"Trust, but Verify" - Confidence and Distrust from Détente to the End of the Cold War

Nov 07, 2011 - Nov 09, 2011

Conference at the GHI and Wilson Center | Conveners: Martin Klimke (GHI), Reinhild Kreis (University of Augsburg), Sonya Michel (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars), Christian Ostermann (Woodrow Wilson Center)

Participants: Noël Bonhomme (Sorbonne University), Jens Boysen (GHI Warsaw), Laura Considine (Aberystwyth University), Andreas Daum (University of Buffalo), Ute Frevert (Max Planck Institute for Human Development), Jens Gieseke (Center for Contemporary History, Potsdam), Joseph P. Harahan (U.S. Department of Defense), Rinna Elina Kullaa (University of Jyvaskyla), Deborah Welch Larson (University of California, Los Angeles), Jan Logemann (GHI), Aryo Makko (University of Oxford), Michael Cotey Morgan (University of Toronto), Emmanuel Mourlon-Druol (University of Glasgow), Effie G. H. Pedaliu (University of West England, Bristol), J. Simon Rofe (University of Leicester), Bernd Schäfer (Woodrow Wilson Center), Arvid Schors (University of Freiburg), Sarah Snyder (University College London), Patrick Vaughan (Jagiellonian University), Nicholas Wheeler (Aberystwyth University)

This conference sought to shed new light on the years following détente by investigating the role trust and distrust played in foreign as well as domestic politics during a time when the guiding principle of foreign policy was to avoid the worst case scenario-a "hot war" with the possibility of nuclear annihilation between the superpowers. It drew on the role of trust both as an object of historical analysis and as an independent analytical category based on the wide application of notions of trust in the fields of sociology, economics, media studies, and political science. Interpreting trust as a form of political and social capital, the conference explored the dynamics of trust or distrust as an interplay of factors such as risk assessment, strategic self-interest, shared values and goodwill, highlighting the significance of historically grown trust regimes, symbolic actions, the effective staging of trust, and trustworthiness. Participants thus set out to reevaluate the final decades of the Cold War by investigating the strategies of trust and confidence-building employed to enforce certain political aims, the communication and representation of trust, the crucial role of the media, as well as the complex interaction of trust, fear, risk of betrayal, and verification mechanisms.

In their introduction, Reinhild Kreis and Martin Klimke stressed that the issue of trust and confidence in international affairs during the final years of the Cold War might yield new ideas about the evolution of international relations during the Cold War both between and within the blocs. Kreis and Klimke maintained that the idea of the conference was not only to trace the importance of active trust and confidence-building between the superpowers from NATO's 1967 Harmel Report until the end of the Cold War, but also to show how trust and distrust impacted international relations, and to highlight the dynamic entanglement between foreign and domestic affairs. Investigating the role that individuals played in trust-building processes, the first panel focused on the connection between trust on a personal level and the control or verification mechanisms that were part of these processes. Patrick Vaughan analyzed the role of Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security advisor, in mediating between the United States, Poland, and the newly formed Polish labor union Solidarity. In his paper, Vaughan demonstrated how the Polish-American Brzezinski used his unique connection to Poland to lobby for the importance of a peaceful negotiation among all parties involved. Vaughan emphasized the importance of both sides' trust in Brzezinski, which had a substantial impact on the success of his strategy of "peaceful engagement." J. Simon Rofe then examined the significance of trust and trustworthiness in the George H. W. Bush administration, emphasizing that trust was an integral element of the Bush presidency, including interactions with advisors, allies, and the Soviet Union. Rofe underscored that personal trust and the paradigm of "order over justice" were the guiding principles Bush followed throughout his career and particularly drew on in the final phase of the Cold War.

In her keynote lecture "Emotions in History," Ute Frevert provided a comprehensive introduction to recent research on the history of emotions. For Frevert, emotions play an active role in history not only by influencing moral judgment and collective behavior. They should also be seen as deeply historical, meaning that their perception, interpretation, and handling are subject to historical change. Frevert argued that trust is a distinctively modern concept linked to notions of profound uncertainty, and she particularly highlighted the personal character of bonds of trust in modern societies. In her view, the concept of trust cannot easily be applied to international relations since these are primarily driven by national interests and thus lack the high personal investment characteristic of trust. Instead, she favored the concepts of confidence and reliance to describe these relationships.

Deborah Welch Larson began the second day's proceedings with a keynote lecture on "Trust and Mistrust during the Cold War." Larson defined trust broadly as the "belief that the other has benevolent intentions towards us," which also implies vulnerability. For her, trust exists in a continuum; that is, a lack of trust does not mean distrust. In the context of the Cold War, she argued, trust was an integral part of communication and international cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Michael Cotey Morgan, in his paper "The Closed Society and Its Enemies: Confidence and Distrust at the CSCE, 1969-1975," contended that trust and distrust played a central role at the CSCE conference, functioning both as a tool and an objective. At the same time, however, the proclamations of "trust" were partially "lip service" as both sides had entered the negotiations mainly to achieve domestic political gains, and not chiefly to develop a relationship of mutual trust. Sarah Snyder's paper "No Crowing: Reagan, Trust, and Human Rights" focused on the role of trust in Reagan's promotion of human rights, particularly religious freedoms. Snyder examined Reagan's efforts to secure exit visas for two Pentecostal Soviet families who sought refuge in the US embassy in Moscow in 1982. Reagan, Snyder claimed, was able to personally empathize with the individuals in question and, moreover, his "quiet diplomacy" and assurances toward Gorbachev not "to crow" over any steps taken by the Soviets on this issue helped establish a greater degree of trust in Soviet-American relations.

The following two panels explored the mechanism of trust inside the ideological blocs. Drawing on opinion polls and on intelligence reports, Jens Gieseke outlined East Germans' attitudes toward their own government and that of the Federal Republic during the 1970/80s. Gieseke identified ideological, official, and bottom-up trust regimes in the GDR and showed how the intelligence apparatus became increasingly worried about the positive attitude and rising trustworthiness West German parties and politicians such as Willy Brandt began to enjoy among East Germans. However, in light of the NATO Double-Track Treaty, Gieseke argued, these attitudes partially shifted, with East Germans experiencing increased fear of war, alienation from Western policies, and the feeling of helplessness in the renewed superpower confrontation. Jens Boysen then further complicated the notion of a homogeneous ideological bloc among the Warsaw Pact countries by looking at a series of changes in the relationship between East Germany and Poland that showcased the fissures between these official allies. Boysen noted that mutual dependency and trust was a litmus test for East German leaders to determine how far allies would subordinate their national interests to the common cause. He highlighted how both countries' officials interpreted their respective turns to West Germany for economic support differently, and yet they similarly viewed the Federal Republic as an external anchor. Emmanuel Mourlon-Druol asked whether G7 and European Council summit meetings could be seen as efforts to institutionalize trust. He explained how they served to show the public unity of the member states to specific national audiences and how the informality of these meetings was supposed to help foster trust among the Western leaders. Noël Bonhomme, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of codes and rule-making for the G7 meetings and interpreted the meetings' function as a means of "socializing" Western leaders that had recently come into office. Bonhomme posed the question (of) whether, as the G7 summits became institutionalized, trust helped or hindered them.

The final panel of the day turned its attention to the role of small and neutral states in the Cold War. Effie G. H. Pedaliu elaborated on "‘Footnotes' as an Expression of Distrust? The U.S. and the NATO ‘Flanks' in the Last Two Decades of the Cold War," focusing on several NATO episodes in which Denmark and Greece dissented against the organization's policies. Pedaliu argued that it was not short-term domestic political advantages that spurred both countries to dissent but rather a growing sense of insecurity and a decline of trust within NATO. In Pedaliu's view, their behavior was an expression of a new type of confidence, in which member countries felt able to oppose their allies without fear of serious consequences. Aryo Makko then explored the nature of Swedish neutrality in the final decades of the Cold War. Exploring accusations of Sweden having been the "seventeenth member of NATO," Makko looked at the mechanism of trust between Sweden and the international community as well as how trust (particularly the lack thereof and the levels of secrecy among a small political elite) operated between the Swedish government and its population, leading the latter to feel profoundly betrayed after the end of the Cold War. Rinna Elina Kullaa examined the role of Finland during the 1970/80s, challenging the notion that Finland was merely a convenient location for international talks. Instead, Kullaa emphasized that Finland's neutralism should not be confused with neutrality. Finland did not want to be in the "Third Bloc" of the Cold War, although its position was similar to that of Yugoslavia and Egypt, and it chose to keep quiet on a number of key issues, thus arriving at official neutralism from a point of self-interest and from the government's view of trust as political capital.

The conference's third and final day began with a panel entitled "Implementation and Verification." Arvid Schors provided another perspective on the complexity of trust by focusing on the reduction of strategic arms leading up to the SALT I treaty. Schors emphasized that the US did not necessarily initiate the SALT I talks out of a desire to foster trust, but that trust did eventually emerge over the course of the negotiations. Schors also underscored the significance the rhetoric of distrusting the Soviet Union had for U.S. domestic politics, specifically when selling these negotiations to the public by pointing out to the essential element of verification. Following up on this, Laura Considine and Nicholas Wheeler explored the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as a case study for the relationship between trust and verification, arguing that accepting verification-in particular in the form of on-site inspections-is already an act of trust. The INF Treaty, Considine and Wheeler posited, shows that trust and verification are inexorably linked on a conceptual level. Practical actions that stimulated mutual trustworthiness between Reagan and Gorbachev were thus an important element of ending the Cold War. Joseph P. Harahan then focused on the technical implementation of the INF Treaty, namely, on the perspective of US and Soviet/Russian weapons inspectors. Harahan argued that the trust between Reagan and Gorbachev was not sufficient to explain the success of the treaty but that the military and technical personnel executing the treaty provisions also have to be taken into account. Trust was achieved through personal relations between the military on both sides that eventually yielded a method for implementation. Advanced technology such as satellite-based techniques, Harahan asserted, always served as a fallback option in these negotiations.

The concluding discussion chaired by Martin Klimke brought together a multitude of methodological issues related to the introduction of the notion of trust in the history of the Cold War. It explored, for example, the fine analytical line between confidence and trust, its domestic, transnational, and international dimensions, as well as its performative, rhetorical, and ritualistic nature. Both Klimke and Kreis stressed the need for a differentiated perspective within the ideological blocs of the Cold War, taking into account the significance of historical relationships, tensions, and asymmetries with regard to political and military power. On a domestic level, they pled for a greater contextualization of trust and its cultural representations by looking at the political decision-making process as a whole, including the role of various branches of government, political advisors, and expert cultures. Along those lines, they also underscored the importance of broadening the source base to transcend a focus on personal testimony and to incorporate gender perspectives when investigating trust in international relations. Concluding remarks also pointed out the linguistic bias when it comes to trust that rendered the discussion potentially very Anglo-specific. In French and German, for example, the concepts of "trust" and "confidence" can be expressed with a single word, making finer differentiation difficult. It was also suggested that scholars pay closer attention to the mechanisms that create trust, such as transparency, promise-keeping, and small-step agreements.

Nadja Klopprogge (GHI) and Emily Malkin (Woodrow Wilson Center)

Call for Papers

U.S. President Ronald Reagan once famously quipped, "Nations do not mistrust each other because they are armed. They are armed because they mistrust each other." To transcend this quagmire, Reagan employed the strategy "Trust, but Verify," one of his signature phrases, during the second half of the Cold War. Presenting this maxim as a translation of a Russian proverb, Reagan predominantly used it when describing U.S.-Soviet relations - for example, when the two countries signed the groundbreaking INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty in December 1987.
The landmark INF treaty, accompanied by reservations among U.S. and Soviet allies about the increasingly cordial relations between the former opponents, exemplifies the significance of trust and trustworthiness in international relations during the Cold War. Recent historiography of this conflict has begun to explore the crucial role of emotions such as fear and insecurity, which permeated both foreign policy strategy and large segments of society. It has not yet, however, explicitly made trust either an independent analytical category or an object of historical analysis, despite its wide application in the fields of sociology, economics, media studies, and political science.
Yet although Cold War angst (e.g., of nuclear annihilation) shaped the relationship between the ideological blocs, the final two decades of the era - from the period of détente starting in the late 1960s to the gradual rapprochement between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1980s - saw Cold War policy grow more flexible and diverse as each side sought to escape the orthodoxy of mutual assured destruction and deterrence. Because these transformations affected relations between the two superpowers and caused uncertainties within both blocs, the second half of the Cold War was characterized by a complex mixture of fear and trust, which manifested itself, among other things, in confidence-building and risk-taking, both on an international and domestic level.
As a construct, trust is transient and can be actively built or destroyed. It is the result of a process of risk assessment based on interactions and perceptions, strategic self-interest, shared values, and goodwill, and can be regarded as a form of social and political capital. Trust regimes, symbolic actions, and the effective staging of trust, trustworthiness, distrust, and other such qualities influence attention, rationality, and decision-making. Thus, they are major factors in international relations. The idea of trust or distrust is, furthermore, interrelated with concepts of the past and future. Past experiences color estimates of someone's trustworthiness and affect expectations of future developments. They also shape historical and ideological notions about countries and their interactions with one another, for example, ideas about so-called archenemies or special relationships in international relations.
This conference will use the categories of trust and distrust to explore and reevaluate the final two decades of the Cold War, beginning in the late 1960s. The temporal dimension will receive special emphasis, because trust among competing powers is limited and reversible and can be monitored or reinforced through checks and regulations. Within this framework, the conference seeks to analyze the conditions for the presence or absence of trust in the following areas:

  • the dynamics of the relationship between the two superpowers, that is, their foreign policy and diplomatic relations on various levels (official, cultural, and public) as well as their military and security objectives and negotiation strategies;


  • the dynamics within each ideological bloc, i.e., the internal cohesion of NATO and the Warsaw Pact as well as the loyalty of their members vis-à-vis their respective ideological hegemons (including extra-bloc interactions with non-aligned countries, ideas of transcending the bloc system, and tensions such as the Sino-Soviet split), alliance policies, ideological agendas, and the eventual transcendence of the bipolar system after the Cold War;


  • the dynamics inside the individual countries concerning domestic politics and society, debates about national leadership, the ideological enemy, and the legitimacy of the Cold War order as well as their representations, for example, in media and (popular) culture.

The conference will examine the dynamic entanglements between the international and domestic spheres, thus following an "intermestic" approach, and draw on an integrated perspective of political and cultural history. More specifically, it seeks to extend the recent historiographical emphasis on the role of emotions in contemporary politics, history, and international relations.
Possible themes that we would like to pursue from this perspective in this conference include:

  • building versus the destruction of trust


  • maintaining and managing trust (trust regimes)


  • possessing trustworthiness and a propensity to trust


  • structures that foster trust and reliability (checks, regulations, consequences, and so on)


  • predictability, community, and cooperation


  • reciprocation of trust


  • trust as social and political capitalpublic trust


  • narratives and memories of trust and betrayal


  • representations of trust in (popular) culture


  • linguistic, performative, and symbolic expressions of trust, trustworthiness, and distrust (e.g., in diplomatic rituals and performances such as official visits, signing ceremonies, "private" meetings, and joint media activities)


  • interpersonal (mis-)trust, loyalty, and disappointment (personal political friendships and enmities among decision makers on all levels)


  • perceptions and imaginings of trustworthiness (e.g. with regard to specific policies, political leaders or allies, technological or military developments, or abstract notions of progress and modernity)

Focusing on trust as an analytical category, researchers from all disciplines are therefore invited to discuss the Cold War from this perspective for the period from the late 1960s to 1990/91. Particular emphasis will be laid on the intersection of diplomatic, political, cultural, and media history.
Please send a paper proposal of no more than 500 words and a brief CV via e-mail to Bärbel Thomas.
The deadline for submission is March 1, 2011. Participants will be notified by the end of March.
The conference, held in English, will focus on the discussion of 5,000-6,000-word, pre-circulated papers (due September 1, 2011).
Expenses for travel (economy class) and accommodation will be covered, though you may defray organizing costs by soliciting funds from your home institution.
For more information, please contact

Dr. Martin Klimke
German Historical Institute
1607 New Hampshire Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20009-2562