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date: 21 October 2018

Trust and International Organization

Summary and Keywords

Trust is the expectation that one’s interests be looked after despite the possibility of exploitation by the one being trusted (trustee). Trusting always involves some risk on the part of the one trusting (truster). The truster is vulnerable—either by choice or by circumstance. One can never be absolutely sure that one’s interests are important to the trustee or that their past performance can allow one to predict future behavior. The trustee retains their agency and even has an incentive for betrayal in the future. Much of the research on trust in international relations is aimed at explaining cooperation amid anarchy. In this context, cooperation begins with a leap of faith by actors who trust generally rather than specifically. Such “generalized trusters” do not require evidence that the trustee in question is even trustworthy with respect to a particular issue, since all actors are assumed to be worthy of trust across all topics (assuming they have the capacity to act). This can be considered “credulity,” and it primarily involves having trustful attitudes, affects, emotions, or motivational structures that are not focused on specific people, institutions, or groups. Furthermore, one cannot speak of trust without some reference to affect, particularly since one can never absolutely calculate the odds of betrayal.

Keywords: trust, trustworthiness, international organization, exploitation, truster, trustee, betrayal, cooperation, anarchy, credulity

International relations scholars have discovered trust. Recent work shows that while the concept may have been implicit in earlier scholarship, it is now addressed explicitly and systematically, both as an independent and dependent variable. Much of the research naturally borrows heavily from other disciplines, although the debates in these various disciplines are not always acknowledged. I propose to carry out a systematic analysis of the literature on trust from a wide range of disciplines, focusing on a series of key questions that will help direct future research on the topic. While trust is an important element in explaining a range of counterintuitive behavior in international relations, care must be taken in its use. This review of the literature pays close attention to the use of the concept with respect to the role of power and the weakness of trust, levels of analysis, normative implications, and problems of tautology.

I propose to carry out a systematic analysis of the literature on trust from a wide range of disciplines, focusing on a series of key questions that will help direct future research on the topic. I also suggest some potentially fruitful empirical work, although I stop short of providing an entirely new elaboration of the concept at this stage.

What Is Trust?

Trust begins and ends with a question: Will another individual look out for my interests when taking actions I cannot control? Trust is the expectation that one’s interests will in fact be looked after despite the possibility of exploitation by the trustee. It is primarily cognitive and rational, although we will soon see that there exists a noncognitive view of trust.

Trusting always involves some risk on the part of the one trusting (truster). One can never be absolutely sure that one’s interests are important to the trustee’s or that her past performance can allow one to predict her future behavior (Potter, 2002, p. 3). The trustee retains her agency and even has an incentive to betray you in the future, by definition (Weber & Carter, 2003, p. 2). The truster is vulnerable—either by choice or by circumstance. At some point, he has put himself in a position that requires another person’s intervention (Booth & Wheeler, 2008, p. 229). As put by Rathbun:

Trust is the belief that one will not be harmed when his or her fate is placed in the hands of others. In entails a combination of uncertainty and vulnerability… . Trusters put themselves in a vulnerable position because they do not expect harm to come of it. Yet if trust is involved, they do not know for sure.

(Rathbun, 2012, p. 10)

To clarify the point, trust involves at least three questions: Is the truster vulnerable to exploitation by the one being trusted? Is the one being trusted willing to embrace the truster’s aims and interests? Can the one being trusted freely act on this willingness to trust? (Peppers & Rogers, 2012). Where one of these components does not apply, one can challenge whether trust is really in play.

Not all uses of trust in international relations include all of these factors. Kydd, for example, defines trust as a willingness to reciprocate cooperative gestures without exploiting the other actor (Kydd, 2005, p. 3). Where Prisoners’ Dilemma (PD) games are concerned, this means that the trustee will not take advantage of unilateral moves to cooperate despite that this necessarily makes the truster vulnerable to exploitation. Since noncooperation is the natural result of the PD game, parties must somehow reconfigure the arrangement toward an assurance game such as the stag hunt. This is not always possible, as pointed out by Maoz and Terris (2006) and so cooperation is unlikely except in very unusual circumstances. Further, not all cooperation entails risk of exploitation, as in the case of coordination games (deciding which side of the road on which to drive), and so trust is irrelevant (except for trusting that the other actor will not behave in a reckless, destructive fashion) (Hollis, 1998; Weber & Carter, 2003, p. 144). Defining trust as the expectation of cooperation is far too broad (in his defense, Kydd implicitly redefines the term more narrowly over the course of his work).

Hoffman, drawing on Hardin, explicitly states that trust involves putting your fate in someone else’s hands through delegation (Hoffman, 2006, p. 3). While this is done out of self-interest, it nonetheless comes at considerable risk. A trusting relationship, according to Hoffman, is the sum total of arrangements that are undertaken to instantiate this trust. At no point, however, is the truster entirely protected from being exploited by the trustee.

Hoffman neglects to explore the significance of the issues that are at stake in the trusting relationship, addressing only whether the issues are nontrivial. But there is a big difference between giving an international organization authority over, say, migratory birds as opposed to national defense or even management of one’s customs and border controls. Liechtenstein evinces more trust when it allows Switzerland to manage the totality of its economic and political security than the United States does when it allows the World Trade Organization’s dispute settlement bodies to rule on an anti-dumping involving a few million dollars’ worth of tires from China. Nooteboom has pointed that in experimental settings, people weigh the degree of trustworthiness of a hypothetical trustee differently depending on the stakes (Nooteboom, 2002, p. 157). Baier points out that a child’s attitude toward a parent is the epitome of trust. That said, there is a literature that questions whether complete dependency is a reflection of trust or rather circumstantial necessity. Where the trusting relationship is compulsory, one might question whether “trust” is the appropriate descriptor (Hardin, 2002, p. 101; Weber & Carter, 2003, p. 22).

Scholars of international trust generally ignore the possibility that the trustee can herself be vulnerable in a two-way trusting relationship. Trustees must be able to exercise discretion with respect to the formation of a trusting relationship in order to protect themselves from being overstretched or weakened. Vulnerability is often situational rather than absolute. This is well documented in the alliance literature that addresses the danger of a major power being drawn into a conflict by a reckless weaker ally (Paul, 1994). Trustees, then, must also trust that they will not be abused by a free riding truster, even at the risk of passing up a potentially productive relationship (Portes, 1998, p. 15).

Much of the research on trust is aimed at explaining an even more important puzzle: cooperation amid anarchy. Rathbun argues that cooperation begins with a leap of faith by actors who trust generally rather than specifically (Rathbun, 2012, p. 3). Such “generalized trusters” don’t require evidence that the trustee in question is even trustworthy with respect to a particular issue, since all actors are assumed to be worthy of trust across all topics (assuming they have the capacity to act). Becker calls this “credulity” and emphasizes that it is “noncognitive,” meaning that it primarily involves “out having trustful attitudes, affects, emotions, or motivational structures that are not focused on specific people, institutions, or groups” (Becker, 1996, p. 44). He denies that one can speak of trust without some reference to affect, particularly since one can never absolutely calculate the odds of betrayal.

It is worth noting that Rathbun explores this argument by studying American policies during the 20th century—a period when the United States was perhaps the least vulnerable of any state since the Roman Empire—and the efforts to create the League of Nations and United Nations were ultimately shaped by legislators in Congress who were anything but trusting. Elsewhere he admits that hegemons need not trust if they plan to be taken advantage of by free riders (Rathbun, 2012, p. 18). At any rate, if trust involves vulnerability, as we have seen, it makes little sense to discuss “generalized trust” since one cannot know in advance whether one might be vulnerable to a hypothetical trustee.

Before moving on, it is worth asking what is the opposite of trust. Since trust involves a willingness to make oneself vulnerable on the faith that the one being trusted is looking out for your interests and has the capacity to act on that intent, then any time actors refuse, they are not trusting. We could call this distrust, suspicion, guardedness, or any number of things. As Rathbun points out, the preferred strategy for such an actor would be going it alone (Rathbun, 2012, p. 2). While non-trusters may complain that others lack the will or capacity to act in their interest (perhaps due to pessimism about human nature generally or the doubts about certain actors specifically), this attitude is most likely to be expressed by efforts to make oneself less vulnerable to opportunism. We will see in a later section that this is reflected in the design of international agreements and institutions. I will only say at this point that it is possible to cooperate without trusting, assuming one has made himself invulnerable to exploitation.

The next question pertains to whether the trustee’s interests must coincide with those of the truster in order for trust to exist. Not all scholars of trust address this directly. Kydd’s definition—even in its narrower sense—sets aside the question of whether the trustee actually takes the truster’s interests into account or merely acts on self-interest. As discussed by Keohane, it is likely that cooperation will emerge spontaneously where actors’ interests are in harmony (Keohane, 1984). Where interests are complementary, as in the case of producers and consumers, cooperation need not require trust (Hollis, 1998; Smith, 1776/1991, p. 20; Weber & Carter, 2003, p. 144). More important, where the potential gains from trusting are greater than the potential losses, trusting is rational, even where the trustee’s interests are purely selfish (Booth & Wheeler, 2008, p. 232; Kydd, 2005). Baier defines this as reliance: counting on people to behave in their self-interest or some form of instinct (Baier, 1986).

This is at the root of two fundamental features of international law and international organization: reciprocity and delayed fulfillment. The bulk of international agreements and institutions invite states to enter into risky exchanges: giving up something today that increases one’s vulnerability to exploitation (e.g., lowering tariffs, regulating pollution, reducing weapons stockpiles) with the promise that one’s counterpart will offer something of equal or greater value in the future. Once the risk is rewarded with reciprocal actions, confidence increases and states may choose to enter into new exchanges (Axelrod & Dawkins, 2006). This does not necessarily produce trust, however, but instead an increased confidence in another actor’s predictability. It may still be in the interest of the other party to exploit and betray.

Since intentions and interests matter, it makes little sense to say that you trust the sun will rise or that Immanuel Kant will take his habitual afternoon walk (Kant, 17841785/1997, p. 85). Since these acts have no moral content, they do not relate to trust. Trust requires that the one being trusted has enough agency to choose to take your interests into account or not. It is not reasonable to trust something that is not aware of your individual needs (although, as in the case of a bus driver or a development NGO, an actor can be attentive to the needs of a group to which you belong and benefits you indirectly). This fact came as a rude shock to those who watched trusted financial institutions push the world economy to the brink of collapse in 2008 (Peppers & Rogers, 2012, pp. 63–65). Even more risky might be the tendency of some to trust “the market” and other inchoate forces since it is clear that intentionality is absent (Hardin, 2002, p. 188). This helps to explain why some liberal IOs that push states to rely more heavily on market forces are often perceived as not having at heart the interests of those states or their citizens (see the vitriol heaped on the International Monetary Fund in the 1970s and the European Central Bank in the 2010s).

This issue is addressed more clearly by Hoffman who relies heavily on Hardin’s extensive work on rational trusting. Hoffman defines trust in terms a willingness to delegate something of value to a trustee with the expectation that one’s interests will be protected and not exploited (Hoffman, 2006, p. 1). While Hardin argues that this can be based on the belief that one’s interests are “encapsulated” by the interests of the trustee (meaning that what you want is included in the things the trustee also wants), Hoffman argues that is can also be based on a belief that the trustee has a sense of honor and will keep promises not to exploit a vulnerable truster (Hardin, 2002, p. 1; Hoffman, 2006, p. 15). One typically hopes that one’s attorney will represent you as though she were representing herself (Cook, Hardin, & Levi, 2005, p. 96). Likewise, a physician will take as much care with a stranger as with his own child (perhaps better, since his emotions might not impair his judgment). As a result, individuals in dire need of legal representation or medical care—where their very lives may hang in the balance—can count on complete strangers to look out for them. Both donors and recipients of multilateral development assistance routinely allow international organizations such as Unicef and WHO to operate with considerable discretion on the assumption that they act as though their own interests were at stake (which is often the case from a political point of view).

Constructivists have argued that interests may come to overlap or even coincide as certain norms are adopted and identities merged. Work on norm contagion and diffusion shows how a combination of interests, dialogue, and modeling can lead to the adoption of new priorities, roles, and identities (Finnemore, 2003; Risse, Ropp, & Sikkink, 1999; Sandholtz & Stiles, 2009; Wimmer, 2008). But these arguments are still on the fringes of the debate about trust. In a commentary on Patrick (2009) by Rathbun, we see one reason why this process has been discounted:

Patrick writes that identity leads states sometimes to pursue “ideal” interests other than power, wealth and survival. In this sense, cooperation and multilateralism are almost altruistic in nature. Gains for the other become gains for oneself. Relations are marked by a “we-feeling” and a willingness to treat others on equal terms despite disparities in power. If this is the case, trust is not an issue since trust is based on an expectation of reciprocity and we do not expect reciprocity from ourselves. If the other is part of the self, the notion of opportunism loses any meaning.

(Rathbun, 2012, p. 39)

Rather than acknowledge that one of the great sources of peace in the world involves the changing of norms and identities, Rathbun dismisses the phenomenon as a semantic trick. (Once I think of you as me, I can no longer exploit you by definition since I would be exploiting me! See Wendt on how enemy behavior is interpreted differently from friend behavior—Wendt, 1999, p. 264.) Even the great political merger of our time—the reunification of Germany—has received very little academic attention. Even today there appears to be more interest in explaining German unification in 1871 than in 1990! But I would argue that it is precisely this mental transition that warrants explanation. Some recent work on security communities helps move this discussion forward. Security communities are clusters of states that have come to accept the notion that they will never use force to resolve disputes among themselves. This in turn stems from changes in their interests and their perceptions of each other’s interests. Ultimately, in a mature pluralistic security community, all the members’ defense planning is oriented outward, not toward other members (Adler & Barnett, 1998, p. 55; Deutsch, Burrell, & Kann, 1957). This does not mean there is not a kernel of doubt about the other members’ long-term intentions. In fact, that doubt explains why ultimately these associations are rooted in trust (Adler & Barnett, 1998, p. 414). The ultimate bond between states involves not just a sense of confidence and trust between policy elites, however, but a binding together of ordinary citizens with their foreign counterparts (Booth & Wheeler, 2008, p. 230). This, as with the other, can be achieved through “mutual learning.” This is most likely where states that are already economically and military secure are concerned (Adler & Barnett, 1998, p. 424). We see considerable evidence of this in Western Europe and North America already (Adler & Barnett, 1998; Shore, 1998).

Further, it is worth emphasizing the considerable work on the role of international institutions in developing and promoting international norms. Jolly, Emmerij, and Weiss (2005) and Thakur, Cooper, and English (2005) have documented the importance of advocacy by United Nations agencies and debates in UN fora in the emergence of such pivotal notions as the responsibility to protect, sustainable development, peacekeeping, and human development. Successive Secretaries-General have been instrumental in promoting such novel and controversial ideas as peacekeeping, post-conflict peace building, the responsibility to protect, and climate change, sometimes at considerable risk to their careers (Kille, 2006). With respect to questions of trust, the UN and the International Court of Justice in particular have reinforced such notions as pacta sunt servanda, transparency, and accountability to the international community (Sandholtz & Stiles, 2009).

This last question is whether trustees have authority and capacity to act. There is generally little question that trustees have power or else the truster would not approach her in the first place. What is perhaps more interesting is whether a trustee’s power is limitless. Hoffman and Hardin agree that all trustees have limited authority to act in behalf of the truster, although Hoffman believes the scope is necessarily expansive since one cannot always know what choices a trustee will face in the future, including the possibility that the truster’s interests may even change over time. In fact, it is even possible, according to Baier, that a trustee will need to act against the truster’s interests if some higher moral principle conflicts with honoring the trusting relationship (Baier, 1986). For example, it may be that a trustee has been entrusted by more than one truster, and in order to prevent the one from being destroyed, she must neglect some minor obligation to the other. Trustees must have some discretion to make such choices. Hoffman argues that the scope of that discretion is one measure of the degree of trust that exists. Baier agrees, pointing out that if a partner in a trusting relationship (such as a marriage) engages in controlling behavior or routinely sets out to deceive the other, the relationship is “morally rotten” (Baier, 1986, p. 255).

The degree of discretion—the extent to which the trustee can act on the trust invested in her—is controversial in the literature. Hoffman argues, on one hand, that while the trustee should have considerable discretion (if the relationship is founded on trust), she must provide mechanisms for the truster to have an “effective voice” in the trustee’s decision making to ensure that its interests are heard in an ongoing way (note that this need not involve a veto over the trustee’s actions) (Hoffman, 2006, p. 15). Likewise, enforcement of the trustee’s actions should come after the fact rather than ex ante. He rejects the notion that “credible commitments” are essential to trust but on the contrary finds them in conflict with trust since they lock in actors’ future decisions—thus obviating the need to trust by eliminating risk. He is especially dismissive of the famous “trust but verify” approach of the United States and USSR during the Cold War since ex ante verification eliminates vulnerability and thereby the need for trust. But this is more a matter of degree, it would seem, since he recognizes limits to the trustee’s discretion and favors putting the arrangement in writing for the sake of future leaders and discussions between negotiators and domestic actors that must approve the arrangement (Hoffman, 2002, p. 377). Baier, on the other hand, rejects not only contracting but even promising as indicative of a lack of trust and instead favors using unwritten and open-ended arrangements as a measure of trust between parties, as found in a healthy marriage (Baier, 1986; Kohn, 2008, p. 63). As pointed out by Alter, international organizations to which open-ended authority is delegated—such as international tribunals—cease to be mere agents but are instead “trustees”—an apt term in light of the degree of trust required on the part of the principals (2008). It is the vary vagueness of the mandate that indicates those involved in its creation had a high degree of confidence in the soundness of future rulings.

Some argue that the capacity to act on one’s promises (which in turn stem from compatible interests) is evidence that the promises (and the other’s interests) matter (Stiles, 2014; Peppers & Rogers, 2012, pp. 27–29). Reliability itself is often a first step in the establishment of trust, although it says nothing about interests of intent (Steinberg, 2011, p. 85).

Companies and professional associations must be able to interact with society constructively. They endeavor to create an identity (viz. “brand”) that others implicitly trust (Farrell, 2009, p. 134; Potter, 2002, p. 24). This usually means persuading stakeholders that your fellow members have both the capacity and interests to look out for them (Nooteboom, 2002, p. 76).

Knowing this, associations routinely adopt very public standards of conduct and peer review. They hope to communicate that members of the profession will behave as though they had their clients’ interests at heart (Hardin, 2002, p. 50). Violation of these norms undermines the trustworthiness not just of the individual professional in question, but of the whole profession. Rubenstein has observed the importance of peacekeepers—even individual soldiers—acting in accordance with local customs and symbolic language in order to maintain “peacekeeper confidence” (2005, p. 542). Likewise, a scandal such as the one involving the oil-for-food program at the UN is enough to fuel suspicion that there are fundamental problems in an institution (Ignatieff, 2012). The more explicit these are, the less case-by-case trust is required (Farrell, 2009, p. 136). This is particularly true, for both moral and economic reasons, where the recipient of the service takes considerable risk. Thus physicians, police officers, accountants, lawyers, and others who take someone’s life or freedom in their hands must meet a very high threshold of trustworthiness, especially since many people hire members of these professions sight unseen (Farrell, 2004, p. 88; Hall, 2005, p. 163). The professional credential must take the place of a personal history (Kohn, 2008, pp. 69, 72; Narveson, 1971; Vitek, 1993, p. 65). Enforcement therefore helps the group to fulfill broader societal purposes, even though the result may be the unhinging of a particular individual’s career and life.

While being predictable and reliable may tell us nothing about an actor’s intentions (one can be reliably evil, after all), the inability to act on a promise or an interest almost certainly will make an actor untrustworthy. This is often difficult to ascertain, regardless of how one feels generally about whether the actor will look out for your interests. It is largely because of this last element that most would-be trusters withhold trust until a track record has been established. As we will see, this may actually be easier with respect to institutions like states than with individuals.

It is also worth noting that trust is the only thing that makes one susceptible to betrayal. They are two sides of the same coin. One cannot be betrayed unless one first trusts. But few in international relations make use of the term—which may imply an overuse of the concept of trust (assuming that the degree of betrayal in the world is probably proportional to the degree of trusting—so long as men are not angels). At the United Nations over the past decade it has only been used a few dozen times. In most of these cases, it appears to serve only as a rhetorical flourish in which the listeners are enjoined not to violate the trust of those who will be injured by certain policies due to a failure to live up to the institutions’ highest ideals or lofty promises (failing to reach the Millennium Development Goals, failing to reduce food prices, failing to protect the earth, and failing to intervene to protect victims of genocide, for example). Particularly poignant is the statement in a recent UN film on peacekeeping that when peacekeepers have raped the very people they were sent to protect, they engaged in a “double betrayal” of trust invested in them by those victims and by the world community (United Nations, 2006). Reference was also made to the “betrayal” of Rwanda by France and the United States during the genocide for their failure to intervene, a theme that was also repeated with reference to failures to protect brutalized people in Syria, Eritrea, Liberia, and elsewhere (Abrehe, 2005; Africa Recovery, 2000; Captan, 2002). Note that in none of these cases did the international community have a strict legal obligation to intervene but rather had a moral “responsibility to protect,” consistent with the sphere of trusting (rather than contractual obligation).

These comments bring home the moral natures of trust and betrayal. They clearly involve more credit ratings, but rather allude to morality and character. It is reciprocity with an obligation.

What Are the Sources of Trust?

While much of the work on trust focuses on the outcomes of trusting, it is worth asking more specifically where trust comes from. The fact is, the international relations literature is nearly silent on the question. This may stem from the lack of advice we are getting from other disciplines.

When it comes to generalized trust, Lady Gaga may have explained it best: We are born that way. At the very least, we become that way within a few years. Once one’s basic degree of trust in humanity is established, it generally does not change as a result of later life experiences. There is some debate about how one’s basic trust level is established. There is some debate about what triggers trust. On the one hand, many see a correlation between a parent’s ideological orientation and a child’s ideology, and since generalized trust is virtually the same as progressivism, one sees some patterns across generations (Jennings & Niemi, 1968; Rathbun, 2012, p. 3). Likewise, children raised in stable and households with clear routines and expectations will tend to be more trusting (Brooks, 2011, p. 56). Conversely, abuse, poverty, neglect and other traumatic early experiences can knock the optimism out of children forever (Brooks, 2011, p. 111; Potter, 2002, p. xiii). Put another way, some are born trusting and that trust is carefully nurtured by family and society. But they risk losing it due to damaging life experiences—something most people experience at some point. (It is perhaps unsurprising that adults are generally more cynical and suspicious of government than their teenaged children—Jennings & Niemi, 1968.) On the other hand, some are predisposed to be untrusting, and living in a utopia will not change that much. It is perhaps no surprise that untrusting people outnumber the trusting ones over time, particularly during hard times (Uslaner, 2000). Despite this, Uslaner finds that upbringing does not seem to have a strong effect, since there is little evidence that one replicates one’s parents’ generosity later in life. Being the recipient of trust early in life—especially receiving gifts from generous benefactors—does not increase the likelihood one will see the good in others later in life (Uslaner, 2000, p. 574).

This implies that one might expect to see more generalized trust in places that have experienced steady economic growth and higher degrees of peace and justice. Areas that have experienced upheaval, violence, poverty, and oppression may give us fewer trusting citizens. Of course, consistently prosperous also produce spoiled brats for whom nothing is ever good enough … (Peppers & Rogers, 2012, p. 20). This might be yet another reason for high levels of Western European interstate cooperation compared to the Horn of Africa. This also correlates with Kydd’s proposition that because democratic societies are more transparent and decisions about keeping promises are founded on popular will, that they communicate a willingness to cooperate to outside actors, which in turns contributes to peaceful relations with neighbors (Kydd, 2005, p. 20). Peaceful communities generate peaceful people who in turn urge their governments to adopt peaceful policies, which prompts potential rivals to see them as non-threatening and not meriting an attack, contributing to a virtuous cycle. This phenomenon dovetails with the democratic peace model, albeit from a more affective origin (Oren, 1995).

Information about reputations for trustworthiness is extremely valuable, especially since there are strong incentives for most actors to overstate their own reliability. In fact, there is a paradox in the fact that things an actor might do or say to enhance her trustworthiness can have the effect of undermining it. Firms are always tempted to exaggerate the performance of their products, nonprofits overstate the benefits of their programs, politicians over-promise policy reforms, and states rattle their sabers far too loudly. The result is a loss of credibility with respect to almost all statements of trustworthiness by the one hoping to be trusted (Peppers & Rogers, 2012, pp. 19–20). Many would-be trusters rely on other more impartial (or at least trusted) sources of information—such as peers, professionals, nonprofits, and regulatory agencies—to assess trustworthiness. Some actors do nothing but this, such as bond rating agencies and courts (Alter, 2008; Tomz, 2007). As we have seen in the neoliberal institutionalist literature, this is where international organizations can play a pivotal role by providing impartial assessments of states’ trustworthiness. Across the international spectrum, panels of experts have been created to rule on the conduct of states and private actors, from the Ozone Commission to the European Court of Justice to the International Criminal Court (Alter, 2008). Typically these bodies are given strictly defined jurisdiction and procedural rules that are intended to limit their discretion. But at the same time these trustees are given a fair degree of latitude to interpret these instructions according to their own notions of fairness (Alter, 2008). This is consistent with delegation as discussed in Hoffman.

In general, third parties have often been found to be essential to negotiated settlements between groups, as in the case of the Standing Committee connected to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (Kramer, 2004, p. 154). Kydd and Maoz and Terris discuss the traits common to effective mediators, which include a firm commitment on the part of the mediator to finding a solution to the dispute as well as the capacity to accurately gauge the willingness of parties to follow through on their commitments (Kydd, 2005; Maoz & Terris, 2006). All point to the desirability of a “professional” mediator—someone whose career is based on resolving numerous disputes over time—someone such as the United Nations Secretary-General. Further, ideal mediators should have considerable information at their disposal as well as the capacity to evaluate it—something that is also likely to be found in an international organizations such as the World Trade Organization’s Dispute Settlement Body or the UN Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee (Stiles, 2000; Stiles & Thayne, 2006).

But the ultimate source of one’s willingness to trust another actor is direct experience, according to most rationalist and emotive accounts (Nooteboom, 2002, p. 90). Because trust involves a variety of factors, many of which are unique to each relationship and each transaction, it is difficult to rely on any other sources or any other experiences. This may help to explain why functionalist theory seems to explain European integration to a degree: The same countries often undertake increasingly greater risks with each other over the same issues because past experience has taught them that the promises will be kept. This is at the root of the GRIT model of conflict resolution, a method of tit-for-tat cooperation that begins with cautious, limited concessions in the hope of building trust (Osgood, 1962—GRIT stands for “Graduated Reciprocation in Tension-reduction”). It is in this context that a credible commitment might hold sway. Specifically, a state that unilaterally makes itself vulnerable can instill reassurance on the part of its would-be rivals that it does not present a threat (Bitzinger, 1994; Kydd, 2000). This is even more important where the power differential tips in favor of the trustee, especially where there are multiple trustees operating in concert as in the case of the European Union vis à vis smaller European states (Hoffman, 2002). In such cases, the powerful should be required to “credibly commit” to refraining from abusing their power by providing weaker states effective voice, as we saw earlier. The ultimate version of this type of mechanism is the “non-permanent veto” on the UN Security Council, which prevents the five permanent members from colluding to pass a resolution against the wishes of the non-permanent members (at least nine votes are required) (Bailey, 1989, pp. 108–109).

Of course repeated betrayals can harden distrust beyond anyone’s capacity to reverse it. This is particularly true for rival kinship groups. Where rival kinship groups emerge, each with their own version of their histories, trust is nearly impossible and conflict inevitable (Kohn, 2008, p. 93). Kinship groups that feel vulnerable to a rival group that is apparently more powerful may develop a form of collective paranoia that manifests itself in feelings of persecution and anxiety, which in turn can produce a range of dysfunctional responses (Kramer, 2004, p. 144). For example, hostility toward outsiders and society as a whole may prevent family businesses from scaling up—at some point they need to embrace the legal and technical environment in which they find themselves (Fukuyama, 1995, p. 63).

This raises a question. If you know that the actor has your interests at heart, does that override some spotty performance and the infrequent injury? With respect to interpersonal relations, the answer is clearly yes—even when the lapses have been extremely serious. Marriages sometimes recover from infidelity, for example. Some states distinguish themselves for their commitment to the public good and the norm of promise-keeping, thereby giving themselves a certain “cushion” when they at times behave badly (especially if the lapse appears to have been inadvertent). Although the Obama administration has been criticized in international circles for its drone campaign, for example, he still retains very high overall approval ratings—in part because people seem to trust his intentions (Bowcott, 2012; Hogue, 2012). The like-minded states stand out as actors that seem to place principle over pragmatism in many situations. Canada has been committed to the principle of peacekeeping from the outset, and The Netherlands has been committed to enforcement of international criminal law for decades. The Nordic states, along with the Benelux countries, have long been advocates of regional solutions, sometimes at the expense of immediate unilateral gains. Together these states have articulated a progressive, humanitarian approach to a wide range of issues, from foreign aid to environmental protection to refugee protection (Melissen, 2007). While they have sometimes departed from these general principles (especially since the recent rise of nationalist parties), they have established a reputation for doing what they think is “the right thing” despite some tangible losses. Likewise, new regimes are often given the benefit of the doubt where their predecessors were especially aggressive or reprobate. Tomz points out that debtor nations have, for hundreds of years, been given a “grace period” after regime change—a time for observers to assess whether the new government will be reliable (Tomz, 2007).

Some recent research indicates that trustworthiness is linked to power differentials. Specifically, it appears that actors that have no choice but to trust will inflate the trusted one’s beneficent traits as a psychological defense mechanism (Weber, Malhotra, & Muringhan, 2005). As Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said to the Press Club in Washington on March 25, 1969, “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast … one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” Distrust of the obliviously powerful is a reasonable response (although we saw that blind faith may also result).

This raises the question of whether it is reasonable for vulnerable actors to deliberately make themselves dependent on another powerful actor. There are certainly numerous cases of states that appear relatively content with asymmetrical alliances and integration, extreme cases being the continuing dependence of Puerto Rico on the United States despite referenda on independence and the decision by Liechtenstein to invite Switzerland to take responsibility for much of its international diplomatic, economic, and security relations after rejecting that role for Austria at the end of World War I (Kohn, 1967; Magruder, 1953). The question is whether these relations are entirely voluntary. Is it possible that very weak states engage in a sort of collective wishful thinking? It is also worth asking whether these arrangements include constraints on the trustee or escape clauses for the truster. It’s clear that Liechtenstein was able to extricate itself from dependence on Austria—but then again this may have had something to do with the fact that the empire had just been defeated and dismembered and was in no position to insist on preserving the relationship.

There is also evidence that small states in Europe are willing and even eager to associate themselves with international organizations. The European Union has been willing to grant numerous concessions to these small states—such as exempting them from rules governing freedom of movement—in order to reassure them that they will benefit from such an association (Bartmann, 2012; Faure & Klaousen, 2000). The fact that almost all of Europe’s microstates have been moving from reliance on a single protector to a collective one indicates that there may be a greater sense of security in relying on an international agency than a single state.

An important question for vulnerable trusters is whether the trustee would act against its interests in order to protect the truster’s needs. In their excellent work on the British anti-slave trade campaign of the mid-1800s, Kaufmann and Pape pointed out that although it was true that stopping the slave trade was especially injurious to French and Spanish plantation owners (the British slave population was large enough to be self-sustaining), and was therefore to Britain’s advantage, the Crown nonetheless sacrificed a great deal in the effort (Kaufmann & Pape, 1999). The costs were greatly disproportional to the meager gains, indicating that something other than self-interest was at stake. One could make a similar argument with respect to American free-trade policies in the 1960s, which were not financially profitable in light of the growing competitiveness of Europe and Japan (Krasner, 1976). While one might argue that these policies were merely errors of judgment, a closer look at policy deliberations makes it clear that decision makers were aware of the costs of their actions but persevered for the sake of normative goals. As several scholars of trust have pointed out, the true test of a trustee is whether she will sacrifice personal gains in order to protect the interests of the truster (Baier, 1986; Hoffman, 2006).

All of this helps to explain why both Kydd and Hoffman have concerns about the GRIT strategy. On the one hand, Kydd argues that while it has the advantage of explaining how learning can take place, it does not go far enough to explain changes in basic interests (Kydd, 2005, p. 19). Hoffman, on the other hand, rejects the view that interests are likely to evolve even with repeated interaction and that institutions are therefore essential to protect trusters from catastrophic exploitation by trustees (Hoffman, 2006, p. 45).

Considerable work has been done on loyalty among kinship groups, and while this may have limited applicability to international relations it is critical to understanding domestic trust, as we will discuss shortly. A key finding is that each of us employs heuristics to make decisions about whom to trust—especially when the world is confusing and dangerous. One of the most elemental of these heuristics is kinship ties: that is, trust your family and be loyal to them. Trust levels are often very high in kinship groups in that physical and cultural similarity seems to imply commonality of interests (Sampson & Graif, 2009, p. 185). Kinship groups are generally able to mobilize resources and accomplish a great deal (known as “collective efficacy”). They help members establish their identities, recognize and conform to roles, and internalize customs and traditions (Koford & Miller, 1991, p. 31). Families are one of the few social institutions capable of transmitting moral values from one generation to the next (Cohen, 1991, p. 100). Where compliance with family norms helps both the individual and the group, social stability is likely (Griffith & Goldfarb, 1991, p. 75). Kinship groups can even socialize members to accept the norms of the broader society in which they are situated (Fukuyama, 1995, p. 5).

Kinship groups provide bonds that survive the grave and give members benefits that are often incalculable. Studies indicate that immediate family members sacrifice for each other and for others with whom they have densely networked relationships (Wellman & Wortley, 1990). Stories of immigrant groups that support in-group business ventures and provide a social safety net are myriad. They also help to forge identities and purposes that give psychic grounding from cradle to grave (Henrich & Henrich, 2007, p. 118). They allow members of the group to have access to the wherewithal to begin life in a new country, to start businesses, get admission to select colleges, and access a ready-made clientele.

Oaths and promises take on a different form in kinship groups. While promises are generally limited to the two parties to the agreement, commitments involving extended family or clan members typically have repercussions beyond those immediately involved. There are many observers and stakeholders, and compliance is easily monitored and rewarded or punished (Hardin, 2002, p. 21). An elite class typically takes upon itself these tasks, and ignoring their preferences can be fatal (see the case of honor killings in many South and West Asian communities). From a conceptual point of view, it perhaps best not to think of promises in this context as a morally obligatory thing, but rather as a purely social phenomenon that gives rise to social obligations (Vitek, 1993, p. 153).

In his work on pluralistic security communities, Shore points out that the states with the most intimate relationships often are ethnically and culturally similar, such as the United States and Canada and the United States and Great Britain (Shore, 1998). The argument is made that such similarity facilitates communication, such that intentions and actions are more easily interpreted, which in turns facilitates trust and friendship.

The last section also raises an interesting and troubling question: To what extent does the convergence of interests stem from emotion? Hardin and Nooteboom have argued that central to the development of trust is a commitment to the relationship itself (Hardin, 2002, p. 1; Nooteboom, 2002, p. 84). That commitment may be utilitarian, but often it is emotional and ideational. Rothbeg and Uslaner both agree that generalized trust is rooted not in a rational calculation but rather an ideological proclivity to believe in others’ good intentions—something I would argue comes very close to the emotions known as love and hope (Rathbun, 2012, p. 2; Uslaner, 2000, p. 573). It can lead to trust, which, in turn, leads to a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the relationship (Brooks, 2011, p. 156). Even in the business world, it is increasingly clear that customers and employees want to know that a firm cares about them as something more than a walking pocketbook or a seated automaton (Peppers & Rogers, 2012, p. 186). Emotion is clearly a factor for many in assessing the degree of interest overlap and assessing trustworthiness. As we will discuss, this raises troubling questions about whether states can care about each other since they are, after all, institutions and not people.

Before closing this section, it is worth asking about the evidence required to have generalized trust. As indicated by Rathbun and Uslaner, generalized trust simply is—although it can be withdrawn with respect to particular individuals. Trusters are not “naïve or gullible” and are particularly good at recognizing people’s intentions (Rathbun, 2012, p. 36). Overall, though, it is difficult to imagine a truster who is not willing to cooperate, especially in the initial phases. The two tendencies—willingness to trust and willingness to cooperate—are essentially conflated and are further highly correlated with holding progressive political beliefs (which generally include the promise of cooperation and belief in the inherent goodness of people and institutions). This leaves the independent variable dangerously close to the dependent variable, however. We will discuss measurement issues later.

Can States and International Institutions Trust or Be Trusted?

On the surface, this question may seem obvious. After all, there is considerable work on the way citizens relate to their governments and how governments relate to each other, indicating that much of these relationships are rooted in trust. In some cases, however, concepts and theories that were designed primarily to explain individual-level dynamics are simply transferred by international relations scholars to the next level to explain collective action by states and state institutions without sufficient reflection. Kydd and Hoffman tend to anthropomorphize state actors without paying much attention to decision making structures and institutions. Hoffman recognizes only that treaties sometimes require legislative approval and politicians must often be insulated from public disapproval when trusting relationships go sour (Hoffman, 2006).

To begin, can states be trusted by their citizens? It is clear that ordinary citizens are vulnerable to what their governments decide to do, no matter the political system in place. We know that states can destroy wealth, freedoms, lives, and whole cultures and peoples by abuse, error, and neglect. Citizens, unlike many other types of trusting actors, typically have few options other than to accept what is handed to them by the state. Emigration is often not an option, nor are there effective mechanisms of control over state elites available to most average citizens—especially in the developing world. At some point in every citizen’s life there comes a moment when you resign yourself to the idea that “you can’t fight city hall.”

Trust is one option available to ordinary people to fill the psychological gap between feelings of vulnerability on the one hand and achieving some sense of personal security, hope, and sanity (rebellion and apathy would be two others). In fact, there are some indications that those who are most objectively vulnerable are likely to overstate the good intentions and capacity of those with power over them, as we have seen (Weber et al., 2005). This is the origin of the “Stockholm Syndrome” by which hostages have sometimes come to believe the hostage-takers actually have their best interests at heart (to the point that they will ally with them against the authorities trying to rescue them!). It is worth noting that surveys show the Chinese people have some of the highest degrees of trust in the central government, even though an objective view belies that (Wright, 2010).

On the other hand, there is evidence that people are expecting more and more from their governments. This is a trend that goes back to the origins of the welfare state in most developed countries as well as the spectacular promises of national liberators and populist politicians in the developing world. As expectations rise, disappointment and even disillusionment are far more likely, even where governments are generally competent, civic minded, and responsive (Cheema & Popovski, 2010; Putnam, 2000; Uslaner, 2000). In fact, the more responsive the government, the greater the chance people will hold it to an ever-rising standard of performance, to the point that no one will be satisfied. Heads of state are expected to keep stock and housing prices high, unemployment and inflation low, war and terror at bay, the citizenry healthy, and the climate comfortable—it is no surprise that few meet with widespread approval.

The implication of these two paragraphs is that we should be very cautious about using survey data to measure trust in government. What we may be measuring is actually something quite different, ranging from oppressed people’s fantasies to the whining of the pampered. It is known, for instance, that one’s assessment of the United Nations depends almost entirely on one’s expectations of its performance—no matter how unrealistic those may be (Stiles & MacDonald, 1992). I would argue that along with standard questions about trust should be a battery of questions about vulnerability and expectations in order to put the answers in context. The theoretical implications are profound enough to warrant the extra work.

It is also important to determine the nature of the trust or distrust when probing public opinion. To what degree is the loss of trust in the state a reflection of the fact that the respondent holds a quirky minority view or has very narrow economic interests, neither of which are likely to be accommodated by any majoritarian regime. What does it mean if such an individual feels that the state does not encapsulate her interests? Conversely, if the respondent has reached the conclusion that elements of the senior government are hopelessly corrupt or have entered into an alliance with a foreign enemy, the lack of compatible interests has far more profound implications. It would be important, then, to ask whether the respondent thinks the government is looking out for her individually, or for the majority, or for the nation as a whole. Different responses to this question will allow one to discern the nature of the trust. Likewise, it is important to ask whether the respondent thinks personally adverse decisions were nonetheless arrived at legitimately by legitimate authorities (Jamal & Nooruddin, 2010, p. 53). It is one thing to disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold “Obamacare” in June 2012—it is quite another to say “just because the Supreme Court declares something to be ‘constitutional’ does not make it so” (Rep. Rand Paul, 2012). Surveys need to become more sophisticated on this score.

It is worth mentioning the notion of “treason” in the context of trust, since it is closely related to the term “betrayal.” It means an act intended to frustrate the nation’s security—usually by colluding with its enemies. Treason is typically a rare event in most developed states and does not generally undermine trust so long as state institutions ferret it out and punish it. But in fragile multiethnic or multireligious states—especially where neighbors might provide a ready alliance—treason is far more common—perhaps even the norm. State elites are routinely accused of “selling out” the country to this or that foreign actor. In such states it is important to ascertain whether people fear irredentism, separatism, fifth columns, or other fundamental threats to the state.

Corruption, or the use of public institutions for private gain, exists everywhere to some degree. It often involves kickbacks on contracts, graft, and other forms of direct transfers of funds from public to private accounts. It is often technically legal in many states. Until 2012 members of the U.S. House of Representatives permitted themselves to vote on bills that directly affected the value of their personal investment portfolios (Keating, Fallin, Kindy, & Higham, 2012). Corruption naturally undermines faith and trust in government in a direct and often personal way, especially where there are inadequate institutional checks. A single corrupt official—even when he is dismissed—can undermine trust in the institutions of government since it sends the message that oversight is after the fact (Montinola, 2004, p. 304). In Latin America, for instance, trust in government is inversely related to perceptions of corruption (Clear & Stokes, 2009, p. 324). In the Philippines, trust in one government institution (especially one with which an individual has had direct dealings) carries over to other governmental institutions (i.e., trust in Congress is correlated to trust in the Small Claims Court) (Lubell, 2007, p. 248; Montinola, 2004, p. 303).

Finally, when considering the issue of citizen trust in government we should ask about perceptions of government capacity. Even when corruption is not an issue, trust in government can be undermined when it fails to accomplish what it sets out to do for lack of capacity. In the United States, much of the debate over immigration policy stems from a loss of faith on the part of states in the federal government’s capacity to protect borders, for example. In other cases, trust is lost because it is clear that governments implement policies on the basis of outdated or inappropriate analysis or reflects failures to communicate effectively across government agencies (Troy, 2004, p. 228). This was a key finding of the 9/11 Commission, for example (National Commission, 2004). Capacity itself is a choice (within a certain margin) and the lack of capacity reflects a decision by government not to do certain things (Stiles, 2014). When an actor invests heavily in implementing certain types of policies, it is signaling a willingness to act on its intentions and promises (Nooteboom, 2002, p. 76). This signal is intended to enhance trust in government.

Clearly, states and international organizations can commit themselves to certain types of actions and establish credible reputations for carrying them out. They can establish mechanisms that allow them to control the behavior of their members and even commit future administrations to certain types of actions (Nooteboom, 2002, p. 68). In these ways, states and other institutional actors can be more trustworthy and reliable than the individuals that work for them. This, however, leaves open the question of whether states will consistently have interests that match up with others’. States’ interests and preferences can be ranked with respect to their scope and durability, but no state has permanent aims (Thompson, 1994, pp. 251–252). Does this mean that states are not trustworthy? And since international organizations generally derive their preferences from their obviously fickle member states, are they also lacking? The answer is a firm maybe. The fact is that while all states change their interests, there are typically mechanisms that minimize this tendency and bring about considerable stability. States institutionalize decision making procedures in difficult-to-amend constitutions, ratify treaties that “lock in” both domestic and foreign policies, and make day-to-day policy difficult to enact through systems of shared power and “checks and balances” (Moravcsik, 2000). At any rate, most actors are tolerant of changes in preferences from time to time—especially since their own preferences are also changing. In the case of international organizations, the changes in preferences may by symbiotic as new norms are promoted, adopted, and disseminated (Sandholtz & Stiles, 2009).

But what about the notion that states can be trusting? Rathbun, in particular, has attempted to transfer insights about individual intent and behavior to the policies of states (Rathbun, 2012). Others who study trust have explicitly anthropomorphized states in order to explain their behavior, often without any reference to levels of analysis or decision making procedures (Hardin, 2004, p. 9; Horne, 2004, p. 252; Kramer, 2004, p. 154; for warnings against this practice, see Godin, 2010; and Peppers & Rogers, 2012, p. 37). But this author questions the validity of these logical leaps.

To begin, where a state is governed by a single individual with full executive powers, it may be possible to say that the state can “trust” since its policies are largely a reflection of the leader’s preferences. I say “may” because it is unlikely that the leader’s personal vulnerability and particular assessments of others’ interests and capacity are likely to match up perfectly with those of the state as a whole. Personally strong leaders—such as Spain’s Phillip II in 1588 or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 1990—have sometimes overestimated their states’ strength with disastrous consequences. Likewise, autocratic leaders have misjudged the interests of other important actors, assuming they overlapped with the interests of the state when they clearly did not (see Josef Stalin’s misplaced faith in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939). And some dictators have wrongly guessed that other states had the capacity to fulfill their promises to them (note the failure of Britain and France to prevent the collapse of the tsarist regime during World War I despite the prewar alliance). In such situations, it is best to simply speak of the levels of trust of the sovereign rather than assume this represents the trust of the state.

If dictators don’t always trust meaningfully in behalf of the state, do democracies fare any better? Where the people are truly sovereign and can contribute significantly to the decisions made by elites, the answer is yes—by definition. But just because these judgments are rooted in the will of the people does not mean they are in the interest of the state as a whole. It is certainly possible for vast majorities to favor trusting a particular actor when doing so endangers the health and survival of the state itself. The Czechoslovakian government of Edvard Benes and the Czech people learned that it was a mistake to trust that France and Britain would look out for them or that the Germans would keep their promises (to honor the results of mediation). Many Eastern European governments and peoples felt betrayed by the West after World War II (especially once the Yalta agreements were made public). Many developing countries were willing to enter into borrowing arrangements with the International Monetary Fund during the 1970s only to find that doing so cost them a great deal more than they bargained for (Villaroman, 2009). The same pattern was repeated after the Asian financial crisis. In the 2010s, several European governments have fallen as elites and publics have struggled over whether or not to trust the European Central Bank and its austerity programs.

But does the fact that democratic regimes and their peoples trust incorrectly mean that states cannot trust? In a sense, yes, since if the state had been to somehow able to speak for its anthropomorphized self, it would probably have disagreed! At any rate, this mental exercise exposes the dangers of leaping to the conclusion that states can “trust,” but instead raises the more meaningful question of whether actors can and should trust on behalf of the state and why. Once the problem is framed in this way, we can ask more important questions: Whose vulnerability to whom matters? Whose interests should be encapsulated by whom? And whose capacity to act should be assessed by whom? As soon as a state’s component parts are disaggregated we can see the risk in assuming that states are capable of trusting.

Figure 1 allows us to more clearly think through the work of Hardin and other rationalists by considering the range of interests of various actors in a simplified two-state system with three interest groups in each state. Naturally, if one were to include a larger number of states, transnational actors, international organizations, and the full array of domestic interests, the figure would be far too dense to grasp. But even with this small number of actors we can see how difficult it is to say that someone is trusting in the state’s behalf. To begin, it is worth noting that the interests of State B seem to be encapsulated within the interests of State A in some abstract sense. Therefore, one should expect State B to “trust” State A. But State B cannot speak for itself but must rely on one or some of three different domestic groups. Imagine that group b-1 is making the decision about trusting. It will probably conclude that State B should trust State A. Likewise, if group b-3 were making the call, it would also favor trusting State A—albeit for the “wrong” reasons since group b-3 does not really have State B’s genuine interests at heart. If group b-2 were making the decision, it would probably favor distrusting State A—unless, of course, group a-2 was running State A. Again, group b-2 would be making the “right” decision, but for the wrong reasons since both groups a-2 and b-2 are disposed to become traitors to their respective states, all things being equal. Going further, if different groups are making the call for State A’s interests, different groups in State B would likely respond differently. For example, group b-3 might decide against trusting State A if group a-3 comes to power.

Note that even this simple model is more complex than two-level games since different groups will likely have very different judgments about the other state’s trustworthiness, let alone how they feel about their own state. It is conceivable that states may come to trust each other even though the groups making that decision are behaving against the interests of their respective states. Consider, for example, the decision by leaders of postcolonial African states in 1964 to leave their respective borders intact for the sake of mutual peace and harmony despite the fact that many groups within each of those states would have been happy to secede and perhaps unite with their counterparts across the border. Furthermore, since governments are rarely permanent, one can imagine a great of turmoil each time a new group takes power and interprets the states interests from its own parochial perspective, in turn forcing other groups in neighboring states to reassess whether to trust the state that witness the change. Such was the dilemma faced by Zambia when apartheid ended in South Africa, Austria when Slovenia became independent, and the United States when a conservative Muslim won the presidency in Egypt in 2012. The ripple effects of such changes can be far reaching.

Trust and International OrganizationClick to view larger

Figure 1. Interests of Two Hypothetical States and Three Subnational Groups.

Figure 1 oversimplifies the equation because it leaves out the question of assessing one’s own vulnerability and the capacity of the other state to fulfill its promises and accomplish its aims. Since each group and the anthropomorphized state will likely disagree about this as well, the figure can be imagined to become even more complicated—with overlapping circles hopelessly layered on top of each other. In the final analysis, this mental exercise should teach us that transferring theories designed to explain individual behavior to states is a risky proposition at best. Experience shows that what is hypothesized in the figure routinely plays out in democratic and autocratic states as executives and diplomats routinely lead their governments to sign agreements with actors that legislators and publics find utterly untrustworthy. The United States has a long, littered history of unratified conventions to prove the point. Presidents and prime ministers have sometimes been more than willing to reach agreements—in part stemming from strong friendships and emotions—only to be reined in by cabinet members and advisors. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, Khrushchev made broad concessions to Kennedy in a private letter, only to see the regime retract them the next day—presumably because Khrushchev had lost an internal debate over how much to trust Kennedy (Christopher, 1996, p. 688).

It is always essential to understand that states are institutions and are more often than not designed to reduce the role of personality, emotion, friendships, and parochial interests in matters of foreign policy and national security. All of this means that many theories about trust are virtually irrelevant to international relations. While state elites can commit themselves to each other through binding agreements and thereby make themselves vulnerable, one must take care not to infer that these actions stem from trust.

Of particular interest is the general tendency for most agreements to have formal and informal escape clauses and loopholes that allow states to quickly disengage before any serious harm comes as a result of others’ failure to comply. Informally, the sanctity of national sovereignty means that no international agreement is utterly and eternally binding, although there may be serious consequences for unilateral denunciation of a multilateral treaty. But the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties provides for numerous ways states can opt out of treaties they have ratified without serious consequence, such as a fundamental change of circumstance, withdrawal (with the consent of the other signatories), or the superseding of the treaty by some new agreement or norm—Malanczuk, 1997, pp. 141–146). Many multilateral treaties have explicit provisions for unilateral withdrawal without the consent of the other signatories (see the Statute of the International Court of Justice, which requires notification six months prior), and still others explicitly list situations that would allow a government to suspend its obligations for a period of time (such as the World Trade Organization’s “safeguard” clause that allows states to temporarily impose trade barriers to protect a vital sector). Some treaties (such as the Nonproliferation Treaty) have “sunset” provisions that automatically nullify obligations without explicit action to preserve them (the NPTs was ultimately lifted). Where the stakes are high, states often wait until verification of compliance is possible through independent means. It is worth noting that United States–USSR nuclear arms control did not progress significantly until the deployment of satellites capable of observing nuclear deployments. In general, states are reluctant to bind themselves and risk exploitation—as most realists and liberals have been arguing for years—and therefore hedge their bets.

The same applies to the formation of international organizations. In general, IOs can be seen as agents of states, endowed with powers only to the degree that states trust them (Hawkins, Lake, Nielson, & Tierney, 2006). Especially in the early stages, IOs generally are kept on a short leash, although they may earn some autonomy over time (Stiles, 2012). Even where their powers are considerable, IOs themselves often refrain from challenging the powers of their state sponsors immediately, but do so only after they have assured themselves that their directives will be followed (see the case of the European Court of Human Rights, which only recently has accepted cases from its more autocratic member states). Ultimately, many IOs have learned that even when their powers are vast and have been used with great care, they can be taken away without warning when states feel a need to reassert their sovereignty and reduce their vulnerability (Spyridakis, 2012). States sometimes anticipate this possibility and deliberately create multiple agencies to address the same issues, allowing them to “forum shop” when they don’t get what they want and thereby leave uncooperative organizations isolated and powerless (this was clearly the case for the UN Conference on Trade and Development after 1980).

At what point does all this hedging amount to an absence of risk? Since trust has been defined as a willingness to risk—to put your fate in someone else’s hands—if there is no risk, there is no trust. This is true for powerful states and is true for hedging states. Likewise, states and substate actors that rely on international organizations, whether it is for a steady flow of development assistance or reliable peacekeepers, are sometimes at considerable risk. They also rely on the expertise of IO staff members. Consider the case of Unicef in Bangladesh during the 1990s when it was discovered that tubewells intended to provide clean, healthy water instead poisoned hundreds of individuals as a result of exposing and liquefying underground arsenic deposits (Unicef, 2012). The organization was forced to spend considerable funds and effort to reverse the problem—in no small part to restore confidence in its expertise and commitment to public health.

Ironically, though, strengthening international institutions or deepening legal commitments do not necessarily correlate with increased trust—at least not in the final analysis. Much of the literature on trust states that there is an inverse relationship between trusting and “contracting” (Henrich & Henrich, 2007, p. 123; Kohn, 2008, p. 56). Where a contract is enforceable by a third party—such as in a fully functioning state with a strong legal system—there is no need for trust. Knowing that your doctor could lose her license or be sued allows a patient to walk into a clinic without trusting a particular doctor but rather the professional and legal frameworks within which she operates (Hall, 2005, p. 160; Hardin, 2002, p. 46). Likewise, the less two investors know each other, the more likely any agreement will be carefully crafted, reviewed by legal departments, and notarized. Close friends need only shake hands to commit a whole array of things. The ultimate question is whether actors will behave “as if” they have a vested interest in your happiness. So long as institutional arrangements bring this about, society can function as well as if we all trusted each other. On the other hand, this should not be misinterpreted as evidence that there is genuine trust.

Returning to the point made at the outset, the ultimate evidence of trust is a risky commitment in the absence of formal rules or enforcement. Unless the one being trusted has the power to exploit you, trust is not a key part of the equation. The stronger the enforcement system, the less likely exploitation can occur and less room there is for trust.

Should States Be Trusting or Trustworthy?

None of the prominent works addressed in this article asks explicitly whether state actors should engage in trusting in the first place. One could legitimately ask whether it is moral or ethical for a national leader to put one’s citizens and one’s state in a vulnerable situation—trusting that another actor, endowed with autonomy and the option of exploiting them, will not take advantage? While many theories of the state accept the notion that elites have this prerogative—particularly with the consent of those who will be shouldering the risks—it should be clear that such a decision should never be made lightly. Just war theory prohibits engaging in military ventures that are hopeless, for example. Commanders have been held in contempt (although not usually held criminally liable) for treating their soldiers as mere cannon fodder. Surely this also applies to dragging a country’s citizens against their will into an IMF austerity program, subordinate membership in a regional organization, or in an alliance with a superpower. As scholars, we must take care never to privilege cooperation and trusting for their own sakes since they may be the means of inflicting harm or injustice. Loyalty, one could argue, is the least of the virtues since it so often involves an abdication to another actor who may not be worthy.

If those risking their lives or property consent to it, such risks may be acceptable—even honorable. The Terijoki Government under Otto Kuusinen that was defeated by Russia in 1939 is held in high regard in Finland for having valiantly tried to protect the fatherland despite long odds. The same can be said of the defenders of Fort McHenry in 1814, who could have been justified in surrendering to the overwhelming British naval force. Their dubious decision saved the American Republic and inspired the national anthem. The second formulation of Kant’s “categorical imperative” seems a reasonable starting point in deciding whether state elites may risk the nation by trusting: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end” (Kant, 17841785/1997, p. 30).

What about the ethics of honoring commitments once made? This may depend on one’s sense of whose interests are at risk and their degree of vulnerability. As was mentioned earlier, weak and dependent actors are often in a position where trust is their only option. For them, honoring commitments is likely to be automatic since alienating a powerful partner may have devastating consequences. But where the trusted actor has considerable power—or perhaps where the degree of vulnerability between the exchange partners is roughly equal—the option of walking away may be very tempting. Kant’s formulation would seem to apply to these trust relations as well.

In most cases, however, the commitments are formalized or at least explicit. We have already established that states often hedge with respect to their legal obligations. But it seems clear that even where no formal legally binding commitment, there is a moral and social commitment best understood as a promise. Promising, as we have seen, runs parallel to trusting because in its traditional form it involves one actor offering something in future in exchange for something now. The one receiving the promise is invited to trust the one making the promise. Many systems of ethics consider the keeping of promises a moral obligation because acting otherwise may harm people, and at any rate express honor in acting according to one’s will and autonomy (Kohn, 2008, p. 44). Most agree that being trustworthy is inherently moral (Potter, 2002, pp. 11, 16). It involves both a willingness and capacity to fulfill the interests of another—especially when expectations have been created (Colquitt, Scott, & LePine, 2007, p. 910). Conversely, breaking promises without good reason exposes the individual to being judged a cheater and unreliable, especially since someone else is counting on you (Atiyah, 1981; Orbell, van der Kragt, & Dawes, 1991, p. 118; Raz, 1982, p. 923; Vitek, 1993, pp. 36, 71). Pratt argues that both contracts and promises are essentially ethical as voluntary commitments that create a duty to fulfill the expectations of the one receiving the promise (Pratt, 2007). Keeping promises is a matter of respect and fairness to others (Pratt, 2007, p. 568). Yovel takes it one step further, arguing that a promise creates both a moral and a legal obligation (Yovel, 1999/2000). Others argue that it is not the promise itself that is obligatory, but rather the fact that the promise “is an admission concerning the existence and extent of other obligations which either pre-exist the making of the promise, or which anyhow would arise before, or at the same time as, the promise… .” that makes it obligatory (Atiyah, 1981, p. 193).

Even those who find promise-keeping morally obligatory allow for many exceptions, some of which run parallel to the provisions of international law. For example, if circumstances make the fulfillment of a promise impossible, the promisor is relieved of any obligation. This is especially true if the promisor discovers that fulfilling a promise will require doing something that is itself unethical, such as conspiring against an outsider to the agreement. Where international relations are concerned, dramatic changes in a state’s regime—especially a transition from autocracy to democracy—may also allow it to break old promises without consequence. Newly independent states are generally given a “clean slate” with respect to many international commitments (Malanczuk, 1997, p. 164) since it is assumed that the new regime did not formally consent to what the imperial regime had agreed to (unless the topic is universal norms and codes of conduct required of all states). Still others, including David Hume, have argued that promising is merely a social contrivance, compliance with which was not morally required (Hardin, 2002, p. 19; Hume, 1970, p. 87). In fact, Hume specifically exempted heads of state from keeping promises (Hume, 1970, p. 87).

It has been generally considered permissible for states to deceive each other under certain limited (and desperate) circumstances. Implicit in realist thinking is the view that, where national survival is at stake, states generally give themselves and each other permission to engage in false promising and willful breeches of past promises (Rathbun, 2009). But these exceptions are very limited and are rarely invoked explicitly. On the contrary, many states have been surprised to find that they were not permitted to break promises despite duress.

Taken together, it seems that trusting and being trustworthy may not always be legal, moral or ethical, let alone politically prudent. Further philosophical and empirical work needs to be done with respect to identifying the circumstances that might make trusting the more appropriate policy strategy.

What Should a Trust-Centered Research Program Look Like?

Based on the preceding observations, it is possible to identify a number of promising research programs that will allow us to better understand the nature and role of trust in international relations, as well as some directions that will likely be less productive.

To begin, we should limit ourselves to situations that involve genuine vulnerability. This means considering explicitly the power ratios between actors as well as the nature of the agreements themselves. It has become clear that powerful states generally do not have to trust as much because they are far less vulnerable to begin with. Likewise, when states hedge their agreements with escape clauses and third-party enforcement, it is the lack of trust that explains the outcomes more than trust itself. This implies that much of the work on trust so far may be missing the point.

Of much more interest is work involving vulnerable actors that voluntarily enter into open-ended and largely unenforced commitments with powerful actors (ranging from firms to states to international organizations) where they expose themselves to opportunism on a wide range of issues on a regular basis. If they exist, they would present a critical test of trust in international relations. At first glance, we can find situations that might fulfill these criteria. These could be termed “elective dependencies” and involve some relatively weak state opting for a relatively asymmetrical relationship with another actor. Cases might include the microstates of Europe and their relations with neighboring “sponsor states” (see Liechtenstein’s relationships with Switzerland and Austria or the relationship of the Bahamas on the United States, for example), dependent territories that have been offered but have declined independence (such as Puerto Rico), international “foster states” such as East Timor; or the membership of small states in regional organizations, such as Malta’s membership in the European Union. On a more limited scale, work that resembles that by Rathbun might be useful, although it would be important to focus on states that are taking serious risks, such as small countries that unilaterally disarm, reduce tariffs, freely admit refugees, launch expensive aid programs, and so forth. To what extent are these relationships elective, mutually beneficial, respectful, or exploitative? To what degree do states prefer relying on a single protector or a collective body like an international organization? How do institutional arrangements relate to trust—both as evidence of it and efforts to minimize the need for it? Answers to these questions will help test whether trust is truly a factor in international relations and what this implies.

More generally, studies on trust should not be limited to elite or inter-elite trust but should address multiple levels of analysis. Doing so will avoid the dangers of anthropomorphization and other logical fallacies and help reveal the role of power and institutional processes in trusting. It also avoids the inevitable difficulties surrounding measuring individual decision makers’ trust levels—especially where they are no longer with us (Rathbun, 2012, p. 45). One should ask not just whether trusting is taking place but who is doing the trusting and in whose behalf. Such questions may allow us to identify instances of reckless trust, unethical trust, and so forth. Conversely, it might help us determine at what point entire nations decide to trust and how these decisions play out.

Related to this set of questions is the issue of how identity emerges. Is it possible for nations or states to come to see each other as somehow blended or otherwise joined in a common purpose? How does this occur? Studies of nationality and ethnic identity may be helpful in this regard (see Fearon & Laitin, 2000; and Wimmer, 2008). More generally, how do nations come to value relations with other states for their own sake? Is it possible that alliances can transcend questions of mere mutual advantage? Research on pluralistic security communities points to some intriguing hypotheses in this regard (Adler & Barnett, 1998b). Specifically, how do the norms generated in international bodies contribute to changes in expectations about trustworthiness in others?

This author finds empirical and historical work more appropriate than experimental designs since it is ultimately unethical to put ordinary people in a position to make themselves genuinely vulnerable. As suggestive as experimental work has been, the findings are far from definitive since researchers can only ask participants to risk giving up some relatively small thing that they were just recently given. And although risking a 10-dollar payment may seem like a weighty matter to some college students, it is a far cry from a president deciding whether to risk her country’s GNP or national survival by signing an agreement with the IMF or NATO. And even if we could justify asking subjects to risk something of great personal value, we could never ask them to risk something that had great value to someone else—although this is the daily business of most heads of state.

In the final analysis, while a more narrow approach to the study is trust is warranted, the concept promises to reveal some profoundly important and extremely interesting phenomenon in international relations. Likewise, it can help us explain these things in ways current theory cannot.

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