Charles Crawford CMG
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International Negotiation: Trust or Mistrust

Charles Crawford CMG is a communication consultant who has drafted speeches for members of the Royal Family, Prime Ministers and other senior figures.  He gives masterclasses in negotiation technique and public speaking / speechwriting. He is an expert on central Europe, having served as UK Ambassador in Warsaw, Belgrade and Sarajevo.


My two previous AP Insights on international negotiating (Part One and Part Two) identified five core ideas:





Time / Certainty / Risk

Wait. Isn’t something missing? Maybe the most important thing of all? Trust?

Websites that look at the role of trust in negotiating conclude that trust is a Good Thing:

You need to build trust with your counterpart so you can align your interests and increase the likelihood that he will honour his commitments

Principled negotiation is largely based on trust

Talks sometimes collapse because each side lacks trust in the other's competence and good intentions

All well and good. But is it true? And what exactly does trust mean in these contexts? It’s not easy to pin that down.

When you say “I trust you, Donald!” you’re expressing a complex combination of thoughts about how you see Donald ‘as a person’ now, and about how you believe Donald will behave in future. You’re also offering your view on your relationship with Donald (and thereby saying something about yourself). Of course, you may be lying and not trust Donald at all, but want to tell him that you do.

Think about buying a car and the assumptions lurking under the surface, especially for the buyer. Does the seller have the legal right to sell the car? Is the car in its advertised condition? Has it had an undisclosed crash? Is the mileage accurate? Will the seller deliver this specific car once the money is paid? The seller too must be careful. Does the buyer have the money? Will it be paid when the car is handed over?

The negotiating here is about the final cost of the car, but also all about distributing the risk of things going wrong. Some risks are managed by ‘trust’; others by warranties in the contract and by the shared thought that if it all goes awry there’s the option of legal action. Indeed, the courts take off the table over-reliance on personal trust: you’re held to your promises, and that’s that.

Diplomacy is very different. There’s no easy resort to litigation if promises aren’t kept. Personal trust (aka ‘chemistry’) between leaders is interesting, but not that significant.

Leader X and leader Y enjoys each other’s company, and they have made good progress by cooperating closely. Yet leader X knows that leader Y’s priority of priorities is to stay in power. If leader Y decides the best way to stay in power is to step back from leader X, or even to ignore or drop agreements and understandings with leader X, so be it. No hard feelings on either side.

One prominent example of leaders talking about trusting each other came in 2001, when newly elected US President G W Bush and Russia’s President Putin met in Slovenia. At their joint press conference President Bush delivered some striking words:

I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy … I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

This sounds ridiculous today. Yet it made sense for Bush to say that, either because he meant it or even if he didn’t believe it. His aim at the summit was to start to build a personal relationship with Putin to tackle complicated global issues in a new spirit of hard-headed partnership. Some expressions of private trust were useful, but not essential.

In other words, in diplomacy things get agreed even though there is little or no trust between the parties. It may even happen because there’s no trust: all concerned dislike the current situation and see advantages in striking a deal to try something new.

Especially when issues are especially sensitive for all sides (notably on arms control or security issues), active deep mistrust in the other side’s intentions is managed by intense technical verification on the ground. This plays out in extended haggling first over the rules for access to key sites under strict conditions, and then over what that means in practice once the deal is struck. See the Iran and North Korea examples passim.

Personal relations between leaders can be subtle. After the Soviet Union collapsed, UK Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd made a real effort to work closely with Russia’s youthful new Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev. Kozyrev stressed to Hurd that he wanted their relationship to be based on one simple principle: No surprises! Kozyrev was on to something important in the way trust works in diplomacy at the top levels. For any leader, coming across to friend and foe alike as weak is ruinous.

Suppose leader X makes a show of working closely with leader Y. Leader Y then does something cutting across leader X’s policies, but does not tip off leader X in advance. Leader X looks like a lemon if it emerges that s/he found out about leader Y’s move through the newspapers. Loser!


When you hear experts proclaiming the central role of trust in negotiation, don’t trust them. Examine what’s really going on. What’s at stake and for whom? How are they spreading the risks of unintended failure or malevolent jiggery-pokery?


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