China Defense & Security Diplomacy & International Relations

The World Desperately Needs a Biden-Xi Reykjavik

Whether one subscribes to an expansionist or defensive interpretation of China’s actions, facilitating a face-to-face, private conversation to prevent further escalation is imperative.

Alex Choy is an Army Military Intelligence Officer and is a guest author at the Journal. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect any official policy or position of the U.S. Government, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Army.

Nearly a year into his presidency, President Biden has yet to meet in person with President Xi Jinping. In the meantime, Chinese fighter jets have continuously conducted incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), heightening tensions between the two nations and, by extension, bringing both the United States and China closer to armed conflict.

While China has historically engaged in saber-rattling against Taiwan, this newfound boldness emanates from a perceived degraded American credibility following the Afghanistan withdrawal. Some Chinese officials assert that the United States lacks the resolve to defend Taiwan. 

To counter this perception, on September 8th, the U.S. Navy conducted a freedom of navigation operation as a show of force to reassure Taiwan of American defense commitments and to deter further Chinese incursions. However, just a month later, Chinese aircraft have once again flown into Taiwan’s ADIZ. Evidently, America’s  deterrence efforts have been ineffective.

Shows of force fall under the definition of costly military signals, which are essentially a display of capabilities rather than a willingness to utilize them, insufficiently conveying resolve. These signals can also easily be misinterpreted as a precedent to a physical conflict,  leading to escalation and a subsequent security spiral. 

Biden’s challenge lies in reasserting American credibility without inciting armed conflict. 

First, What is the Commitment Problem? What are Costly Signals? 

Rational actors are innately self-preserving and enter/renege on agreements insofar as they assess benefits. Subsequently, a commitment problem arises when two rational actors in a mutually-beneficial relationship recognize that the possibility of one party reneging on a set agreement is ever-present. This relationship creates a pervasive cloud of mistrust that permeates into all aspects of foreign affairs.  Accordingly, if actors’ intentions are sincere, they must overcome mistrust and convey credibility to realize the benefits of cooperation. 

Credibility is traditionally demonstrated through costly signaling. This requires an actor to constrain future decision-making severely. The costlier the action, the more credible the signal is perceived. Conversely, signals that involve a lack of risk are termed costless signals and are considered ‘cheap talk’ because they could be undertaken by untrustworthy actors who have ulterior motives. Private, face-to-face interactions between world leaders are frequently deemed costless signals by many academics.

Case Study: Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik and the U.S.-Soviet Arms Race (1986) 

At the peak of the nuclear arms race, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev undertook a series of extremely costly actions to signal his benign intentions to President Reagan, such as disarmament and status quo-shattering political statements.

According to those who believe that costly signaling is the best way to combat the problem posed by uncertainty, such as realist political scientist Andrew Kydd in his Costly Signaling Theory of Reassurance, these olive branches should have had a reassuring effect. However, as demonstrated by Reagan’s steadfast hostility, they did not—at least not until Reagan and Gorbachev met face-to-face in Reykjavik in October 1986. 

To explain why this was the case, Columbia University professor Keren Yarhi-Milo utilizes cognitive psychology in her Subjective Credibility and Vividness Hypotheses to explain why costly signals are not necessarily the most informative reassurance strategy. Instead, more vivid (both engaging and sensory, spatially and temporally proximal) yet relatively costless signals of emotional information unconsciously conveyed through private, face-to-face interactions, such as in Reagan and Gorbachev’s Reykjavik Summit, are more effective. 

During his first term in office, Reagan, like his predecessors, perceived Soviet action as aggressive and accordingly referred to the Soviet Union as an evil empire hell-bent on nuclear Armageddon. On the other hand, Andropov was similarly apprehensive of American provocations, just as American politicians were of a ‘Red Dawn’ scenario. 

Such posturing contributed to nuclear brinkmanship scares following the deployment of intermediate-range Pershing II missiles to Western Europe. One such instance was exercise Able Archer 83, where incomplete information brought the world dangerously close to a global thermonuclear war. These close calls, compounded by Reagan’s ambitions to implement the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), raised concerns in the Soviet Union. 

As a result, when Gorbachev entered office in 1985, he was wary of the nuclear arms race and subsequently sought to end it. However, the issue was: How could he credibly signal to Reagan that the Soviet Union was committed to peace? 

According to conventional wisdom, Gorbachev would have to send costly military and non-military signals to overcome the commitment problem and reassure Reagan of their non-aggression. Accordingly, in July 1985, he announced a unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests; in January 1986, he also proposed a bold new plan to eliminate nuclear weapons by 2000. Furthermore, in February 1986, Gorbachev announced his “New Thinking” policy that would abandon the concept of class struggle, prioritize universal human interests, and seek to embrace neoliberalism—essentially undoing the work of all of his hardline Communist predecessors.

Unfortunately, these costly olive branches did not have their intended effect on Reagan, who instead interpreted Gorbachev’s efforts as a ruse and part of a diabolical Soviet plan to make his administration lower its guard. Ultimately, Reagan did not reciprocate his counterpart’s enthusiasm, rebuffing Gorbachev’s request to join in the universal moratorium. Subsequently, mutual suspicion and the commitment problem continued.

Yarhi-Milo’s Subjective Credibility Hypothesis effectively explains Reagan’s lack of reciprocation. She stipulates that because individuals naturally want to maintain cognitive consistency, decision-makers adjust any newly-received information, such as costly signals, to conform with their preconceived notions. 

Therefore, costly signals are not as infallible as commonly believed. They can be manipulated, misinterpreted, or downright ignored. In the case of Gorbachev, Reagan Administration decision-makers had a preconceived image of the Soviet Union as an aggressor and reacted to Gorbachev’s costly reassurance signals under that preconception. As a result, according to Kenneth Adelman, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency at the time; negotiations were at an impasse, because “everybody was boring each other like crazy … [at] absolutely … awful sessions that would repeat each other.” 

Following the failure of these olive branches to persuade Reagan of the Soviet Union’s non-confrontational intentions, Gorbachev proposed that the two meet face-to-face in Reykjavik, where they could discuss the future of the SDI and intermediate-range nuclear missiles in a more interpersonal manner. While the Reykjavik Summit would not see the passage of an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) due to Reagan’s refusal to cancel the SDI, the off-the-cuff, private, and relatively costless meeting the two leaders had preceding additional formal negotiations (held in Washington in 1987) proved to be most fruitful. 

Post summit, both leaders reported that they had learned much about each other. Adelman commented that at the meeting, both leaders were “more like themselves … [and that they said] what came to mind without any kind of reins. In line with Yarhi-Milo’s Vividness Hypothesis, the near-costless, face-to-face meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan allowed the two to observe each other’s mannerisms in an unscripted environment, conveying to each other firsthand emotional information

Yarhi-Milo argues that because emotional information is firsthand and interpersonal, it is more vivid and is therefore assigned “greater validity” in the minds of decision-makers. Vividness as a concept, which may seem abstract, is measured in relation to signals that are “abstract, colorless, or less-tangible,” such as statistics regarding an adversary’s weapons arsenal. 

While less-vivid signals can be highly reliable from an intelligence analysis standpoint, they are often inhibitory when contextualized within the framework of world leader meetings. Inundated with information and pressure, world leaders frequently rely on heuristics (cognitive shortcuts) to make quick decisions. Emotional information is one of those heuristics and is therefore assigned greater validity because it is easier to process and recall at a moment’s notice.

Not only is emotional information vivid and more likely to be remembered, but it is also beyond manipulation and, therefore, more credible. As summarized in recent research conducted by University of Birmingham professor Nicholas Wheeler and Marcus Holmes of William and Mary, emotional information signals are considered genuine because of an unconscious information exchange that occurs during uncontrollable face-to-face interactions. 

According to Interpersonal Deception Theory (IDT), this information exchange is a “leakage of intention.” It occurs through involuntary expressions rooted at a neural level, such as a leader’s nervous twitch as they attempt to lie. After all, because most people are not sociopaths, lying often generates an uncontrollable reaction due to a desire for cognitive consistency. By detecting these leakages of emotional information, leaders can delineate between deceptive and sincere behavior. 

Therefore, because emotional information is beyond manipulation, its credibility is unrivaled. Also, since it is vivid and engaging, it has a more significant impact on decision-makers than the easily-manipulated and rather bland signals produced by military reassurance—the analysis of which is more suited to government intelligence agencies.

As a result of the credible emotional information exchanged at the Reykjavik Summit, Reagan concluded that Gorbachev’s intentions were sincere and benign. Subsequently, when buttressed with additional costly signals from Gorbachev, such as the Soviet Union’s adoption of non-offensive defense and reasonable sufficiency, Reagan’s views on Gorbachev and the Soviet Union changed dramatically, resulting in the signing of the INF Treaty at the 1987 Washington Summit and the cessation of the Soviet-American arms race. 

When asked in 1988 if he still thought the Soviet Union was an evil empire, Reagan replied, “No, that was another time, another place.”


Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is clear that face-to-face meetings are not superficial but rather a critical diplomatic tool. Yarhi-Milo’s Selective Attention and Vividness Hypotheses explain why Gorbachev’s initial costly attempts to overcome the commitment problem were ineffective. On the other hand, they also demonstrate why emotional information enabled his less costly in-person efforts to prove more fruitful. 

In a September 9th phone call between Biden and Xi, the two leaders agreed that there was “too little communication.” While the two leaders have since decided to hold a virtual meeting, such a medium lacks the intimacy required to convey vivid information. 

Whether one subscribes to an expansionist or defensive interpretation of China’s actions, facilitating a face-to-face, private conversation to prevent further escalation is imperative. While it would be naïve to think that a single face-to-face meeting could resolve American-Sino tensions over Taiwan given the extreme differences in position, one must remember that so too were denuclearization and the SDI. This meeting would be the first step in reducing suspicions and improving relations for ongoing dialogue. Even if such a relationship is not achieved, Biden will have succinctly conveyed an American willingness to fight, thus restoring credibility. 

With this knowledge in hand, President Biden must meet with President Xi in person, and not behind a camera, for his words to have maximum effect. 

Success! You're on the list.


Editor’s Picks

By Alex Choy

Alex Choy is an Army Military Intelligence Officer stationed in Hawaii. He obtained his undergraduate degree in Political Science with a Concentration in International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2021. His studies have primarily focused on global conflict, particularly regarding Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East. In the future, Alex hopes to obtain a Masters in International Relations and a Juris Doctor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s