Trust is the key to geopolitical strength

Geopolitical trust is intrinsic to the making and breaking of states on the international scene.

View of a military parade in Whitehall during the eighteenth century.
View of a military parade in Whitehall during the eighteenth century. Credit: incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo

Trust, and mistrust, is all around us. Its presence underpins all our relationships and institutions; its absence undermines them. We saw this most recently during the global coronavirus pandemic, when governments struggled to keep populations onside. Trust is even more important in the international sphere, where many of the conventions and restraints of domestic politics do not apply. The difficulty in speaking about geopolitical trust, therefore, is not one of finding enough material, but of being overwhelmed by examples.

Charles Tilly famously said ‘The state makes war and war makes the state.’ He meant that the state developed its extractive and mobilising capacity in tandem with the demands of international politics. Trust was central to this process, and those states that commanded the most trust from their political nations were also the most successful in the international sphere, at least in relative terms. The pioneers here were the Dutch, during their war of independence, who managed to see off the much stronger Spaniards by the early seventeenth century, and by the end of that century had established a sophisticated system of public finance and representation which enabled them to punch well above their weight in Europe.

This model was soon embraced and perfected by England, and later Britain in the context of its interminable wars with the France of Louis XIV. A funded national debt was created, supported by the new Bank of England (1694) and a sophisticated stock and money market. This was underpinned by a broad political consensus in favour of parliamentary government, and resisting tyranny at home and abroad. The Triennial Act of 1694 stipulated that parliamentary elections were to take place every three years, and the abandonment of pre-censorship allowed political and commercial matters to be discussed freely in and outside parliament. English politics throughout the 1690s were dominated by arguments over how best to wage the war, with the Whigs supporting King William III in his call for direct military intervention on the Continent, while the Tories preferred a more indirect maritime and colonial strategy.

In England, there was little disagreement, however, about the fact that Louis XIV had to be stopped, or that a free people required a strong, and thus expensive, state to protect them. ‘Do what is necessary to carry on the war,’ the Commons proclaimed in the 1690s, ‘but do nothing which may destroy the constitution.’ They trusted the king to lead the war effort, and not to use the armies they funded to impose royal absolutism. As a result, William III and his parliaments were able to raise the staggering sums needed to fight France, and managed to fund a huge proportion of the war, at least a third, out of long-term loans rather than income. The English thus lived not only in the freest European state, but also in the most powerful in relation to its size and population. In 1707, this system was extended to Scotland with the Act of Union by which the two nations agreed to have a common debt, common parliament and common foreign policy.

The British system could boast two great advantages. First, the very high level of participation, and trust, in the political process made the state the most creditworthy in Europe. This enabled it to mobilise financial resources out of all proportion its population, and even its ‘fundamental’ economic strength. Secondly, parliament and the public sphere provided a forum in which British interests could be articulated and refined, making over time — though not invariably — for a more informed and flexible policy.

Above all, the high level of underlying trust made Britain extraordinarily resilient even in defeat. It sustained a losing war against the American Colonists and much of Europe for nearly eight years in the late eighteenth century. When Britain was finally forced to throw in the towel, parliament and the executive quickly got a grip on the huge debt, and within a short period of time, was back at war, this time against revolutionary and Napoleonic France, for another 20 years or so. This was only possible because of the very high level of strategic trust, subject to constant scrutiny to be sure, which the political nation invested in the state and its external policy.

The success of the British fiscal-military state was taken on board by the young American Republic. It emerged from its late eighteenth-century independence struggle without a proper executive, standing army, representative system, or plan for paying the huge war debt. There were widespread fears the United States would fall apart, go bankrupt, or be recolonised by the European great powers before it really got off the ground. In the now-iconic Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton argued the failure to sort out state and federal debt and thus secure the ‘public credit’ would mean ‘a surrender of our rights and interests to every enterprising invader.’

The constitution agreed at Philadelphia addressed all these problems. A strong executive was established in the shape of a presidency empowered to conduct foreign policy and conclude treaties, which were subject, however, to ratification by the two Houses of Congress. This was made up of the Senate, representing the individual states, and the House of Representatives. State war debts were ‘federalised,’ restoring the ‘public credit.’ All this was explicitly modelled on the Anglo-Scottish Union and was conceived as an attempt to replicate the level of strategic trust, and thus financial credibility, it had achieved.

The rest is well known. In time, the United States became the most powerful actor in the history of the world. It eventually overtook the British fiscal-military state in terms of global reach. This role was underpinned by a very high level of trust in the state, and in its extractive and mobilising functions. Even more importantly, the system was resilient: it was able to recover from humiliating defeats such as that sustained in Vietnam. Despite external humiliation and resulting internal unrest, which could have sunk a lesser power (as we shall see below), America was able to dust itself off and carry on to win the Cold War.

Most mainland European polities, by contrast, took the absolutist path and in consequence proved relatively less effective on the international stage. For example, in late eighteenth-century France, defeat in the Seven Years’ War against Britain undermined the social and political compact on which the ancien regime was based. The feudal system was supposed to deliver an effective aristocratic-led military but that was manifestly no longer the case. Trust in the Bourbons declined and there were demands for wider political participation to restore it.

Worse still, the ancien regime continued to fail in Europe throughout the late eighteenth century. France was forced to abandon traditional allies like the Swedes, Poles, and Ottoman Turks to the tender mercies of a rampant Russia. The failure of its foreign policy caused the population to further lose trust in the monarchy; this made it harder to raise money, either through taxes or loans, with the latter now requiring punitive rates of interest. This, in turn, undermined France’s ability to rekindle a vigorous foreign policy. The country was trapped in a doom-loop at whose heart lay trust, or rather the lack of it.

In August 1786, the Controller-General of Finances, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, effectively admitted the monarchy was bankrupt. King Louis XVI was forced to convene an Assembly of Notables, which immediately voiced its distrust. The nub of the critique was fiscal-political. Noting the vast expense of failed foreign policy one critic asked whether a royal minister should ‘be able to spend in this way to further his plans? Not without the consent of the nation.’ The implication of this argument was clear: the increased taxation which French great power ambitions required could only be achieved through political participation. Without it, the trust necessary to extract taxes or reassure creditors would be withheld. Yet the lack of trust, which reduced the fiscal agility of the those in power also meant they were unable to mobilise to support the allied Dutch patriots against the Prussian invasion of 1787, causing a further loss of trust.

Eventually, Louis XVI agreed to summon an Estates General, the representative assembly of the three estates, which met in May 1789. It was a belated attempt to rebuild the trust between king and people necessary to sustain France’s position in the world, but it failed. France was soon consumed by revolution, and the explosion of French power which followed was the result of a new bargain between the executive and the people based on a credible, if ultimately doomed, vision of French ‘greatness.’

The second form of geopolitical trust is ‘Treaty Trust.’ Treaties have been a bedrock of the international system for hundreds of years, and it is a truism that their functioning rests on trust. It is not that powers refuse to conclude treaties with counterparts known to be untrustworthy — the Hitler-Stalin pact is an extreme example — but they do so on very different terms than those they seek with reliable partners. Take, for instance, the Axis alliance between Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. This was characterised by very high levels of mutual mistrust, and low levels of political, economic, and military integration. The Axis proved unable to produce a coherent strategic plan: Italy and Germany fought largely ‘parallel wars’ in Europe, and the Japanese did their own thing in Asia. Beyond a very vague division of the world into areas of operation to the east and west of a line through the Indian Ocean, there was no attempt to coordinate operations. All three states lived in terror of the other seeking a separate peace with the allies. Trust between them was minimal, and its absence reduced their effectiveness.

Contrast this with the Anglo-American partnership during the Second World War, the Five Eyes Intelligence sharing programme, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Churchill and Roosevelt had their differences, but they reached a high level of understanding even before America’s entry into the war. After all, the Atlantic Charter in which the two men agreed their outline war aims was drawn up in August 1941, nearly four months before Pearl Harbour. The idea that Germany should be tackled first was agreed even earlier. Nor was there any fear in Washington or London of either country negotiating a separate peace with Germany: they agreed the formula of ‘unconditional surrender’ at 1943’s Casablanca Conference. Here trust was clearly a force multiplier.

Another example is NATO. It was originally set up in 1949, and the first Secretary General, ‘Pug’ Ismay, is said to have quipped its purpose was ‘to keep America in, the Russians out and the Germans down.’ Quite soon the alliance established itself as a credible deterrent against Soviet aggression based on the pledge to regard an attack on one as an attack on all requiring a common response — the so-called ‘Article Five’ guarantee. Trust in the guarantee survived the end of the Cold War and is now the bedrock of European collective security in the east as it faces Vladimir Putin. Indeed, two formerly neutral countries, Finland and Sweden, trust in it so much that they have applied to join the organisation.

Moreover, geopolitical trust is both resilient and ‘differentiated.’ It takes a long time to build, but it is not easily lost. The United States, for example, has experienced at least three major alliance-related crises of trust over the past 50 years or so, including the abandonment of South Vietnam, leading to chaotic scenes in Saigon, in 1975. Likewise, the United Kingdom has suffered a crisis of credibility as a result of its retreat from the Northern Ireland Protocol, signed only a few years ago as part of its withdrawal from the European Union. In each case, it has been argued that American or British standing has been terminally damaged putting a question mark over the value of its commitments more generally.

If that were so, it would be worrying from the Western point of view. But alliance partners can readily distinguish between peripheral failures and those in core areas. Withdrawal from Vietnam was certainly damaging, but the end of US deployment actually freed up forces for the defence of Europe. It made NATO more, not less, credible. The same is true of US withdrawal from Afghanistan, completed in 2021, which many understood to be part of a more sustained effort against America’s two competitors, Russia and China. In the same way, the UK’s actions over the Protocol haven’t caused eastern and northern Europeans to doubt Britain’s commitment to containing Russia. Indeed, both Finland and Sweden have sought and secured bilateral guarantees of British military support for the period between their application to join NATO and their admission. They would hardly have asked this of Boris Johnson’s Britain if they believed its word to be worthless.

Perhaps the least successful example of differentiated trust is the Federal Republic of Germany’s long energy relationship with the Soviet Union and then Russia. When the idea of transporting Russian oil to Germany was first mooted in the 1960s many warned of the danger of dependency. These voices grew louder with the advent of the Nordstream I and II pipelines which were widely condemned as an attempt to bypass Ukraine and Poland and separate the energy security of eastern Europe from that of the rest of the European Union. The Germans argued that while it was true Russia was often aggressive and unreliable in other areas, they had been reliable suppliers of energy for more than half a century. On this, they assured us, the Russians could be trusted. Which for decades they could be, until they suddenly couldn’t.


Brendan Simms