Conference – Trust, but Verify 2011

“Trust, but Verify”

Confidence and Distrust from Détente to the End of the Cold War

Conveners: Martin Klimke (German Historical Institute, Washington, DC); Reinhild Kreis (History Department, University of Augsburg); Sonya Michel (United States Studies, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC); Christian Ostermann (Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson Center,
Washington, DC)
Dates: November 07–09, 2011
Location: Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars & German Historical 
Institute, Washington, DC

> View Conference Report (PDF)


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:

a) 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;
b) 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;
c) 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 capital
  • public 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.  

Impressions from the conference




Images: Christian Wachter & David Hawxhurst/Wilson Center