In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Trust and International Relations

  • Introduction
  • Conceptual Overviews
  • Trust and Modernity
  • General Overviews of Trust in International Relations
  • Skeptical Views on Trust in International Relations

International Relations Trust and International Relations
Torsten Michel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0192


The theme of trust takes up a somewhat ambiguous role in the study of international relations (IR). Trust is widely recognized as a key component of human interaction and political organization. However, despite its central concern with the relationship between actors both on an aggregate as well as on individual level, the study of trust and its role and nature has been neglected for most of IR’s history of almost one hundred years. In many instances of scholarship in IR, trust has been seen, and continues to be seen, as a negligible factor either because it is deemed dangerous for actors in an internationally anarchic system to trust or, if we are specifically concerned with the problem of cooperation, because it is not deemed necessary to achieve and maintain cooperative behavior. Only recently has the number of studies that take the topic of trust as their central concern increased, and the result has been a variety of conceptually and empirically rich contributions; this scholarship draws on the rich literature of trust from disciplines as diverse as psychology, moral philosophy, and sociology. The ongoing debates about the nature, substance, and function of trust in international politics have developed along a number of different contentions. On the most basic level, the role of rationality and rational decision making in instances of trustful behavior has proved contentious. Positions here range from purely instrumental accounts to those interested in the interactive social dimension to those that see trust as either a moralistic disposition or an emotive attitude. Accordingly, the types of trust identified within the literature do not form a singular conceptual base from which to start empirical inquiries. This heterogeneous state of affairs concerning the conceptual substance of “trust” is further confounded by questions regarding the meaning of related terms such as “confidence” and “reliability” (or “reliance”). Another important dimension of trust scholarship concerns the relation among uncertainty, risk, and trust. A widely accepted premise for the emergence (and necessity) of trust is based on the lack of certainty that pervades (human) interaction. Trust becomes possible (and for sustained and peaceful interaction necessary) only when a situation arises in which the intentions of others are unknown and in which the consequences of their actions could produce harm. This situation of risk in which action and interaction occurs under conditions of limited information is a basic condition for trustful behavior to occur. Yet, contentions remain about the actual nature of this “uncertainty”; in the majority of accounts this uncertainty is tied to limited knowledge about the other and their intentions, i.e., it is described as a form of epistemological uncertainty that arises out of specific ontological constellations. In other accounts, however, this uncertainty itself assumes a more ontological quality and perceives of human existence in general as not reducible to representational knowledge and calculable outcomes. Trust in such understandings appears as a non-articulate disposition, an emotive attitude or a set of beliefs the function of which exceeds the purely calculative dimension of trust as a response to epistemological uncertainty.

Conceptual Overviews

Many disciplines addressed trust as a subject for academic research and debate long before it made its way to the field of international relations. As with many other themes and concepts, international relations draws heavily on this preexisting literature and, to this day, the field regularly references central works outside the discipline as points of reference. One debate that is taken from this literature and mirrored in international relations broadly concerns questions of trust in the public sphere, i.e., trust in government, forms of government, and public offices more generally. O’Neill 2002 and Hardin 2006 exemplify these debates quite well. Even more broadly, other publications, including Lagerspetz 1998 and Lagerspetz 2015, investigate the various dimensions of the notion of trust and the deeply interdisciplinary character of trust research as well as aspects of the relation between trust and cooperation (Gambetta 1988). Complementing these works are accounts that focus on the complex relation between trust and reason as for instance in Hollis 1998.

  • Gambetta, Diego, ed. Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

    This edited volume provides a very good introduction for those new to the debates on trust. Its contributions engage more generally with theoretical and empirical matters on trust and trusting behavior. Part 1 addresses conceptual and theoretical reflections on the notion, nature, and role of trust in social relations, while Part 2 presents a number of empirical case studies.

  • Hardin, Russell. Trust. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2006.

    This book addresses the question of the role of trust in the public sphere, on the one hand, and in the private sphere, on the other. It investigates to what extent a crisis exists in public trust and how this can be contextualized within a globalizing setting. It also looks at this growing interconnectedness in terms of impact on the development (and its obstacles) of trust on individual levels.

  • Hollis, Martin. Trust within Reason. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511612244

    This book engages with the central relationship between trust and reason, offering reflections on the paradoxes and contradiction as well as the promises trust can hold within the framework of the Enlightenment. Importantly, Hollis moves beyond a narrow understanding of reason as instrumental rationality, and, with reference to central thinkers in the Enlightenment tradition, he shows what a wider conception of reason can contribute to our understanding of trust and its development.

  • Lagerspetz, Olli. Trust: The Tacit Demand. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-015-8986-4

    A comprehensive overview of the main issues and contentions surrounding the notion of trust. The book develops along interdisciplinary lines and explores a large variety of interconnected aspects reaching from the emergence of trust to its “pay-offs” to questions of trust and political legitimacy.

  • Lagerspetz, Olli. Trust, Ethics and Human Reason. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

    This book introduces the various conceptual and theoretical dimensions that drive much of trust scholarship. The book offers an intricate, nuanced but accessible overview of the core themes and contentions related to trust in relation to both similar concepts and the conditionalities of trust (e.g., reason, vulnerability, truth). To date, one of the best general introductions to the issues surrounding the notion of trust.

  • O’Neill, Onora. A Question of Trust. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    This is a printed version of the BBC Reith Lectures given in 2002. The lectures address the questions fundamental to every treatment of trust in a brief yet very reflective and instructive manner: is there a current crisis of trust, how does trust emerge, on what basis is trust well placed, and what are the societal and political conditions under which trust can flourish?

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