“It all gets down to the conduct of foreign policy being personal”

Nicholas J. Wheeler of the University of Birmingham and Marcus Holmes of William and Mary College write for The Washington Post:

On Friday, President Trump departed on his first foreign trip. Over the course of nine days, he’ll meet many leaders face-to-face for the first time, including key NATO leaders.

Before leaving office, Vice President Joe Biden articulated the central importance of face-to-face diplomacy. Asked about the “Biden Doctrine,” he offered some advice for incoming administrations: “[I]t all gets down to the conduct of foreign policy being personal….I think it’s vitally important that not only you know and have as hard of a read as you can get on the foreign leader with whom you’re dealing, friend or foe, but that leaders know that what you say, what you do, what you propose is real … ”

During his campaign, Trump also stressed the virtues of diplomatic deal making — and the importance of cultivating personal relationships. As the crisis with North Korea deepened in recent weeks, Trump even suggested that he “would be honored” to meet personally with Kim Jong Un to resolve their differences.

What do we know about the effectiveness of face-to-face diplomacy? Here are four insights from recent research in this field.

1. Reading Other States Through Face-to-Face Interactions

One of the biggest challenges in foreign policy is figuring out the intentions of other countries, especially those who possess the military capabilities to harm your state. This is the classic “security dilemma” in international politics — when fear and mistrust lead to avoidable conflict. Leaders, diplomats and policymakers have long argued that there is no substitute for sitting down with a friend or adversary to gauge their intentions.

As superpower relations deteriorated in the early 1980s, the specter of nuclear confrontation led President Ronald Reagan to believe that “if we were ever going to break down the barriers of mistrust that divided our countries, we had to begin by establishing a personal relationship between the leaders of the two most powerful nations on Earth.”

Reagan’s opportunity came in November 1985 with a face-to-face meeting in Geneva with the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan recalled that as he shook hands with Gorbachev for the first time, and “looked into his smile,” he sensed he “had been right and felt a surge of optimism” that a breakthrough might be possible. Reagan read Gorbachev’s intentions accurately and the Geneva summit was the pivotal first step toward the end of the Cold War.

2. Interactions Can Boost a Leader’s Perceived Sincerity and Credibility

Long before the advent of easy air travel, leaders devoted considerable efforts to engage in such personalized diplomacy. Recent findings suggest several reasons these practices persist.

Keren Yarhi-Milo argues that leaders use face-to-face interactions to gain information and impressions about the sincerity of other state leaders that is difficult to ascertain through other means. Leaders draw on “vivid indicators” such as facial expressions, body language and other expressive behaviors to infer the other party’s true intent.

These expressive behaviors can serve as what Robert Jervis called “indices” of intentions, signals that bring with them inherent credibility because of their virtually uncontrollable nature. These offer credible glimpses into what sociologist Erving Goffman famously called the “back stage,” where our true intentions lie.

Empathy can also help leaders perceive each other as sincere. When we are face-to-face with someone, Marcus Holmes argues, we put ourselves in their position, simulating in our own minds the sincere intentions of others. This type of empathy leads to a better understanding of where the other person is coming from in terms of their positions and interests, what they are feeling, and how they are approaching a particular issue.

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TOP PHOTO: Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in Riyadh, May 20, 2017