“Trust, but Verify”

Call For Papers

“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 Center), Christian Ostermann (CWIHP, Woodrow Wilson Center)

Date: November 7-9, 2011
Location: Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars & German Historical Institute, Washington, DC


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. In December 1987, for example, the two countries signed the INF Treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty), which set forth the destruction of all land-based nuclear missiles with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles, a permanent halt in the production of such missiles, and—crucially for Reagan—mutual inspection rights. When he announced at the subsequent press conference in Washington that the spirit of the agreement was in keeping with his aforementioned motto, his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev only replied with amusement, “You repeat that at every meeting.”

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, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, 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.

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 debates about national leadership, the ideological enemy, and the legitimacy of the Cold War order.

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

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.

Please send a paper proposal of no more than 500 words and a brief CV via e-mail to Bärbel Thomas (b.thomas@ghi-dc.org).

The deadline for submission is March 1, 2011. Participants will be notified by the end of March.

The conference, held in English, will focus on the discussion of 5,000–6,000-word, pre-circulated papers (due September 1, 2011).

Expenses for travel (economy class) and accommodation will be covered, though you may defray organizing costs by soliciting funds from your home institution.

For more information, please contact

Dr. Martin Klimke
German Historical Institute
1607 New Hampshire Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20009-2562
Email: klimke@ghi-dc.org