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The Role of Trust in International Relations
By Richard Ned Lebow



TRUST IS a central concept and major concern in domestic and international politics. At the international level it almost invariably involves judgments about other actors: Will they prove faithful allies? Will they adhere to their treaty and other commitments? Do they have benign intentions? These questions are critical, but surprisingly little research has been carried out on how policymakers reach these decisions. Trust also has a wider application to international relations than is generally recognized because it is central to the confidence that policymakers have in their judgments, the efficacy of their initiatives and their ability to bring these initiatives to fruition. This confidence is often misplaced.


These understandings of trust are related, because the confidence of leaders in their own judgment and skills not only influences their assessments of others' intentions, but also the certainty they have in those assessments.


The Greek historian Thucydides explores this relationship at some length in his account of the Peloponnesian War. He attributes the catastrophic decisions made by Athens to hubris and elpis (hope). The Athenian generals Pericles and Alcibiades exaggerated their ability to understand and control others and became correspondingly insensitive to looming catastrophes.1 Historians and biographers have used this theme in writing about such figures as Napoleon, Franklin Roosevelt, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lyndon Johnson. International relations theorists on the whole remain mute on the subject, however, perhaps because they downplay the role of agency in favor of structural theories.


Where does trust come from? Deterrence and strategic choice assume that it depends on the prior performance of actors on the interests at stake.2 Psychological and political research indicates that we feel more positive about people who resemble us, or who have balanced features, are tall and are not overweight. We are more likely to trust and vote for such people. The writings of Thucydides and modern research in motivational psychology both suggest that the wish is the father of the deed; to the extent we need to trust in someone, some elite, organization or state, we are likely to do so regardless of evidence to the contrary.3


Thucydides, Sophocles and Plato offer a more fundamental explanation to do with friendship.4 The first and last explanations invoke learning as their mechanism, although in different ways. For deterrence and strategic choice it is past performance that counts. For the ancient Greeks, friendship builds a generalized form of trust that extends to all areas of activities. Violations of trust in any domain, in turn, undermine it in all others.


Thucydides, Sophocles and Plato encourage us to think about the ways in which society and trust are co-constitutive and how each makes the other possible. We cannot understand trust by extracting actors from the societies in which they live and function. Rather, we must understand how their social context shapes their behavior and expectations. Societies of every kind depend on trust, and its breakdown is a fundamental cause of civil and foreign wars. By contrast, deterrence theory and realist models of international relations assume that trust is in short supply, the anomaly rather than the norm.

Trust and international relations theory

Social scientists generally define trust with respect to a particular behavior. According to Henry Farrell and Jack Knight, trust is "a set of expectations held by one party that another party or parties will behave in an appropriate manner with regard to a specific issue."5 Mark Suchman notes that trust is built by repeated compliance with rules and established expectations for behavior.6


I prefer to frame the problem of trust from the macro perspective of society. In family life, domestic politics and international relations, indeed, anywhere that human beings interact, predictable behavior is essential. We assume that everyone will drive on the same side of the road. In the absence of this assurance, driving would be hazardous, insurance rates would be exorbitant and many fewer of us would venture onto a highway. We take it for granted that everyone will follow this rule because of obvious self-interest. The principal violators are drunken drivers — people no longer restrained by reason — and, for a while, illegal immigrants in southern California who would race up the highway in the face of oncoming traffic in the hope of escaping the Border Patrol.


Behavior that is self-serving and socially mandated is generally not problematic. People act in accordance with norms of this kind so regularly that their performance becomes habitual. This in turn makes their actions more predictable, heightens trust by others and contributes to the stability and efficiency of the social order. Trust becomes problematic in situations where there are no norms or weak norms, and where actors have not been successfully socialized into conforming to them, or their violation promises great rewards.


Realists describe the international system as anarchical without any embedded norms. They nevertheless recognize that trust lies at the core of strategies to deter and compel certain behaviors when dealing with friend and foe alike. Target states must believe that you will carry out your threats if they fail to act as you demand. For deterrence theorists, success depends on communicating threats effectively and making enforcement credible. Since reputation is considered the principal source of trust, credibility depends on a reputation for defending past commitments.7


Realists further assume that "crime pays." Extortion, invasion and cheating in arms control or trade agreements can confer significant advantages. During the Cold War, opposition to arms control agreements with the Soviet Union was driven by the belief that Moscow would secretly augment its arsenal and somehow derive a significant strategic advantage from such cheating. US President Ronald Reagan's signature phrase "Trust, but verify" became a catchword for American conservatives. This oxymoron reflects the belief that agreements can be valuable but are rarely self-enforcing and require careful monitoring.


Why would leaders negotiate and sign agreements they have no intention of following? We can imagine several conditions in which this might occur. Leaders might do so under duress and hope to wiggle out of and escape their commitments later under more favorable circumstances. Following the First World War, the Weimar Republic had little choice but to sign the Versailles Treaty, but violated key provisions of it regarding the size of its army and its weaponry as soon as it could get away with it. Circumstances can change, making freely negotiated agreements no longer appear to be good deals. Keen to end the fighting in Indochina, the United States signed an accord in Geneva in 1954 in which North and South Vietnam were established, awaiting unification in 1956 following an election. But Washington and its ally South Vietnam refused to hold the election when the time came, because they recognized that the communists were likely to win. Agreements can also provide camouflage, making it easier to violate a commitment successfully. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev accordingly promised US President John F. Kennedy that he would not send missiles to Cuba for this reason.

The Liberal View

Given their assumption of international anarchy, realists reason that security must be the first concern of states and that no one can trust others to support them when it endangers their security. The liberal model presupposes a desire to co-operate as it is the most rational strategy for actors motivated by security or wealth. Liberals believe institutions have the potential to overcome anarchy and thus institutions are created, expand and become influential when states and other international actors consider them useful. Those who join these institutions have varying incentives to follow their norms and procedures, and to the degree that they do, compliance is largely self-enforcing.


Two kinds of trust issues arise for liberals. The first concerns agreements or institutions already in place, and the risk that actors will free-ride or defect. Both kinds of behavior may be advantageous to individual actors but detrimental to the common interest. Defection and free-riding undermine trust, making it less likely that actors who behave this way will be invited to participate in other institutions. The second concern is the difficulty of creating agreements and institutions, often called the problem of the commons. The possible costs and risks of taking the first steps toward co-operation constitute a significant deterrent. Liberals believe that institutions reduce these costs, as does the existence of a hegemon with the power and authority to co-ordinate behavior and punish defectors.8

A Third Approach

Constructivists offer understandings sharply at odds with realists and liberals. They direct our attention to the underlying causes of co-operation, not to individual cases of it. According to Christian Reus-Smit, "All political power is deeply embedded in webs of social exchange and mutual constitution — the sort that escapes from the short-term vagaries of coercion and bribery to assume a structural, taken-for-granted form — [and] ultimately rests on legitimacy."9 Martha Finnemore and Stephen Toope spell out the implications of this approach.10 They argue that domestic and international law are social phenomena deeply embedded in the practices, beliefs, and traditions of societies. To understand compliance and defection, one must determine the congruence of law, custom, rule or agreement with social practices. When there is a good fit, actors will recognize the legitimacy of what they are being asked to do and are more likely to comply even when they perceive it as contrary to their interests.


Sophocles and Plato, arguably the original constructivists, assume that interests derive from identities and that sustained co-operation builds common identities and shared interests. Relationships encourage us to frame our interests primarily in collective terms, as members of partnerships, families, locales, businesses, ethnic groups, classes, religions and nations. We are inclined to co-operate with other members of these communities because we see our interests served by collective goals. Such an orientation not only provides a deeper explanation for case-by-case co-operation, it accounts for why co-operation occurs in situations where it may not seem to be in the immediate interest of some of the actors involved.


Co-operation, defection and trust also depend on the value structure of society. I argue that individuals and their societies are motivated by security, wellbeing and self-esteem.11 The latter finds expression in the quest for honor and standing. By excelling in activities valued by our peer group or society and winning the approbation of others, we in turn feel good about ourselves. Each of these motives generates a different approach to co-operation and conflict, the calculus of risk taking and hierarchy. They are also associated with different principles of justice. Security, self-esteem and wealth are universal motives, but their relative importance is culturally and historically specific. We must map their distribution to explain and predict the extent to which trust among actors is likely to develop, as well as the specific ways in which it develops.


In societies where material wellbeing is the dominant motive, co-operation is issue-specific and motivated by narrow calculations of self-interest. Trust is not diffuse, but limited to situations where actors judge that others have the same incentives they do to co-operate or play by the rules. This is why liberals turn to institutions in the hope of creating incentives for trust and co-operation to be more widely accepted. For example, the Federalists in the early days of the United States expected the Congress to create a strong sense of comity among its members. As alliances would shift in response to changing issues, yesterday's adversaries could be tomorrow's allies and vice versa. Thoughtful representatives and senators accordingly had strong incentives to maintain a degree of personal trust and seek compromises, even when they had the votes to impose their preferences.12


In societies where honor and standing are the dominant motive, co-operation is based in the first instance on ties of kinship and reciprocity. These ties tend to be enduring and override the perceived security and economic risks of providing support. Honor-based societies give rise to client-based hierarchies, where the elite receives honor from those beneath them in return for providing practical support. When the system works, it provides symbolic rewards for the powerful, while constraining their behavior and thus protecting the interests and independence of the weak. In international hierarchies of this kind, support takes the form of providing security and commercial advantages. Classical Greece, Europe in the 18th century and East Asia during the era of imperial China offer historical examples. In these systems, defection is less common and trust is greater, but it is limited to actors within the system. For this reason, war was relatively rare in East Asia during the centuries of Chinese dominance.13


When reason loses control over the appetite for wealth or the drive for self-esteem, actors begin to worry about their ability to satisfy their goals or even to guarantee physical security. Security then becomes the overriding motive, and fear the dominant emotion. Co-operation extends only to actors with similar fears, because they face the same perceived threats. Trust among actors will be low, even when their level of co-operation is high. Consider the relationship among the Big Three during the Second World War. The US provided Lend-Lease aid to Britain and the Soviet Union and the leaders of the three countries met periodically to hammer out military strategy and postwar occupation policies. Their relationships, however, were marked by distrust — between Britain and the US and between the Anglo-American powers and the Soviet Union. This led to an East-West Cold War soon after the defeat of the axis powers.

The Downside of Trust

Justice and legitimacy are closely connected to trust. Trust is the expectation that others will honor their promises and the rules to which they have agreed. Political orders, like their economic counterparts, rely on a high degree of trust, as many critical relationships find expression in sequential rather than simultaneous behavior.14 Trust rests on the principles of fairness and equality. It involves reciprocity, an expression of fairness and equal treatment of agents, regardless of other inequalities among them.


Elites everywhere try to justify their power and wealth and often succeed in generating trust and respect for themselves. The more the demos trust the elite, the more the elite can exploit them, leading to more unjust political, economic and social orders. The less faith the demos have in elites, the more they are likely to hold them accountable to relevant principles of justice. Too much trust undermines justice and order while too much distrust can be disruptive. In practice, we must balance the needs of order and those of justice, and this requires a healthy degree of distrust, but not so much as to encourage total alienation.


Building on this understanding, James Madison wrote in Federalist No.51: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."15 The same holds true for regional and international orders. Governance invariably requires some hierarchy, and with it, privileged elites. Power invites abuse and too much popular faith in elites encourages abuses of power and exploitation.


The authors of the Federalist Papers nevertheless felt the need to put their trust in some group if the American political system were to function effectively. They portrayed the educated, affluent elite as people with the potential to subjugate their personal interests to those of the common weal. They accordingly mandated the indirect election of senators in the expectation that state legislatures would elect the most distinguished among them to the upper house. They also supported an upper house with greater power over foreign policy and the appointment of judges and veto power over legislation initiated in the House of Representatives.


Their opponents, the Democratic Republicans, put their trust in small farmers whom they regarded as simple men of virtue. A century later, communists would similarly describe the proletariat as the only trustworthy class. Democratic Republican politicians were for the most part elitists, and few of the small farmers they idealized ever got to exercise power. The communists, especially in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, took this hypocrisy to new levels.


This mix of cynicism and naiveté pervades the practice and theory of international relations. From the time of John Bright and Richard Cobden in 19th-century Britain, liberals maintained that democracies were peaceful and trustworthy by nature. US President Woodrow Wilson made similar claims in the early 20th century, and today, this ideology finds reflection in the Democratic Peace program and recent appeals by American academics and journalists for a league of democracies to run the world.16 During the Cold War, the Soviet bloc maintained with equal fervor that only "fraternal" communist governments could be trusted. The People's Republic of China, India and other non-aligned states put their trust in economic development, as did, for the most part, other ex-colonial countries.


Realists, by contrast, respect the powerful and claim to see the world as it is and not through rose-tinted glasses. They believe, despite the contradictory evidence, that the US is a hegemon. Realists and liberals alike are committed to preserving their country's supposedly pre-eminent position in the global system, describing the US as "exceptional and indispensible" to the system's stability.17 They ignore all the ways in which the US fails to live up to the responsibilities of hegemony and attempts to exploit its economic and military power to advance parochial ends, often to the detriment of stability in the international economic and political order.18

Building Trust

My examination of trust suggests several conclusions. The first is a close connection between trust and co-operation. The latter is certainly possible without the former, but it is greatly facilitated by it. Sustained co-operation, whether bilateral or institutional, requires a high level of trust. Second is the source of trust. As the ancient Greeks understood, it comes from friendship and a willingness to do things for friends that have nothing to do with one's own goals. Treating personal friends, elites and countries as ends in themselves, not means to our ends — to borrow the words of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant — builds trust and facilitates co-operation, which in turn builds common identities and more trust.


What are the implications for international relations theory? My short review indicates that it is hardly objective in the sense of being detached from the subject it purports to study. International relations paradigms and theories are expressions of intellectual and political projects and theorize trust in manners consistent with and supportive of them. We should not trust them, but approach their claims with cynicism.


Richard Ned Lebow is James O. Freedman Presidential Professor of Government, Emeritus, Dartmouth College, and Professor of International Political Theory at the Department of War Studies, King's College, London.




1 Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, ed. Robert B. Strassler (New York: Free Press, 1996), Books 1 and 6.

2 Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), for the strongest statement about the importance of reputation. Ted Hopf, Peripheral Visions: Deterrence Theory and American Foreign Policy in the Third World, 1965-1990 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), for a compelling refutation.

3 Irving L. Janis and Leon Mann, Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment (New York: Free Press, 1977); Jervis, Robert, Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein, Psychology and Deterrence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).

4 For a description, see Richard Ned Lebow, “Power, Persuasion and Justice,” Millennium Vol. 33, No. 3 (2005), pp. 551-82.

5 Henry Farrell and Jack Knight, “Trust, Institutions and Institutional Change: Industrial Districts and the Social Capital Hypothesis,” Politics and Society Vol. 31 No. 4 (2003), pp. 537-66.

6 Mark Suchman, “Managing Legitimacy: Strategic and Institutional Approaches,” Academy of Management Review Vol. 20 (1995), pp. 571-60.

7 Schelling, Arms and Influence; Alexander L. George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974).

8 Robert Keohane, After Hegemony: Co-operation and Discord in the World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

9 Christian, Reus-Smith, American Power and World Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

10 Martha Finnemore and Stephen J. Toope, “Alternatives to ‘Legalization’: Richer Views of Law and Politics,” International Organization Vol. 55 No. 3 (2001), pp. 743-58, make this argument in the context of compliance with international law.

11 Richard Ned Lebow, A Cultural Theory of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

12 James Madison, “Federalist Number 10,” Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

13 David C. Kang, “Hierarchy and legitimacy in International Systems: The Tribute System in Early Modern East Asia,” Security Studies Vol. 19 No. 4 (2010), pp. 591-622; Zhang Feng, Chinese Hegemony: Grand Strategy, International Institutions, and Relationality in East Asian History, forthcoming.

14 Mark E, Warren, ed., Democracy and Trust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

15 James Madison, “Federalist No. 51,” The Independent Journal, Feb. 6, 1788

16 Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, “Democracies of the World, Unite,”, January-February 2007; Robert Kagan, “The Case for a League of Democracies,” Financial Times, May 13, 2008; Daniele Archibugi, The Global Commonwealth of Citizens. Toward Cosmopolitan Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2008).

17 Michael Dobbs and John M. Goshko, “Albright’s Personal Odyssey Shaped Foreign Policy Beliefs,” The Washington Post, Dec. 6, 1996, p. A25; Madeleine K. Albright, Interview on NBC-TV “The Today Show” with Matt Lauer, Columbus, Ohio, Feb. 19, 1998; Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry, Democratic Internationalism: An American Grand Strategy for a Post-Exceptionalist Era (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2012), p. 1.

18 See Simon Reich and Richard Ned Lebow, Goodbye Hegemony! Power and Influence in the 21st Century (Princeton University Press, in press) for an elaboration of this claim.

Back to Issue
    In the search for peace, security, wellbeing and prosperity in global affairs, the issue of trust is never far from the surface. But how trust is conceived and engendered differs significantly depending on the school of international relations theory to which one adheres. Richard Ned Lebow analyzes the importance — and the complexities — of trust in international relations.
    Published: September 2013 (Vol.8 No.3)
    About the author

    Richard Ned Lebow is James O. Freedman Presidential Professor of Government, Emeritus, Dartmouth College, and Professor of International Political Theory at the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London.

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