Here is my new piece over at DIPLOMAT. On Trust and Diplomacy. With (of course) added Wittgenstein:

President Trump is offering Kim Jong Un himself a superb deal based on trust: “If you work with us, be nice, loosen up and get rich, you can expect to stay in power for a loooong time. Why not win a Nobel Peace Prize along the way? Not bad!”

To Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei he’s saying the exact opposite, based on distrust: “You’ve had your chance. You’ve blown it. Time to go. This time the US will not pussyfoot around. We’ll be there helping your internal enemies trample you into the dust. Sad!”

So, what is this thing called ‘trust’, and why – if it is at all – is it important in diplomacy?

There’s a lot going on in the idea of trust, with no one single meaning. But as the philosopher’s philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein might have said, the different ways we use the word trust as both a noun and a verb have a clear family resemblance. Notions of belief, reliability, predictability, safety, responsibility and honesty are all there somewhere, depending on the context.

Note too that when you say, “I trust you, Vladimir!” you’re expressing some subtle combination of thoughts about how Vladimir will behave in future; about what Vladimir is like ‘as a person’ now; and about your relationship with Vladimir (and thereby about yourself). Plus, of course, you may be lying and not trust Vladimir at all, but want to tell him that you do.

A lot going on indeed.

It’s hard for anyone who has not sat in on a top-level meeting between two national leaders to grasp what in fact is happening when the exchanges start. Both sides typically talk in a high level of affable banal generalisations about any given issue. They either don’t know the policy detail or don’t care about it – their job involves the ‘Big Picture,’ leaving puny detail to their minions. Their main aim in these meetings is to size up the other side so that they get a sense of what might be done together in the future, and how long that future might be:

How strong is her domestic position? What makes her tick as a person? What does she want, and really not want? Where will what she wants cut directly across what I want, to the point where she tries to block me? Is she strong, or weak? What am I dealing with here?

This is not so much about ‘building trust’ as it is about being realistic. Trust is helpful but not essential and in any case ephemeral.

This is important! Leaders are simple folks. All they want to know is what’s going on. Is this interlocutrix any good? Likely to be around for a while? Reliable enough?

The basic point in all this is that diplomatic negotiation is not like business negotiation.

In diplomacy, trust has only a small yet mysterious role to play. Leader X knows that however well things are going with leader Y, leader Y’s priority is to stay in power. If that means dumping or manipulating or ignoring hard-won agreements with leader X, so be it. Cynical? Realistic? Yes.

This explains why international negotiating is so slow. And why, when issues are especially sensitive for all sides (notably on arms control or security issues), intense attention is played to verifying that what has been agreed in fact then happens.

In other words, the deal happens even though there is little or no trust between the parties. It may even happen because there is no trust. That doesn’t matter: everyone agrees that the operational trust needed to get results can be delivered by all concerned, allowing intrusive technical verification of their commitments.

Verification is at the heart of all sensitive international disarmament or security deals. It’s easy to agree something, and even more easy then to rat on the deal. So somehow the parties have to set up a regime of mutual checking that is intrusive enough to stop/deter the other side from cheating, but not so intrusive as to allow your own key secrets to leak. Tricky.

Not easy. Apart from all the fiendishly complicated scientific issues (and weighty international policy concerns) involved in these [verification] programmes, there comes a point where raw national pride kicks in. The verification regimes demanded by Washington are seen by Tehran and Pyongyang as simply too obnoxious and/or too threatening to key national security structures’ own interests.

Hence bad-tempered deadlock until something gets sorted out when everyone gets bored of the bad-tempered deadlock.

Yet, when two national leaders do enjoy each other’s company and stay around in power for a while, they can accomplish a lot together. They can see further than the daily hubbub of domestic policies and look more strategically at things. They agree that it makes sense to invest in their relationship.

I spent an interesting but frustrating four years in Polandas UK Ambassador from 2003-07. During those years Poland’s politics were, ahem, extra-turbulent, with nine(!) finance ministers coming and going. I knew that I was wasting my time in trying to persuade UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, (by 2007 entering his tenth year in office) to take much of an interest in the thoughts of his Polish counterpart. Why bother, when there could be a new one next week?

That’s a subtle part of the job of an ambassador. Frankly to advise your government’s leaders when it makes sense to invest in relationships with your host government. And when to spend precious time and energy elsewhere.