Still Trust Matters? The Enduring Puzzle of the International System

Dr. HAKAN GÖNEN

This writing is principally based on the argument that states are all abstractions and that they transform into concrete entities only through the discourses and practices of their decision makers.

The relationship between the notions of trust and stability in international relations refers to a significant and pragmatic framework. Trust is defined as a ‘critical factor’ in building a more stable cognitive and physical environment for actors. It promotes a feeling of security and protection for societies both at the local and at the international level. At the basis of that definition is the fact that trust is a social and active phenomenon built by and among actors. The building of trust – based relations among actors (in particular, states in international relations) prepares a background for the formation of more stable political and economic environment. To put it in a nutshell, the relationship between trust and stability is directly proportional, which means that trust can help in maintaining a stable environment. Stability, in the same way, can foster trust. A raise in the level of one of the terms causes an increase in the other. Indeed, a higher level of trust corresponds to a higher level of stability.

Some realist scholars inspired by Thucydides and Thomas Hobbes have argued that it is almost impossible to build a web of relations based on trust among states and that efforts to build trust – based relations would be damaging for individual states.[1] Those defending this argument cited different factors, such as the biological nature of human being and the anarchical order of the international system, which always push the individual states into a power struggle.[2] In a situation in which fear and mistrust have become dominant, characterized by a high level of conflict, chances that trust and cooperation will be reduced. However, as was stated above, the concept of trust is a significant step to construct a strong grounded ‘pragmatic nexus’ among states.

In addition to states’ physical security, a stable political and economic environment enables the states to maintain their ontological security as well. At this point, the ontological security is directly linked to a stable physical and cognitive environment. Stability is also significant based on the need to eliminate uncertainty that threatens the identity of states or reduce it to a minimum level. However, like individuals, the radical disengagements (also referred to as critical situations) that cause the institutionalized relations among states to be destroyed, may also give rise to persecutory anxieties with consequences that cannot be foreseen.[3] In this context, since the ability to act is a critical factor on the actors’ own identities, the ability to act becomes seriously restricted because of a deep fear of uncertainty. This unavoidably increases the level of anxiety of states. The term ‘anxiety’ is essentially an emotional reaction that emerges when identity is challenged. The state exposed to anxiety is in an insecure position as long as there is a challenge to its self – identity. At this point, states may lose their ability to act rationally.

Therefore states should principally build a stable cognitive environment for them to eliminate uncertainties and reduce them to a minimum level. When that happens, states would try to impose a cognitive order on the outside reality they are confronted with. Moreover, states have to systematically consider the outside reality to protect them from the deep fear of uncertainty that often threatens the actor’s self – identity. Since the cognitive order is the one established by mind not a reality, that cognitive order is reflected in discourses only. As the outside reality is full of events and there is no order in outside reality, it is important to make a conceptual system that would simplify the complex outside reality into a more meaningful and understandable set of patterns or frameworks. In this way, states can carry out the processes of perception, reasoning, and judgment in order to understand the outside reality.

A stable cognitive environment transforms into a modified form through the establishment of a basic trust mechanism. In this sense, states would feel more secured ontologically. Thus, states would know how to evaluate the possible threats and opportunities and how to create a road map to assist states realize their goals. Stated in another way, states will, on the one hand, systematically carry out the processes of perception, reasoning, and judgment. On the other hand, as previously mentioned, in situations in which the level of anxiety is necessarily high, states cannot discriminate between dangers to be confronted and those to be ignored, which indicates a serious incapability for the states in question. In such a case, states will focus on immediate needs and may not choose the right methods to be used to reach their goals.[4] The current international political environment in some areas of the Middle East and East Asia is a practical example of this situation.

Anthony Giddens, a well – known British scholar, defines the concept of trust as “a protection against future threat and dangers which allows the individual to sustain hope and courage in the face of whatever debilitating circumstances she or he might later confront.”[5] Based on this definition, the concept of trust is also considered an important instrument to reduce the uncertainty to a minimum level in a social and material world built by the states themselves. Consequently, a basic trust mechanism that will be built among states must first and foremost make way for them to have a concrete foundation based on a healthy cognitive environment. This starting point is vital for states to systematically understand the complex outside reality. A healthy cognitive environment helps states distinguish between what is more relevant and what is less relevant in their foreign policies. In other words, a state that has stable cognitive environment, will know who it is, what it should do, and why it should do so.

REFERENCES

Ruzicka, Jan v.dğr., “The Puzzle of Trusting Relationships in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty”, International Affairs, Vol. 86, No. 1, (2010): 69-85.

Hoffman, Aaron, “A Conceptualization of Trust in International Relations”, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 8, No. 3, (2002): 375-401.

Schmidt, Brian, “Competing Realist Conceptions of Power”, Millennium-Journal of International Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3, (2005): 523-549.

Hobson, John, The State and International Relations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Genest, Marc A., Conflict and Cooperation: Evolving Theories of International Relations, Wadsworth: Thompson: 2004.

Steele, Brent, Ontological Security in International Relations: Self-Identity and the IR State, New York: Routledge, 2008.

Mitzen, Jennifer, “Ontological Security in World Politics: State Identity and the Security Dilemma”, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 12, No. 3, (2006): 341-370.

Giddens, Anthony, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991.

[1] Jan Ruzicka v.dğr., “The Puzzle of Trusting Relationships in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty”, International Affairs, Vol. 86, No. 1, (2010): 71; Aaron M. Hoffman, “A Conceptualization of Trust in International Relations”, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 8, No. 3, (2002): 377.

[2] Schmit shows that “within realism there is a diverse range of explanations to account for this behavior. Moreover, the three varieties of realism each infer different patterns of behavior arising from the struggle for power.” Brian C. Schmidt, “Competing Realist Conceptions of Power”, Millennium-Journal of International Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3, (2005): 545; John M. Hobson, The State and International Relations, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), s. 21; Marc A. Genest, Conflict and Cooperation: Evolving Theories of International Relations, (Wadsworth: Thompson: 2004), s. 47.

[3] Brent J. Steele, Ontological Security in International Relations: Self-Identity and the IR State, (New York: Routledge, 2008), s. 22.

[4] Jennifer Mitzen, “Ontological Security in World Politics: State Identity and the Security Dilemma”, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 12, No. 3, (2006): 345.

[5] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), s. 72.