC/AHRC’s Ethics, Rights and Security programme will provide further opportunities for impact with regard to this project on trust.

The second major impact of the project has been in relation to the work on Argentine-Brazilian nuclear cooperation that was conducted in partnership with Dr Matias Spektor’s team at FGV, Rio. The centre-piece of this effort has been the Critical Oral History (COH) conference that was held in Rio in February 2012. The publication of the conference transcript and associated commentary in the form of an edited book produced by the project team will provide a unique record, as seen from the perspective of the key officials who were central to the process of cooperation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The book, published in English, Portuguese, and Spanish will be accessible from June 2015 on the website of The Wilson Centre’s Cold War International History Project. In addition to the conference transcript, which provides new insights into how these two regional rivals de-escalated their nuclear competition, a film of the making of the Rio COH meeting will also be available on the Wilson Centre website. Two of the research fellows on the joint ICCS-FGV project, Dr. Carlo Patti and Ms. Renata Dalaqua, have used materials from the COH transcript to critically engage officials from The Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC) in technical meetings over the course of 2013 and 2014. In addition, Spektor is actively engaged in conversations on Brazil’s nuclear history, and the implications for future policy, with key decision makers such as Brazil’s Defence Minister, Celso Amorim, and Foreign Minister Antônio Patriota. Spektor and Wheeler plan, in conjunction with Professor John Tirman at MIT and Malcolm Byrne at the US National Security Archive, to develop a new project exploring Amorim’s role in the 2010 Tehran Declaration, bringing together Iranian, Brazilian, US, and Turkish officials in a future COH meeting.

The third impact of the project has been capacity development. This has taken two related forms: first, the project has played a pivotal role in the development in the UK of a new, cross-disciplinary research grouping that is investigating the role of trust in world politics. In particular, the project has become a magnet for the following early career researchers: Laura Considine (the linked PhD Studentship on the project), Naomi Head (Glasgow); Vincent Keating (formerly Durham and now University of Southern Denmark); Jan Ruzicka (Aberystwyth); Kate Sullivan (Oxford); Heather Williams (King’s College London); and Ben Zala (Leicester). The second aspect of capacity building has been the project’s institutionalization through the creation of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) at the University of Birmingham in February 2012, of which Wheeler is the first director. The Institute will, with the appointments currently being made, boast the largest concentration of research expertise in Europe, and perhaps the world, focused on the challenge of how to build trust in adversarial relationships, both within and between states. The grouping includes four PhDs working with Wheeler on trust and empathy at the University of Birmingham: Joshua Baker and Ana Alecsandru are ESRC DTC students, whilst Scott Edwards and Sumedh Rao are funded by the University of Birmingham. The research taking place in the ICCS retains a strong nuclear focus with the PI’s continuing research into the cases of US-Iran and India-Pakistan relations, the work of Baker on US-Iran nuclear relations, Alecsandru on the role of trust in the Cuban Missile Crisis. In addition, the new ESRC funded project led by Wheeler on Nuclear Ethics and Global Nuclear Governance has a key focus on the future role of the NPT in the structure of global governance. More broadly, the ICCS delivers an annual training programme in ‘Trust, Diplomacy and Conflict Transformation’, as well as offering a Master’s degree in Global Cooperation and Security. The training programme and Master’s degree provide important platforms for long-term impact.