By Nicholas J. Wheeler, Professor of International Relations
Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham
President Donald Trump and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-un, are due to meet for a historic summit in an as yet undisclosed location to try and resolve the nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula. For academics who study the potential of face-to-face diplomacy to de-escalate and transform conflicts, the summit – assuming it actually takes place – is a fascinating case for testing the validity of their theories and prescriptions. The meeting of Trump and Kim raises the tantalizing possibility that these two leaders might be able to cut a deal that reduces the threat that each fears from the other, but for that to happen, each will have to trust in the other’s assurances that they do not have malign intent. The question is: can these two leaders develop this level of trust through a face-to-face meeting? Or, alternatively, could both leave the meeting, not only disappointed that the other did not do more to make a deal possible, but feeling that they had been played, leading to a psychological backlash on the part of both leaders that could drive up the risks of war.
The North Korean leader fears that if he lets up on his development of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Capability (ICBM) that can hold US cities nuclear hostage, then the Trump administration will feel emboldened to press what Kim fears is its goal of regime change. Conversely, Trump’s key advisors, especially the newly appointed National Security Advisor John Bolton, apply to North Korean intentions what Ole Hoslti calls ‘an “inherent bad faith” model’. The latter leads decision-makers to interpret any conciliatory move on the part of an adversary as a trick, aimed at lulling their opponent into a false sense of security. Consequently, even if Kim agrees to freeze or even roll-back his ICBM development – the aspect of his programme that most worries the United States – can he – and crucially his successors – be trusted to honour this promise? At the same time, can Kim trust any promises that Trump makes regarding North Korea’s security when the president has such a reputation for unpredictability and is actively contemplating scrapping the Iran nuclear deal.
The question is, will Trump and Kim be able through a face-to-face meeting to overcome the visceral distrust between them? My new book Trusting Enemies: Interpersonal Relationships in International Conflict theorizes how into interpersonal trust can develop between two state leaders through face-to-face interaction. It highlights as a first step the importance of state leaders exercising empathy for their counterparts, crucially a recognition how their own actions have made the other fearful and insecure (Ken Booth and I call this ‘security dilemma sensibility’ in our 2008 book). In the case of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev whose diplomatic summitry was so crucial to the ending of the Cold War, both had exercised security dilemma sensibility prior to their first face-to-face encounter in Geneva in November 1985. By contrast, Trump and Kim will enter the room holding a bad faith model of the other. The hope has to be that empathy of the kind displayed by Reagan and Gorbachev can develop out of the face-to-face encounter itself.
The reciprocal exercise of security dilemma sensibility is a prior condition for the development of interpersonal trust, but it is not a sufficient one. Trust also develops out of a process of social bonding that is engendered by face-to-face interaction. Trump has said in the context of past US leaders that they lacked the ‘chemistry’ to achieve a breakthrough with Russian leaders, but one of the fascinating questions that will be answered if Trump and Kim meet is whether they can ‘hit it off’ together. The likely odds of the Korean nuclear conflict ending in war or a peaceful accommodation hangs on the answer the two leaders give to this question.