Michael Urban who won Carleton University’s Canadian Foreign Policy Journal (CFPJ) Best Paper Prize for his piece A Fearful Asymmetry: Diefenbaker, the Canadian Military and Trust During the Cuban Missile Crisis recently sat with Katarina Koleva to talk about his paper. Urban’s article focuses on the role of trust in international affairs and foreign policy analysis, and uses this idea to account for differences between Prime Minister Diefenbaker and that of the Canadian military during the Cuban missile crisis.


iAffairs: What motivated you for your paper?

Michael Urban: To answer that question, I think probably the best thing to do is to take a step or two backwards first. The paper is drawn from one of the case studies that make up the empirical portion of my doctoral dissertation. The dissertation was focused on developing and understanding of trust that was appropriate to study in international relations. Into the dissertation, I argue that trust plays a very important role in international relations, but a role that is not particularly well understood. Trust is important because of the way it influences actors, international politics, by defining their worldviews. Trust is very powerful because it renders certain actions thinkable, and other actions – unthinkable, but it is also very difficult to study for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important of these reasons is that if it renders something unthinkable that thing that is not thinkable, it never makes it out to the agenda or into the minutes of cabinet’s meetings; it is never in people’s diaries because they do not think it; so they never think about why they would not do it or why they did not consider this other option. So, it is quite difficult to get evidence for something like this.

That is one of the reasons I chose this particular episode to write about – because there are two sets of actors: the political leadership and the military leadership, the political leadership basically being Diefenbaker. Both actors have very different assumptions, very different background, and trusting views about their US counterparts. The contrast between these two sets of trusting beliefs helps to really reveal the role of trust.

I also wanted to study this episode because of the way that, I think, it highlights another very interesting aspect of trust, which is its specificity. A lot of work on trust, I think, fails to recognize that trust is a specific belief, that it is X trusts Y to do Z. For instance, I trust my brother with my wife, but I wouldn’t trust him to pick a movie for the two of us. Trust is not monolithic, it is always specific. Each person carries around with them a portfolio of multitudinous, a very large number of specific trust-beliefs. They go together to makeup, to define their worldview. And each of these beliefs is differentiated by the person with whom it is connected at the subject matter in question.

To get back to this particular episode, I wanted to write about it because of how I thought it illustrated this point very well and demonstrated the limits of the particular trust, certain portfolio of trust-beliefs that existed at the time. The dissertation project came out of an engagement with democratic peace theory and I argue that the democratic peace is a result of form of trust in which liberal leaders and officials trust other liberal leaders and officials to not use violence as a way of resolving their disputes. I believe that Diefenbaker trusted Kennedy that much that he never thought Kennedy would try to impose the US certain preferred policy of Canada by force. However, Diefenbaker certainly did not trust Kennedy to look out for Canada’s best interests in all instances, especially in relations with the Soviets. I think this lack of trust or this limited form of trust had really traced out what sort of action Diefenbaker would consider or not consider in his interactions with the Americans during crises.

iAffairs: Do you see any contemporary parallels in terms of divergence in trust-beliefs within Canada and with regard to Canada-US relations?

Michael Urban: To be very frank, I think the Canada-US relationship has grown to such an extent, to such a plethora of activities and relationships that it is actually quite hard to say very much about this in sum. One of the things that I discuss in my paper is that trust is always based on the relationship between individual human beings. Since I wrote the paper, I think I am a bit more nuanced on that and I think that sometimes individuals can personify institutions, like states or things like that, and they can develop psychological trust in that respect. I trust Canada, whatever Canada is, but only because I personify it in a way in my mind. Getting back to the question, the larger portion there is that because there are so many distinct relationships, so many institutions that are interacting in that larger relationship, we need to look much more specifically at the components of that relationship to really get a meaningful answer.

One of the things that came out of my work was this idea of how different institutional setups can predispose the agents that inhabit them to trust in a certain way or to not trust in a certain way. And the example I like to use is NORAD. It is a very specific institutional setup in which you always have a US commander, you always have a Canadian deputy commander. When you think about it, it does not really make very much sense for someone who does not trust the US commander to argue by that secondary command role. NORAD is charged with defending Canada from attack, it is its jurisdiction and if you do not trust the person who is in charge of that, to do that job, it would be very difficult, I think, it would not even work very well. What I think the institutional setup creates is a situation where, in an attempt to sort of reduce or eliminate cognitive dissonance, you have someone in that secondary command position that is predisposed by that institutional setup to trust the person in charge.

So, in order to answer your original question, you need to look at the specific components of the relationship. One of the things you can do is you can excavate the institutional structures that define how players interact with each other in that relationship. That will help you to learn a lot about what is likely to happen in particular situations. It will also, perhaps, I would argue, might suggest that some of the institutionalized directions that we have with the US is probably quite likely to produce trust. Other institutional setups are probably less likely to do so. And if building trust between the two countries is a policy directive, we might want to revisit how to go about setting up these institutions in order to create environments, to predispose people to trust their interlocutors.

iAffairs: How would you personify trust between the state’s military and political elites?

Michael Urban: I would not want to reify those as two separate components. I think in this particular case, because of the different relationships that existed, the environment that developed coming out of the WWII, because of those different relationships, you did have a separation between the politicians or rather the conservative and the Canadian military leadership. Not always this has to happen. I think that say, for instance, during the WWII and the immediate aftermath, you had much stronger alliances between political and military leadership because they had both experienced the cooperative endeavour of winning the WWII and then setting up the UN and then responding to the Soviet threat.

Since you have this very strong alignment and experiences, as I pointed out in the paper, common experiences are very important aspect of how trust develops, you likely have very similar set of trust portfolio that existed between the two leaderships. I think you got a divergence later on between the two for a variety of specific reasons and so, I think, when studying this sort of things, it is important to take a look around and see if there are in fact different groups with different experiences putting different positions in institutions that define relationships and if you do see that, that is the hint right there, perhaps there might be different assumptions, different trust-beliefs which are going to impact actions and might produce a divergence of actions.

iAffairs: How important is the concept of trust in contemporary international affairs?

Michael Urban: I think it is just as important as it has always been. I think that because of the way that it defines people’s worldviews, it is often very important background, determinant of what is going to happen. I think that this episode illustrates that. But I also think that if you really start to look for it, you can see trust or lack of trust in all the interactions that are occurring in international relations. The US and China certainly do not trust each other on a lot of levels and in a lot of specific ways, but I think they both trust each other enough as to have basic decencies. And so far, they are not going to risk a nuclear war over certain very small things. They trust each other to have that level of humanity. That basic level of trust between those two super powers informs how they are going to interact in terms of North Korea, for instance. So, I think, whatever you are looking for, it is very important to define the background assumptions which are informing various actors’ worldviews and trust is very important part of that, at all times.

iAffairs: In your paper, the Cuban missile crisis is seen as the peak of the Cold War. Today, many would say we are in a new Cold War. The world is also facing other challenges. Do you think when an external threat exists, it strengthens the internal trust within the country?

Michael Urban: Yes, and I talked about this both in terms of common experiences, but also common interests. If there is an external threat that both or a number of parties identify as a threat to them, then yes. For a variety of psychological, and even just simple logistical reasons, you get alignment between the people who feel threatened, a more unified response. Obviously, there are other things which may play into this and work more or less well, but it is definitely one of the five components or drivers of trust that I talk about.

iAffairs: What lessons can Canada’s policy-makers take from the Cuban missile crisis?

Michael Urban:  I am not really expert of the whole crisis, I am only expert of the parts that I have looked at, but I think it does point to the fact that you do need to be very specific when thinking about it. If you want to predict how years are going to interact or how countries are going to interact when faced with a specific event, it is very important to have an understanding of the sort of background areas and worldviews which will define these leaders’ perspectives and responses. And I think that this really highlights the importance of the contextual and cultural understanding, of the area of expertise to really understand the political cultures that exist in the area that you are going to talk about. You may have some expectations, but I would argue you cannot really interpret or predict how the states are going to react, you cannot really understand how they are going to define their interests unless you understand their cultural and narrative elements, and the lenses through which they are going to do that. So, trust is a very important part of that because it helps to inform the worldviews, which are going to define how states interact. Understanding which state is going to do what or not going to do what is an important piece of knowledge that policy-makers should have, whereas academics and journalists should write about this sort of things.

iAffairs: Why does the historical viewpoint matter?

Michael Urban: This is a very interesting question. I think that even if history does not matter, it still matters because the people who setup the world we are living right now thought that it matters. You take a look at the US political system right now and one of the reasons it is designed the way it is, is because the people who designed it were very close students of Greek and Roman democracies and how they succeeded or how they failed. So, they built the system to compensate for the perceived weaknesses of those systems. We are forced now to engage and confront the result of their labor. So, the past matters because they thought it mattered. They designed the system based on how they thought it mattered. But I think they were also quite right because while history does not repeat itself, it is human beings, right? Human beings are fairly constant in a lot of ways throughout the ages. So, understanding how they reacted in certain circumstances previously will not allow to predict exactly what is going to happen, but it will help you to get a sense of how things are likely to go. We understand situations based on understanding how situations have happened in the past. So, for students and practitioners in international politics if only to build up a vocabulary or grammar of international politics, we need to be exposed to international policies from the past.

iAffairs: Anything else you would like to add?

Michael Urban: I would like to thank Professor David Carment and the other organisers of the writers’ workshop which produced the issue of the journal. I would also like to thank the other participants in the workshop for listening the early versions of the paper and for helping me to improve it. That was really appreciated!


Michael Crawford Urban is a policy associate at the Mowat Centre, an independent public policy think tank affiliated with the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. He is simultaneously a visiting fellow at the University of Toronto’s Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History. He has also worked as the returning officer for the federal riding of Spadina-Fort York in the 2015 federal election and with the Policy Research Division at Global Affairs Canada. Michael holds a doctorate in International Relations from Balliol College, University of Oxford. In addition to trust and liberal democracy, his research interests include international relations theory, Canadian foreign policy, nuclear weapons and proliferation, and European integration.

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