Trust and Missed Opportunities in International Relations

  • Citation: Larson, Deborah Welch. "Trust and Missed Opportunities in International Relations." Political Psychology 18.3 (1997): 701-734.
    • Topics:
    • Great Power Conflict
    • Keywords:
    • attribution biases
    • counterfactuals
    • international relations
    • trust
    • reciprocity

With the end of the Cold War, we must wonder whether there were missed opportunities to regulate the arms race and global competition, which nearly bankrupted the United States and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. A missed opportunity for agreement is a situation where there was at least one alternative that the parties to a conflict preferred or would have preferred to nonagreement. Hard-core Realists argue that states compete for territory, arms, and influence because they have conflicting national interests. Soft-core Realists maintain that such conflicts are effects of international anarchy and uncertainty, and that states can cooperate contingent on reciprocity. I argue that states often fail to cooperate even when they have compatible preferences because policy-makers make incorrect inferences about the opponent’s motives and intentions, a process that can be illuminated by social psychology. I present three alternative explanations of trust and distrust in international relations‚Äîrational choice, domestic structures, and social psychology. If policy-makers are prudent, they will assess the other’s interests in observing an agreement as well as its reputation. Often, domestic political structures encourage leaders to promote distrust of an external enemy to legitimize their internal rule or foreign policy. Finally, distrust may lead policy-makers to dismiss the other side’s cooperative signals or proposals. Distrust can be overcome by making a series of step-by-step agreements in which each side can test the other’s good faith at limited cost, or through unilateral concessions as part of a consistent policy.

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