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The Politics of (Dis)Trust

In Politics We Trust

Syria's Bashar al-Assad is a dictator. But even dictators must have the implicit consent of the populace to govern. Armies are only so big, after all. The consent of the governed manifests as trust. Trust that the dictator, while surely rapacious, is also interested in bettering (or at least mostly not hurting) the ruled. Bashar al-Assad lost what little trust Syrians had in him on May 20, 2011 when the Syrian army killed 23 people, including two boys in the city of Homs. More than 2,000 people have been killed so far in the haphazard fighting of the Syrian Spring.

Trust is a fragile thing: it is built slowly over time but can be shattered in seconds following a breach. For several years I have been seeking to apply my research on the neurobiology of trust to understand international relations. In a recent article published in International Studies Perspectives, my colleague Jacek Kugler and I, make the case that trust has been largely ignored in understanding politics.

Indeed, democracies depend crucially on trust. On August 30, 2009, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was indicted on charges of fraud, falsifying records, tax evasion, and breach of trust. These allegations were so egregious that Olmert was forced to resign his position as Prime Minister a year before the indictment was handed down. Citizens in democracies send representatives to Jerusalem, Tokyo, or Washington, D.C. presuming that politicians will represent our interests. While not every politician is on the up-and-up, we can, and do, "vote the turkeys out" when our trust is violated.

While breaches of trust are easily explained by assuming political actors are purely self-interested and shortsighted, what is surprising is how trustworthy politicians and countries can be, even when the chance of being caught is low.

For example, the traditional realist model of international politics predicted that the collapse of the Soviet Union should have provided an opening for the United States-the single dominant country after 1989-to impose new stringent rules on the international system. The United States had a "golden" opportunity to strike Russia and establish its power as the worldwide hegemon...but it did not. Instead, the United States supported the recovery in Russia, and at the same time has encouraged the expansion of other regional powers, including the European Union and to a lesser extent, China. Why?

The Zak-Kugler model predicts countries will cooperate not because Pollyannaish politicians are wearing rose-colored glasses, but because they have a long-term interest in cooperation. Indeed, just as among family, friends, and business partners, long-term relationships can survive occasional breaches due to internal stresses. The U.S. "forgave" NATO partner France for not allowing U.S. warplanes heading to Iraq to cross its airspace in March 2003. Our model predicted that U.S. politicians understood that French President Jacques Chirac had recently won a very close election and needed to appear to stand strong against the U.S. to enhance the domestic perception of his power. History shows that the U.S. and France cooperate on 99% of issues that come before them, the appearance in the US of anti-French "freedom fries" not withstanding.

The crucial implication of our model is that trust and self-interest often run together, if time horizons are long enough. And, that history matters. The British have a "special relationship" with the U.S. because of our long history and shared constitutional structures. Mexico is special because of our shared geography and interests that generate trust (with verification). Egypt, less so.

Syria now has a chance to have special relationship with the U.S. and Europe. It depends on who the post-Assad ruler is, whether he or she shares an outlook and values with the West and can demonstrate trustworthiness through policies that are consistent and transparent. And, we'll expect a couple of breaches and still support the new Syria.

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