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With Trump leaving on his first foreign trip, here are 4 lessons about face-to-face diplomacy

- May 19, 2017

On May 19, 2017, President Trump departs 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) Face-to-face interactions aid in reading the intentions of other states

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) These interactions can boost a leader’s perceived sincerity and credibility, making deals more likely

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.

All of this can pay significant dividends. In the 1978 Camp David talks, for instance, Jimmy Carter mediated a peace accord between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Carter’s capacity to empathize with each of the protagonists through his individual face-to-face meetings with them enabled the two bitter foes to move toward  a zone of agreement they could not see previously.

3) Face-to-face interactions allow the other side to get a read on you

Of course, meeting in person also gives other leaders an opportunity to read you. Having this two-way street can be desirable, particularly if the goal is reassuring an adversary. Reagan believed that if he could only get in a room with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader would believe that U.S. intentions were peaceful.

Naturally, there’s reason for caution if leaders are trying to shield their true intentions from each other. Face-to-face interactions might yield secrets that come from expressions and visual cues, more than from the words spoken between parties.

Four years after the initial Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Geneva, President George H.W. Bush went to Malta to negotiate for the reunification of Germany. Bush read from Gorbachev’s demeanor that he was “malleable on the German question,” and used this information, in part, to push for a reunified Germany under NATO. By some accounts, others within the Soviet leadership regretted allowing Bush to form this impression, and the failure of the Soviet leader to provide a more definitive answer on the “German question.”

4) Face-to-face diplomacy fosters trust, and that makes signals clearer

Clearer signals can transform relationships. Nicholas Wheeler, for example, says that face-to-face interactions allow leaders and policymakers to gauge each other’s trustworthiness and that such encounters can lead to a bond of trust developing that ensures the accurate interpretation of signals that are sincerely aimed at communicating peaceful intent.

Joe Biden was onto something

Biden is not the first policymaker to argue that foreign policy is personal.  Trump seems to agree, and has an ambitious itinerary for his first foreign trip. These interpersonal relations are an opportunity for Trump and other leaders signal to each other that they can be trusted — and they mean what they say.

But it remains to be seen what this first trip’s meetings will bring. In the wake of last week’s apparent disclosure of classified information in a meeting with Russian policymakers, foreign leaders may be wary of Trump’s unpredictability and, potentially, his untrustworthiness. This overseas trip offers Trump an important chance to bolster his credibility, demonstrate his sincerity and to start building trust, face-to-face.

Marcus Holmes (@Prof_MHolmes) is assistant professor of government at the College of William & Mary. His book, “Face Value: Face-to-Face Diplomacy, Social Neuroscience, and International Relations,” is under contract with Cambridge University Press.

 Nicholas J. Wheeler (@WheelerICCS) is professor of international relations and director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham. His latest book, “Trusting Enemies,” is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.

Note: Updated Sept. 19, 2023.