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date: 16 August 2017

Friendship and Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

International friendship affects the making and conduct of foreign policy, an angle that is largely neglected in the International Relations (IR) literature. Friendship constitutes the Other as familiar rather than foreign and implies a significant degree of trust, and analysts need to pay careful attention to the various ways close bonds develop and “work” across state boundaries. They need to understand how seeking friends can be an explicit goal of foreign policy and how established friendships function by studying their discursive, emotional, and practical expressions and their impact on decision making in concrete situations and as a disposition for cooperation in the long term. Yet, tracing these bonds and associated practices, especially the informal ones, is an analytical challenge. This article presents international friendship as a particular relationship of mutually agreed role identities embedded in a strong cognitive, normative, and emotional bond revolving around a shared idea of order. It discusses three types of practices unique to this relationship: providing privileged/special access, solidarity and support in times of need, and resolve and negative Othering against third parties. These friendship bonds and associated practices can be observed across three levels: political leaders, government bureaucracies, and civil society.

Keywords: friendship, special relationship, transnationalism, identity, roles, emotions, solidarity, leaders, institutions


It is not unusual to come across the language of friendship in foreign policy discourse. This ranges from government officials referring to each other as “friends,” websites of ministries of foreign affairs describing particular bilateral relations as friendly and special, to the use of the language of friendship in international treaties. In the year 2000, the Netherlands celebrated 400 years of friendship with Japan, and in 2013, it marked 400 years of friendly relations with Russia, even declaring it an official “year of friendship.” The United Kingdom and the United States routinely assure each other of their “special relationship” at bilateral meetings, and Germany and France celebrate their “deep friendship” in annual commemorations of the signing of the Élysée Treaty. The list could go on and on. Skeptics will hold that these are merely cheap rhetorical gestures. At times this may well be the case, but often the friendship language is accompanied by close cooperation and unusually dense institutionalized links at the level of both government and civil society, or even close personal bonds between political leaders. Still, there is the question of whether political communities, including states, can be friends similar to the way individuals are friends (Keller, 2009). Can there be a connection that goes beyond the choice for cooperation on the basis of shared material interests, be it security or economic? In other words, can there be a form of interstate friendship that is more than a military alliance or a close trading partnership? The stakes on this question are high for analysts of foreign policy. Given that friendship is conventionally understood as a relationship marked by trust, honesty, and solidarity, and implies what one might call a disposition to cooperate, this would significantly affect foreign policymaking. Friendship by definition weakens the inside–outside distinction that gives rise to “foreign policy” in the first place, as the friend ceases to be a complete foreigner.

In this article we argue that international friendship is a phenomenon that scholars ought to take seriously and offer an overview of its expressions in the realm of foreign policy. This builds on an emerging body of literature showing that international friendship is possible and does exist, and that the attachment of an actor to a friendship can explain their behavior (Biermann, 2005; Berenskoetter, 2007; Digeser, 2009; King, 2007; Koschut & Oelsner, 2014; Oelsner & Vion, 2011b; Smith, 2011b; Van Hoef, 2014).1 Understood as a configuration of unique relationships on, primarily, the bilateral level, friendship is read here as a kind of “special relationship” in international relations that affects the making and conduct of foreign policy in various ways. Given the relative neglect of this angle in the literature on Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA), the aim here is not simply to offer a summary of existing accounts but also to advance research on friendship in world politics.

Our starting point is the (constructivist) assumption that states or, more precisely, the societies they contain and the political actors that lead them need to make sense of the world and themselves in it through relations with “meaningful Others” (Hopf, 2002, p. 289). These representations are not fixed and interpreted in diverse ways. As such, they are also contested. Yet, it can be assumed that state officials involved in formulating and carrying out foreign policy share a broad understanding of “the Others,” including significant Others, which guides their attitudes and actions accordingly. This does not automatically lead us to see the dynamics of friendship. Most work in IR has highlighted how states differentiate themselves from other states, a process primarily achieved by drawing borders and engaging in a process of negative identification. For instance, in his seminal work, David Campbell argued that foreign policy is essentially a political act of creating others as foreign by externalizing and discriminating against them (1998, p. 69). In a similar vein, scholars have discussed Carl Schmitt’s idea that the political principle on which the state is founded is essentially about making the distinction between enemies and friends (2007, pp. 29–30; Slomp, 2007; Smith, 2011a). While the focus on the distinction does not provide a concrete meaning or substantive understanding of friendship beyond defining it as the opposite of enmity (Berenskoetter, 2007, p. 659; Smith, 2011b, p. 19), this move has long been standard among IR scholars. In the prominent imaginary of international relations as a realm of anarchy where (potential) enmity or rivalry is the default condition, realists reduce “friendship” to instrumental alliances, whereas liberals use the label to describe states that don’t fight each other, expressed in the notion of “security communities” between democracies.

Our reading frees the concept of international friendship from both realist and liberal frames. In the first part, we suggest that international friendship is primarily a bilateral relationship in which both sides recognize each other as friends and are connected by a cognitive, normative, and emotional bond formed out of overlapping biographical narratives and focused on a shared idea of international order. The second part argues that this bond is expressed and influences foreign policy in discourse and in practices of privileged access, solidarity, and reciprocity, as well as discrimination against third parties. In the third part we outline three different levels at which these practices play out, namely, state leaders, government bureaucracies, and civil society, illustrated through examples drawn from primarily German-Franco and U.S.-British relations.

Conceptualizing Friendship

The study of how friendship affects the making and conduct of foreign policy requires describing what interstate (or international) friendship looks like. That is, it is important to be clear about the ontology of friendship, which requires a conceptual effort. In such an effort one might be tempted to adopt the classic distinction between the friendship of “utility” (instrumental friendship) and the friendship of “virtue” (normative friendship), which can be traced back to the works of Plato and Aristotle (Stern-Gillet, 1995, pp. 49–50). Our reading is that friendship always combines both features. While never devoid of utilitarian calculus, it is more than a temporary alliance of convenience. Indeed, the central premise of the intellectual effort of thinking about friendship more carefully is that it should be distinguished from quid-pro-quo partnerships where no close bond exists. Of course, developing an understanding of friendship between political collectives such as states must take into account that a state is not a person. And yet, individuals represent and may even “personify” the state in the political arena and the relationships they forge matter, as do the institutional structures in which they invest, and the views and feelings held by the broader public they are accountable to. If anything, we need to consider the political setting in which bonds of friendship form, to understand the multifaceted nature of these bonds and to recognize their practical expressions in (international) politics. This task can be usefully approached by appreciating the influence of cognition, social roles, norms and emotions.

Following the Kantian insight that humans use meaningful concepts to make sense of their environment and of themselves in it, and backed up by research in political psychology, analysts have long highlighted the impact of cognitive frames on foreign policy. Mental frames influence the orientation of decision makers and their perception of events, the state’s place in the world and its relation to others (Huddy, Sears, & Levy, 2013; Smith, Hadfield, & Dunne, 2012). Indeed, as Robert Jervis noted, “it is often impossible to explain crucial decisions and policies without reference to the decision-makers’ belief about the world and their images of others” (1976, p. 28). Of relevance here is the notion that images of Self and Other help to cognitively organize relationships and guide action, thus allowing, within bounds, prediction of behavior and the taming of uncertainty. These images are often expressed in roles, the presence and importance of which have been recognized by scholars since at least the 1970s (Holsti, 1970; Jervis, 1976). The basic premise of what is now called role theory is that states obtain and “play” particular roles in international relations and that the behavioral expectations tied to these roles significantly inform the making and conduct of foreign policy (McCourt, 2014; Thies, 2010). Roles are understood here as both sources and expressions of a state’s international identity or, more precisely, as a central factor in the politics of identification underpinning the dynamics of conflict and cooperation (Lebow, 2016, Ch. 4). They are not simply cognitive images but also performative in the sense that a role needs to be acted out for it to be recognized.

Two questions relevant for the purpose at hand are how roles are constructed and how they influence state behavior. The common view is that roles only make sense in a social setting; that is, they gain meaning in a relationship with others. Roles never exist in isolation but only in interaction. They are neither (externally) determined by some amorphous international system nor simply a product of (internal) domestic deliberation and choice. Rather, they are negotiated across both levels and, as such, are “properties of social contexts” (McCourt, 2014, p. 24). While a government usually has a view of what the state’s international roles are, or should be, and while it may have some influence in defining these roles, it does not have full control over them but must instead build and affirm its roles in particular relationships.2 This is the case as much for the role of the “enemy” as it is for the “friend.” In the same vein, the behavioral expectations attached to a role are not intrinsic to a role but also are built and affirmed in these relationships. The expectations are generally broad enough as not to determine action. So, rather than seeing roles as prescribing narrow avenues of action based on a strict “logic of appropriateness,” they are understood here as defining a “sphere” of possible and expected behavior (McCourt, 2014, p. 20). This leaves some maneuvering room, and it also means that two actors “playing” a role may differ in their interpretation of what that involves.

What, then, does the “role structure” (Wendt, 1999, p. 298) of friendship consist of? To begin with, it must involve mutual recognition and acceptance of the role. A constellation in which A simply projects the image of “friend” onto B without that being the product of a meaningful interaction and without a reciprocal move by B renders this image simply a narcissist construct. Although the construction of one-sided representations and attempts to cast the Other into the role of the friend may well be an observable foreign policy, in such a case it makes little sense to speak of friendship. Yet, even if two states consider each other friends, this says little about their connection. Thus, in the reading employed here, friendship is expressed not only in representations of each other as “friend” but also, and more importantly, by a dynamic relationship that creates a bond in which these roles are embedded. Importantly, this means the bond cannot be reduced to attributes inherent in the Other but is something that is formed and maintained “in-between” the actors (Kahane, 1999, p. 270). This puts forward a reading of friends as distinct entities and of the “in-between” as a space where differences are bridged and the bond is created and affirmed in interaction. It makes friendship a dynamic process, something that evolves as friends act out their roles over time. As elaborated elsewhere, this understanding enables a reading of friendship as a political relationship imbued with different forms of power (Berenskoetter, 2007, 2014).

There is no fixed formula for the content of friendship bonds.3 In the reading employed here, friendship revolves around a shared cognitive and normative map, which may be subsumed under the label “worldview.” Friends share structures of meaning, specifically an understanding of international order, which both consider desirable and possible, and which is negotiated on the basis of overlapping biographical narratives. As such, it draws on a shared reading of history, or historical memory, and is oriented toward the future in the form of seeking to build a particular kind of international order. In that sense, it could be said that states form a friendship through a shared project of “world building” (Berenskoetter, 2007, 2014). This is not merely a discursive undertaking but involves practices seen by both sides as investments toward realizing the shared vision of international order, whether that is building the liberal West (Bially Mattern, 2005), a unified Europe (Krotz & Schild, 2013), or the nonaligned movement (Chacko, 2013). By identifying with and committing to this project, friends also identify with each other and commit to the relationship.

This brings into play a third component, emotions. While tracing the presence and impact of affective bonds tied to social identities is not easy,4 it is quite clear that friendship is an affective relationship. Indeed, emotions have a central place in the ontology of friendship, beyond a strategically employed form of emotional diplomacy (Hall, 2015). If affect provides “a short cut from our thinking/feeling processes to a decision” (Sasley, 2010, p. 689), arguably the most obvious and consequential factor is the feeling of trust (Mercer, 2014). This idea overlaps with the argument that friendship functions as an anxiety-stabilizing mechanism and, hence, provides a feeling of ontological security to friends by giving meaning to their being in the world. In this logic, an emotional drive can be identified behind the seeking and maintenance of friendship as a goal of foreign policy (Berenskoetter, 2007; Schilling, 2014). And while international relations analysts are hesitant to talk about love, a factor that is highlighted by scholars discussing interpersonal friendship, they have pointed to attraction (Bially Mattern, 2005), care, and empathy (Crawford, 2014) in international relations. Empirical studies have thus far mostly focused on affective bonds between political leaders; yet, even then leaders have been shown to be(come) attached not only to a personal relationship, but also to the relationship between the peoples they represent, as well as to a larger group or institution they identify with (Berenskoetter, 2008; Eznack, 2013; Eznack & Koschut, 2014). This feeds into the relational reading employed here, where friends are not simply attached to each other but to the shared project—that is, where feelings toward the friend are interwoven with an emotional attachment to a shared vision of international order. It also is important to note that friendship does not just emit positive emotions. The closeness of friends can trigger concern and fear when the friend is in trouble, and it can generate feelings of disappointment, betrayal, and anger toward the friend when the friend violates, or is perceived as violating, the basic terms of the friendship (French, Case, & Gosling, 2009; Wiseman, 1986, pp. 200–203).

Practices of Friendship

Drawing out some practical expressions of friendship enables a better grasp of the particular character of such a relationship and shows how such a configuration informs and shapes foreign policy. The first step is to acknowledge the role language plays in forming and maintaining a friendship bond and the collective identity anchored in it. Based on the view that, in addition to being a means of communication, language frames social reality and has a constitutive effect, friendship also manifests itself in sociolinguistic patterns (Bially Mattern, 2005). Consistent use of friendship language across levels is not simply a generic diplomatic trope but is both an indicator for, and a practical expression of, friendship. It discursively directs attention to all the aspects that make such a relationship meaningful—trust, honesty, solidarity, reciprocity, and so on; it mobilizes these associations and raises expectations about corresponding practices. Among friends, such language is thus employed purposefully in official and private encounters between political leaders and when engaging domestic audiences. Analyzing these patterns and their discursive performance is an important part of understanding how the “basic concept” (Koselleck & Richter, 2011) of friendship structures interactions, for instance, by framing and facilitating legal contracts and cooperative agreements (Roshchin, 2006, 2014). While friendship terminology in commercial agreements may be seen as cynical and even manipulative (Devere, 2014, p. 195), such treaties and the expectations they raise matter by establishing certain role identities and framing the relationship in terms of a bond, which both enables and constrains actions.

Beyond language, there are a range of practices that are typical of, and unique to, friendship, which express what is arguably its most important feature: trust. In his account, Wendt (1999, p. 298) points to two norms friends expect each other to observe, namely, “nonviolence” and “team-play.” 5 The first norm, taken from the security community literature, is the rather mundane point that friends will settle their disputes with peaceful means. The second norm is that friends “will fight as a team” if one of them is threatened by an adversary. Here, Wendt reduces mutual aid to a security situation and friendship to a collective security arrangement that is difficult to differentiate from a traditional alliance. But friendship consists of “team play” practices that are both more nuanced and broader than fighting a war together. Following the conceptualization above, friends can be expected to collaborate when making decisions and devising strategies to advance the shared idea of international order. They consult and support each other in both the secretive and the performative realms of foreign policy, ranging from sensitive negotiations behind the scenes to demonstrative activities in public. In this vein, it is possible to identify three sets of practices.

The first set is that of giving counsel and privileged access. Friends open doors for each other that provide access to “private” information, considerations, and reveal motivations that are closed off to others. Even when they do not engage in activities together, friends may draw on each other for advice and confide in each other, offering insights into the “real” reasons for doing something, which are not revealed to others. Conceptually speaking, this practice blurs the line between the “domestic” and the “foreign,” placing the friend in a category that is not really foreign. It also means that friendship pierces through the various temporary roles states play on the world stage for instrumental reasons. This idea is nicely captured by Graham Allan, who notes, with reference to Erving Goffman, that “the self that is revealed in our dealings with our friends is closer to our self definition than the ‘self’ we portray in other contexts . . . friends are permitted ‘backstage’ more than most, gaining a better view of how our performance is constructed” (Allan, 1989, p. 59). Backstage access can be given either informally and ad hoc, or it can be institutionalized; prominent examples are the sharing of intelligence and regular exchanges/close connections of working-level personnel in related ministries. In these interactions, friends are likely not only to bypass formal diplomatic protocol but also to drop their guard and show their emotions more honestly than they do in other contexts, where they maintain a more professional behavior. For analysts, identifying such informal channels and platforms providing privileged access and tracing their influence in the foreign policymaking process is a challenge. That said, while friends are unlikely to reveal the extent of this practice and its impact, they are not necessarily secretive about granting each other special access.

The second set consists of practices of solidarity, generally understood as standing by someone’s side and lending support in times of need. The language of solidarity matters, but the practical contributions substantiating such a commitment are arguably of greater relevance. Practices of solidarity can take many forms, all the way to self-sacrifice, and one distinguishing feature is that they do not appear “rational” from conventional perspectives. That is, they cannot be explained with instrumental security or economic interests. At the same time, because solidarity is integral to the ontology of friendship, such practices also cannot simply be attributed to a general benign or altruistic disposition of a particular state or society. To clarify this point, it is useful to differentiate with Gadamer between friendship and “mere friendliness,” that is, an act of good will toward an Other but one that does not rely on a bond. One scholar summarizes the distinction as follows: “friendliness can be extended to a stranger, to one who is, and may remain, unknown . . . There remains a distance between the persons that distinguishes this relationship from friendship” (Walhof, 2006, p. 576). Practices of solidarity among friends are reserved for and directed specifically at the friend, but not simply as an instance of “Other-help” (as Wendt might see it) but as an affirmation of, and investment in, the friendship: a contribution to the shared project.

The reading of friendship as a dynamic relationship means that it is not useful to see such practices as singular or isolated acts. In other words, expressions of solidarity and the commitment this entails do not come with an expiration date. Indeed, it is in the nature of friendship that they are open ended (Wendt, 1999, p. 299). This does not mean they necessarily last indefinitely. Among friends, practices of solidarity continue as long as they are valued by the Other and are not perceived as exploitation by the one who provides the support. As such, they can be understood as a form of social exchange marked by a dynamic of reciprocity inherent in friendship. In fact, the conception of friendship as a relationship characterized by mutual aid implies that privileged access and practices of solidarity are sought, granted, and carried out by both sides. This reciprocity in friendship does not follow a “tit-for-tat” logic and cannot be seen in terms of an instrumental or utilitarian notion of exchange; it is a unique logic of reciprocity in which there is no debt, at least not in the sense of friends quantifying the debt and demanding a payback (Berenskoetter, 2007; Hutter, 1978, p. 3; Pahl, 2000, p. 55). Because friends share a vision of international order to which they are committed, they recognize each other’s contribution as sufficient, and the friend who shares private information and carries out acts of support trusts that the other would do the same, if asked.

Third, as a source of learning and mutual affirmation, friendship creates a sense of collective self-sufficiency and self-righteousness. This brings resolve to their actions, but also has a downside by making friends immune to criticism from outsiders and justifying discriminatory and even violent practices against third parties. This less benign side of friendship is often overlooked. Yet, it becomes visible when we consider that friends create an exclusive space not only in material terms but also ideationally. They build a cognitive space of shared perceptions and a moral space of shared evaluation of the world—its ontology, origins, and possibilities—which affects the filtering of information and the interpretation of events, actions, and intentions of others, and it makes friends prone to cognitive bias and groupthink (Yetiv, 2003). This easily leads to practices of negative othering in both passive and active ways. By creating an exclusive space that others (nonfriends) cannot enter and by offering special support to the friend, practices of privileged access and solidarity not only empower friends but, inevitably, also have discriminatory effects vis-à-vis third parties. Even more so, it may brand those who do not fit the shared project as deviant and, thus, may lead friends to collaborate in the stigmatization of others (Adler-Nissen, 2014). Thus, the governments of two states, A and B, may convince each other of how to evaluate the behavior and intentions of state C, dismissing any evidence that would suggest otherwise. Subsequently, they may convince each other of the righteousness/legitimacy of a particular course of action, including using military force against C, even if this violates international norms and goes against the view of others, including domestic opposition, who consider such action wrong.

Levels and Actors of Friendship

Humans establish bonds of friendship with each other in all kinds of circumstances and societal contexts, and not only with humans (Wissenburg, 2014). In the international political arena close relations can be observed in a variety of ways and spaces. As the editors of a recent volume on the topic note, international friendship “reaches most, if not all, levels at which states and societies interact bilaterally, such as intergovernmental, inter-bureaucracies, transnational, business circles, civil societies, etc.” (Oelsner & Koschut, 2014, p. 16). Here we outline how friendship can be witnessed among three types of actors/structures that are relevant to the making and conduct of foreign policy: state leaders, government bureaucracies, and civil society.

Bonds Between State Leaders

The relationship between political leaders is an obvious locus for the development and maintenance of friendship and can be looked at in two ways (Biermann, 2005, p. 211).6 First are cases in which a personal bond has formed between leaders from different states, which require analysts to assess how this impacts their political interactions and foreign policies. Personal friendships are particularly interesting if they form between leaders against the backdrop of antagonistic political relations between the two states they represent. The second case does not assume a personal connection but looks at how political leaders can play an important role in creating and maintaining friendship ties between their states/peoples. This angle highlights the notion that friendship between states is a political project that can be pursued even by leaders who do not have a deeper personal connection. Of course, the two cases may overlap and reinforce each other.

IR scholars of friendship have pointed out the central role of political leaders in bringing two countries together after war (Eznack & Koschut, 2014, pp. 78–79). Investigating reconciliation processes in different bilateral settings, Lily Gardner Feldman notes the necessity for leaders to display courage and vision to “inspire or goad the political class into action . . . to set a tone and project a message to a broader public” (2012, p. 14). Others have made similar arguments regarding peace-building processes (Kupchan, 2010; Oelsner, 2007, 2014; Oelsner & Vion, 2011a). The development of Franco-German relations over the past 60 years is a prominent example in this regard. Personal relationships between French presidents and German chancellors, as well as their foreign ministers, played an important role in the process of reconciliation following World War II and, eventually, in building a friendship between the two countries. While Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer may not have been personal friends, they saw the development of friendship between the French and German peoples as a shared political aim and actively sought to display the willingness to form a bond. At a time when, especially on the French side, public opinion remained lukewarm about reconciliation, De Gaulle and Adenauer staged a number of shared and highly symbolic appearances, such as attending a service together at the war-damaged Cathedral in Reims in 1962, which culminated in the important Élysée Treaty the following year.

The public display of a bond in symbolic moments must not simply be an act for a larger audience but can also display a genuine personal connection. This was evident in the case of François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl holding hands at the 1984 commemoration of the Battle of Verdun (Van Hoef, 2014, pp. 72–75). The common appearance followed Kohl’s request to participate in the commemorative event, and Mitterrand reciprocated on the occasion by offering his hand during the Marseillaise (Wickert, 2009). In addition to signaling mutual commitment to Franco-German friendship, the gesture exemplified a personal bond between two individuals during a highly emotional moment (Lacouture, 1998, p. 102). According to Kohl (2005, p. 104), the two leaders built a connection soon after assuming office; they exchanged reading lists and coordinated their political agendas in about 80 official and unofficial meetings in a span of six years (Dreher, 1998, p. 360; Krotz & Schild, 2013, p. 60). The intensity and frequency of their interactions, whether in terms of meetings, phone conversations, or exchange of letters, as well as their choice to hold meetings in private settings, such as their respective homes, is further evidence of a close connection (Gardner Feldman, 2012, p. 92). Kohl also publicly shed tears at Mitterrand’s funeral in 1996 (Kohl, 2007, p. 727).7

Tracing the impact of a personal connection on policy and decision making, whether in specific instances or over a period of time, is not an easy task. But those in leadership positions recognize this impact. While president, Barack Obama noted that friendships and the bonds of trust he forged with other leaders were “a big part of what has allowed us to execute effective diplomacy,” by paying attention to each other’s concerns and by keeping and following through with commitments made (Zakaria, 2012). Other leaders have made similar remarks (Biermann, 2005, p. 224). The Franco-German case illustrates how interpersonal relations both shape and are shaped by a common political project, in this case the commitment to European integration and the broad idea of international order it entails. Friendship between Valerie d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt as well as Mitterrand and Kohl created a trusting atmosphere in which important decisions about further integration were made (Germond, 2012). Conversely, the project constitutes a powerful frame that brought together even unlikely pairs like Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, dramatically displayed when Chirac represented Schroeder at an EU summit meeting in 2003, or Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy, who ended up with the moniker “Merkozy” (Krotz & Schild, 2013). Some may seek a close relationship with the leader of a powerful state for strategic reasons. Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi used his informal style and sociable personality to compensate for the relative weakness of the Italian state and managed to strike a “mutual and sincere” friendship with U.S. President George W. Bush, despite the latter’s unpopularity in Italy. Although Berlusconi’s ‘charming’ approach did little to increase Italy’s standing and was considered inappropriate by most leaders (Giacomello et al., 2009, pp. 252–256).

Personal bonds between state leaders are particularly consequential during times of international crisis/conflict and political transformation. They are assets both in the event of clashing political agendas and on occasions when agreements between leaders are unpopular and face opposition in respective domestic settings. A prominent example of how a close relationship fosters mutual support, cognitive bias, and moral self-sufficiency is the decision by George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to intervene militarily in Iraq. In the face of doubts and criticism by NATO allies, Blair’s loyal support for the U.S. agenda to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein through military force was an important element in the legitimization effort both domestically and internationally. It included Blair eloquently justifying the war to an American audience in a symbolic speech to the U.S. Congress in July 2003, where he assured that the threat was real and that it was the special responsibility of the United States and Britain as leaders of the free world to address it, demonstrating that Britain stood closely by its American friend.8 On the international stage, Blair acted as “a global ambassador for the US administration, attempting to finesse and multilateralise the war on terrorism” by combining public support with “private candour” (Dumbrell, 2004, p. 440). The Bush government reciprocated by making an effort to persuade the UN Security Council, a move that was crucial for Blair to maintain his support for the intervention against domestic opposition, although the failure to secure a UN mandate did not diminish their resolve to intervene in Iraq.

While support for friends in a military conflict is expected, the development of personal bonds between leaders on opposite sides of a political conflict is perhaps more intriguing. An example are the close relationships between U.S. presidents, first Ronald Reagan and then H. W. Bush, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the end of the Cold War (Van Hoef, 2012), complemented by friendships between Kohl and Gorbachev and, even more so, between their respective foreign ministers, Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Eduard Shevardnadze (Biermann, 2005). Complex and sensitive negotiations over ending an arms race, German unification, and the role of NATO in a post-Cold War world may seem an unlikely context for personal friendships, given the stakes at hand. At the same time, both sides were committed to ushering in a new era, and the connections between leaders allowed them to conduct effective political negotiations on the basis of “reliability, integrity and truthfulness” (Gardner Feldman, 2012, p. 91). And when tensions arise between “private” and “public” persona in such a constellation, friends can be expected to understand each other’s professional roles and responsibilities and to differentiate between personal affect and the political realities of their times. Thus, for instance, while during the 1991 Soviet coup Bush personally worried about Gorbachev, he also simultaneously accepted and dealt with the rise of Boris Yeltsin (Maynard, 2008, p. 102).

There is, then, a breadth of evidence of state leaders both strategically supporting bonds of friendship between their countries and developing close personal bonds of friendship with each other. While the intangible nature of these bonds makes it difficult to demonstrate their impact, they are best grasped as a network of emotions and calculus, which those involved rate as a significant factor in decision-making (Biermann, 2005, p. 225).

Ties between State Institutions and Civil Society Networks

The power of their office gives state leaders a key role in building and advancing bonds of friendship with other states; yet, such practices also take place in government bureaucracies and within civil society (Constantin, 2011; Gardner Feldman, 2014; Krotz & Schild, 2013; Vion, 2014). While they occupy different places in the political system—bureaucracies as formal components of the state, societal actors as (usually, though not always) independent from the state—they differ from leaders in having both structural and agential components. They are also more specialized and operate largely outside the public eye, not having to balance the pressures from multiple interests and constituencies that leaders face.

Let us look at state institutions first. When political leaders decide to invest in bringing two countries closer together and maintaining this bond, they know that this decision must involve the bureaucracies tasked with the everyday implementation and operation of foreign policy. Thus, it is not surprising that scholars have identified “unusually close institutional bonds, frequent consultations, and concerted policies” between government bureaucracies as an important dimension of international friendship (Colman quoted in Oelsner & Koschut, 2014, p. 16). Such close institutional ties are not necessarily limited to the bilateral level, but often are connected to and embedded in the institutional structures of regional organizations of which the two states are members, such as the EU or NATO (Berenskoetter, 2008; Eznack, 2011; Krotz & Schild, 2013). The nature of institutions to enable and constrain individual leaders takes a particular form in the case of friendship. They provide channels of access, expertise, and institutional memory that leaders can draw on, and they also play a part in socializing new leaders into the habits of an existing relationship. For the most part, then, institutional links complement personal relations between political leaders and provide an important source of stability and familiarity in interstate friendship on the working level.

The two examples presented here illustrate this nicely. As is well known, German-Franco cooperation is characterized by highly institutionalized links between government ministries and their bureaucracies. In the decades following the Élysée Treaty, the two sides gradually built up a multilayered web of regular interactions ranging from formal joint cabinets meeting to “a host of informal meetings between key personnel across policy domains” (Krotz & Schild, 2013, p. 31). This includes, notably, cooperation in the realm of security and defense, which are generally considered the most cherished realms of state sovereignty. As Ulrich Krotz and Joachim Schild show, the institutionalized form of intense and habitual interaction in Franco-German relations—what they term “regularized bilateral intergovernmentalism”—provides easy access, opportunities for consultation, coordination, and support on an everyday basis. In addition to sharing and developing ideas and coordinating foreign policy, including ideas on the shared and not-so-foreign project of European integration, these regularized interactions create a structure that can operate with “a fair degree of autonomy and insulation” from change in leadership, political challenges and crises (Krotz & Schild, 2013, Ch. 2).

Another example of institutionalized trust on the everyday operational level is the relationship between U.S. and U.K. intelligence services. Since the end of the Second World War, close political relations and joint military deployments have created an integrated intelligence community across the Atlantic, which has become a core feature of the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom. Intelligence is not merely shared. According to the former director of the U.K. Security Service (MI5), Stephen Lander, practices of gathering and analyzing data have become so intertwined that weekly intelligence briefs given to state leaders in Washington and London “probably look very similar in most weeks” and have created a situation in which customers “seldom know which country generated either the access or the product” (Lander, 2004, p. 487). The integrated institutional arrangements of intelligence agencies, the habits this entails, complementary expertise, and shared sense of purpose generate a certain path dependency. But the closeness cannot be reduced to structures, the human interaction within them matters. As Lander notes, “joint activities generate friendships, trust with sensitive material, mutual respect and confidence” (2004, p. 487). While such integrated links are an asset for foreign policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic, as with every interdependent structure they also generate vulnerabilities, exemplified when NSA documents leaked by U.S. contractor Edward Snowden also exposed the wide-reaching practices of U.K. intelligence agencies.9

Moving away from state institutions, international friendship is also fostered and sustained by transnational civil society networks. Their role may be more difficult to track owing to their diffuse and heterogeneous nature. And yet, their “parapublic interactions” (Krotz & Schild, 2013, Ch. 4) are important, for one, because positive attitudes toward another state and acts of solidarity, especially if they are costly, must resonate with and be supported by society. To be sure, civil society networks trying to promote and maintain close ties between two countries do not necessarily reflect a consensus in societies more broadly or support the government’s agenda. But if their efforts do overlap with the interest of political elites, these networks can play an influential role by providing local knowledge, support, and advice for the relationship. They can also lobby to promote a particular course of action through informal channels. In her analysis of various bilateral special relations, Gardner Feldman captures these multifaceted functions of societal institutions in the form of “complements,” “conduits,” and “catalysts”: they operate in parallel to the cooperative behavior on the level of governments; they serve as channels of communication performing “public and private functions that governments cannot undertake”; and they also can stimulate government activity (Gardner Feldman, 2012, pp. 15–17).

The “catalyst” function perhaps most clearly conveys the power of civil society bonds. It suggests that, rather than a product of a “trickle-down” effect, with governments taking the first step and then encouraging practices at lower levels, initiatives by and interactions between civil society actors from different states can precede and encourage friendly (inter)actions among political elites. For instance, Antoine Vion (2014, p. 113) points out that formal Franco-German rapprochement on the political level was preceded by a rapid increase in the “signing of bilateral agreements in the fields of trade and workforce exchange, film production, cooperation between chambers of commerce, and so on” (see also Vion, 2002, 2007). Indeed, Vion argues that networks between municipalities and mayors, cultural institutions, and professional associations of teachers, historians, and journalists boosted “initiatives of mutual understanding and dialogue, which made possible the subsequence negotiation of the Elyseé Treaty” (Vion, 2014, p. 113; see also Gardner Feldman, 2012, pp. 95–101; Krotz & Schild, 2013, Ch. 4). Gardner Feldman attributes similar relevance to nongovernmental institutions in fostering relations between Germany and Israel, which is now often hailed as a friendship (Bundesregierung, 2015; Werkhäuser, 2015). Individual efforts to build ties between the two newly founded states in the 1950s included German journalists and influential members of major political parties, supplemented by transnational activities from trade unions and student organizations. According to Gardner Feldman, in the absence of formal political ties, these actors developed connections with Israeli counterparts that laid the ground for reconciliatory moves on the governmental level and aided the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1965. Since then, a variety of civil society organizations, ranging from the German-Israeli Society to various political and cultural foundations and academic institutions have worked together with governments to foster bilateral links through the organization and funding of youth exchanges, scientific collaboration, and cultural events (Gardner Feldman, 2012, pp. 154–167).

This case also illustrates the limits of such an alliance. While an important aim of civil society networks and governments is to build bridges and promote a positive image of Germany and Israel in each other’s societies, these efforts face a challenge in a German public that is increasingly critical of Berlin’s (military) support for Israel in light of restrictive Israeli policies and actions toward Palestinians and progressive nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) (Shuttleworth, 2014). Indeed, notwithstanding the achievements brought about by the actors promoting close ties, there are indicators that cast doubt on the vitality, if not reality, of the German-Israeli friendship (Ahren, 2016; Berenskoetter, 2012).

How friendship bonds develop at different levels, what form they take, and how they support and reinforce each other are important empirical issues. It is important to remember that such bonds are not necessarily guarantors of stability, but can also be drivers for change. In this regard, it is worth noting that transnational friendship among civil society actors does not automatically reduce conflict and support dialogue between governments. The formation of collective identities promoted by nongovernmental actors below and across states can also generate vulnerabilities and become problematic for governments if they perceive such bonds to undermine their grip on power and as a threat to state sovereignty (Telhami & Barnett, 2002). In the extreme case, when transnational friendship networks in civil society promote an idea of order that is incompatible with states, they can become a cause of violent conflict.


Friendship in international relations is a neglected factor in the FPA and IR literature. Yet, because friendship constitutes the Other as familiar rather than foreign and implies a significant degree of trust, analysts cannot ignore this phenomenon. It is important to take into account how seeking friends can be a goal of foreign policy, the various ways close bonds develop across state boundaries, and how they affect foreign policy. Attention needs to be paid to how friendships “work” by studying their discursive, emotional, and practical expressions and their impact on decision making in concrete situations and as a disposition for cooperation in the long term. Tracing these bonds and associated practices is not easy. The conceptual angles and avenues outlined in this article help to advance the analysis of how the investment in and maintenance of friendship influences priorities, strategies, and practices. It presented international friendship as a relationship of mutually agreed role identities embedded in a strong cognitive, normative, and emotional bond revolving around a shared idea of order. The article identified three types of practices unique to this relationship, beyond observing the norm of nonviolence toward each other, namely providing each other privileged/special access, practices of solidarity and support in times of need, as well as resolve and negative Othering against third parties. Importantly, these facets point to friendship not only as a political relationship, but also as one that is rich in politics.10

As the study of international friendship is a research program still in its infancy, we see six areas that require more attention. First, there is a need to explore the nature and impact of discourse, visual representation, and symbolic performance of friendship, including the public show of affection, and how these relate to and interact with material interests. Second, a friendship might be contested, ranging from disagreements about its nature and value to the extreme case of “the friend” being a narcissist construct rather than a mutually agreed role. Third, there is the question of if and how friendship works within hierarchy, that is, in a relationship where one side is significantly more powerful in material terms. Fourth, if friendship is understood as a political relationship that exercises different forms of power, it also becomes necessary to research its darker side, namely, the tendency to exclude and exert violence toward others, as well as feelings of disappointment and anger toward the friend seen as having betrayed the relationship. Fifth, it is important to consider degrees of international friendship and to recognize that they are not static but dynamic phenomena: they have a beginning and they can settle into a routine, but they also encounter tensions that friends manage to overcome (Bially Mattern, 2005; Eznack, 2012) or that gradually lead to estrangement (Berenskoetter & Giegerich, 2010). Analysts need to be attentive to those dynamics and to how different stages influence foreign policy.

Finally, in addressing these and other facets of the politics of friendship, one needs to be aware that, exceptions aside, current scholarship on friendship in the English-speaking social sciences draws mainly on Western texts and experiences. While these already offer a rich and multifaceted picture well beyond the one presented here, analysts can only benefit from going beyond the Western context to enhance their conceptual toolbox and understand the various manifestations of friendship in world politics.


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(1.) For an early, cautious discussion, see Wolfers (1965).

(2.) Roles also vary with context; that is, actors take on different roles in different relationships.

(3.) Wendt, for instance, mentions shared ideas but does not specify their nature.

(4.) International Relations scholars have only recently turned their attention to trying to understand the role of emotions in international politics (Crawford, 2014, 2000; Fattah & Fierke, 2009; Mercer, 2014, 2010; Sasley, 2010, 2011).

(5.) Later, Wendt (1999, p. 360) also suggests self-restraint as a key feature of friendship.

(6.) Both angles support the call to bring the “statesman” back in (Byman & Pollack, 2001) and also contribute to an understanding of the human being in international relations (Jacobi & Freyberg-Inan, 2015).

(7.) Personal friendships tend to stretch into the period after both leaders leave office and often also include bonds between their family members.

(8.) Tony Blair speech in joint meeting of U.S. Congress on July 17, 2003, available at

(10.) Some might say it is “indispensable to politics” (King & Smith, 2007, p. 1).