Do Leaders Shape Foreign Policy?

Do Leaders Shape Foreign Policy?

Some scholars accept without question that leaders shape the course of world politics. Others argue that individuals are to a considerable degree constrained by their historical circumstances and that they are compelled to make certain decisions. The most obvious example of such a scenario is when another country attacks or declares war. In such a case, leaders have very few options: they can fight or surrender. Which course of action is chosen may depend on the relative might of the opponent and the likelihood of successfully resisting the attack, but it may also reflect a desire to defend one’s country against all odds. Consider for example the Dutch decision to fight the German invasion during World War II. The Netherlands had stayed out of World War I, had a tradition of neutrality, and expected to stay out of World War II as well. On May 10, 1940, the Germans launched an attack that took the Dutch government by surprise. Nevertheless, its ill-equipped and poorly trained military fought as hard as it could for five days, which was much longer than the German government had expected. Rather than surrendering to the obvious outcome, the Dutch leadership decided that, despite the certainty of defeat, the violation of its sovereignty required active resistance.


As this example illustrates, there are times when circumstances force a leader’s hand. Immediate surrender may theoretically have been an option for the Dutch leadership in 1940, but it was not realistic or feasible within the circumstances at that moment. However, few circumstances provide leaders with such severe constraints; more often than not, there are options. This means that leaders generally have at least some possibility of putting their stamp on history. Their impact may be small when circumstances severely constrain their options, and their impact may be bigger when they have a broader scope of options, or when they create their own opportunities.


Consider the story of how Belgium, a small European country, became a colonial power. Ever since it became an independent state in 1830, Belgium had been highly dependent on international trade, which it conducted primarily with the surrounding European countries. It did not have a merchant marine or a tradition of overseas exploration, as the other European colonizers did. It did not, in other words, appear to be a country that was likely to be competitive in the nineteenth-century scramble for Africa.


The answer to this question can be found in an unparalleled story of personal ambition. King Leopold II of Belgium displayed a strong interest in trade and colonialism well before he ascended to the throne in 1865. He traveled widely to visit other European countries’ colonial possessions and read extensively on the subject. Importantly, his interest was driven by knowledge of the profits generated by other countries’ colonies, although he was also interested in aggrandizing his power—Leopold occasionally exhibited a certain disdain for the small country he ruled, as well as for domestic pressures to institute an elected parliament (which would have constrained his power).


By the time the European powers met in Berlin in 1884–85 to settle conflicting claims on Africa, King Leopold II had laid the groundwork to make himself the biggest beneficiary of that meeting. In his younger years, he had been quite blunt about his desire for profit, but he had long since learned to cloak his ambitions in the rhetoric of humanitarianism. Just short of a decade prior to the conference in Berlin, Leopold had begun his quest by hosting an International Geographic Conference. This meeting brought together a group of notable geographers, explorers, and missionaries, who were delighted to be invited to stay at the royal palace and went home to advertise the king’s benevolence—exactly the effect Leopold had intended. The meeting also created the first of a series of organizations that, despite the façade of being humanitarian and scientific associations, were all controlled by the king and aided him in acquiring the land that became the Congo. During this period, King Leopold II employed the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley to map the Congo river basin and to conclude treaties with local African leaders, which in effect ceded their land to the king’s various associations, and thus to him. Meanwhile, the king collected vast amounts of intelligence on the interests of other European countries in Africa, which permitted him to craft his arguments for best effect. In the end, the European powers gathered at Berlin agreed to Leopold’s territorial claims in the center of Africa, largely because they were under the impression that the Belgian king would permit free trade in the Congo—he had led them to believe that his colony would be open to traders from across Europe. Although Leopold’s agents in the Congo did indeed originate from an assortment of different countries, they served the sovereign and his desire for profit.


Through meticulous study; the careful cultivation of geographers, explorers, and diplomats; the use of payments and payoffs; and a good dose of duplicity, King Leopold II managed to acquire the colony he so much craved. The Congo remained his personal possession until it was transferred to the Belgian state in 1908, after an international movement exposed the extreme coercion and violence that had accompanied the acquisition and exploitation of the territory.


King Leopold II’s interest in acquiring a colonial empire is perhaps understandable in the international context of the nineteenth century, when powerful countries tended to have colonial empires and sought to solidify their claims in Africa. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to buy a colony from another country (and discovering that none were for sale), the Belgian king worked tirelessly to partake in the scramble for Africa. Domestically there was not much interest in such faraway ventures, which many feared would be too costly for a small country. In order not to antagonize other powers, nor to invite the scrutiny of the Belgian public, the king was careful to cloak his activities in the decade leading up to the Berlin Conference. Behind the scenes, he steadily worked to claim a large part of central Africa and to get his claims recognized by the leaders of other countries.


So, do leaders matter? One example certainly is not sufficient to answer this conclusively, but it does show that leaders can have an impact. After all, it is unmistakable that King Leopold II influenced the course of history: without enormous ambition and effort, he would never have acquired the Congo, Belgium would not have become a colonial power, and the Congo would have had a different history as well. The king’s efforts overcame both an unfavorable international environment and unfavorable domestic opinion. The story is notable because it is unusual: not only did Belgium not have a tradition of worldwide exploration, but it was a relatively new and small country that conducted its foreign affairs—and trade!—primarily with the surrounding states in Europe. This is quite common for small states, which often lack the resources for a worldwide network of diplomatic representation. Smallness, in other words, generally serves as a constraint on foreign policy. In this particular case, however, the Belgian king was able to manipulate the country’s smallness into an advantage.


The European powers assembled in Berlin in 1884–85 did not perceive the acquisition of the Congo by Leopold II as a threat to their own power or to the European balance of power. In fact, recognition of Leopold II’s claims represented an attractive solution for the larger powers: this way, they could deny their main rivals the acquisition of yet another colony—and with it the potential increased wealth (which could be translated into more power). France would have objected if the territory went to Britain, and vice versa, because both countries would have perceived this as upsetting the balance of power between them. It was in some ways a replay of the London Conference that had guaranteed Belgium’s independence and mandated its political neutrality after the small country broke away from the Dutch Kingdom in 1830. Then, too, the big powers tried to ensure that Belgium’s presence in the European political landscape did not upset the balance of power. Now, King Leopold II worked hard to create the impression that all would be welcome to enrich themselves in the Congo. Hence, Belgian administration of the territory would be in the interest of all—or so the European leaders assembled in Berlin thought. Clever diplomacy, based on extensive research, aided Leopold II in achieving his ends on the international stage.


The other constraint, an unfavorable domestic public opinion, was perhaps easier to overcome at a time when the average citizen did not yet have the right to vote and when news was much slower to travel than in our era of instant electronic communications. However, do keep in mind that King Leopold II’s rule shares features with today’s nondemocratic regimes, which often control their countries’ media and thus the information to which their citizens have access. Although the Internet has made government control of the media less effective, there are still quite a few countries where Internet access—and indeed computers—are relatively scarce, especially beyond the capital city. This makes it easier for leaders in those societies to either manipulate or ignore their domestic audience. Consider, for instance, that Egyptian leader Anwar al-Sadat did not consult domestic public opinion before embarking on his momentous journey to Jerusalem in the late 1970s. It was a bold move for the leader of an Arab country to make the decision to so visibly enter into negotiations with Israel. Sadat made this decision, which represented a radical shift in his country’s foreign policy, against the backdrop of a domestic economic crisis. He hoped that his overture would help bring an infusion of aid to Egypt’s economy—which it did. His efforts to sell the changed policy to the domestic public were facilitated by the benefits the new policy brought in terms of aid. Neither the Belgian King Leopold II nor the Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat were elected leaders. However, neither could totally ignore public opinion: the Belgian public was not interested in colonial ventures, so the king acquired the Congo as a personal possession. The Egyptian public did not view peace with Israel as its foremost priority, but the benefits that flowed from Sadat’s decision facilitated acceptance by many, though not all, citizens of his country. Sadat’s leadership ended when he was assassinated by members of the Egyptian military in October 1981, almost exactly four years after his journey to Jerusalem. Do note, however, that his peace treaty with Israel was only one of their grievances.


The lack of accountability may make it easier for the leaders of nondemocratic societies to make unpopular decisions, but they cannot do so with impunity. Conversely, the leaders of democratic countries are not always wholly beholden to public opinion. They may be able to shape public opinion to a smaller or larger extent, depending on the public’s attentiveness to foreign policy and the centrality of the issue. Public opinion is a constraint irrespective of the domestic political system, although its weight can vary across situations and issue areas. Similar variability applies to other constraints leaders face.


Despite such constraints, it is difficult to explain foreign policy decisions and behaviors without reference to leaders. The perception (and perhaps even the creation) of opportunities, as well as the successful conduct of diplomacy depend on the foreign policy skill of individuals. This implies that the impact a leader can have depends not only on the constraints and opportunities presented by the environment but also on that leader’s interest and involvement in foreign policy. A leader who has a genuine and deep interest in foreign policy is likely to play a more active role and be involved in a larger number of foreign policy problems than someone who lacks such an interest. Nevertheless, an international crisis is likely to involve decision making at the highest levels even if the leader does not have a special interest in foreign policy. The degree to which constraints diminish (and the degree to which opportunities expand) the number of alternatives is therefore mediated by the interest and attention a specific leader brings to foreign policy making. King Leopold II started out with little opportunity and much constraint, but through his interest and effort he expanded his opportunities to take part in the scramble for Africa. The skill and experience of leaders is not always sufficient to ensure a desired outcome, because outcomes depend not only on the accurate assessment of opportunities and constraints but also on the interaction of the state’s foreign policy behavior with that of other countries. However, decisions that have the best possible chance of yielding desired outcomes depend on perceptive assessments of the opportunities and constraints presented by the international and domestic environments, as well as on insight into the personalities of the relevant decision makers of other countries. It may not be possible to fully predict the actions of those decision makers, but it is feasible to develop sufficient insight to understand the predisposition of such leaders. Knowing how another country’s leader is likely to react to certain proposals and actions can help tailor messages and behaviors to increase the likelihood that desired responses are elicited and disastrous ones avoided. In sum, understanding leaders is a significant ingredient of successful diplomacy.


Leaders’ Personality and Public Persona

Not every leader will have the sort of ambition that motivated King Leopold II. Not every leader will put his or her stamp on history in such a clear manner, but leaders almost invariably have options when they make decisions. This means that the choices they make are not foregone conclusions. What makes it possible for some decision makers to have more impact than others? Why are some leaders satisfied with shaping their environment in small ways while others seek to have a much bigger



The story of how the king of a small country acquired a vast colonial empire illustrates some of the answers. Although individual decision makers must be understood within the domestic and international context within which they find themselves, they are not merely reacting to the pressures provided by that environment. On the contrary, they are best seen as agents with goals who actively seek to influence the world in which they find themselves. Their success in doing so depends to a considerable degree on their personality, which influences decision making in two ways: One, it colors leaders’ perceptions of specific events and the world in general. Personality focuses on the enduring qualities of the person and assumes that we can predict the actions and reactions of leaders once we understand the personality or character of that individual. Personality also interacts with perception and cognition. Two, leaders’ personalities affect how they utilize and organize the staff on which they rely for information and advice. In most countries, the entire government bureaucracy does not change when a new leader ascends to office, but the leader’s immediate circle of advisors generally does consist of political appointees. The organizational structure of this group of advisors and the regulation of access to the leader are dependent on the latter’s preferences, which are in turn dependent on personality.


A focus on the personality or character of leaders is often motivated by questions such as these: What sort of personality makes a good leader? What sort of leader will this person make? What sort of personality is the leader of that country? It is easier to determine the personality of a leader and predict what sort of leadership we might expect from that individual. A number of authors who have examined leaders and decision making have concluded that good leadership is often a matter of fit between the person and the circumstances, but this is not a very satisfactory guide, because it is difficult to predict the circumstances a leader may face during her or his tenure in office. In addition, leaders frequently do not just respond to their environment but also seek to influence it. Some personalities may expend more effort than others in attempts to manipulate their environment, but the point is that the relationship between the person and the situation is interactive—which complicates the notion of fit between leader and situation. Is there a good fit when a leader manages a crisis well? Is there a good fit when a leader manipulates his environment to suit his ambitions? Does it matter what sort of strategies a leader employs to achieve desired ends?


Let’s examine the case of King Leopold II a bit further. Although he argued even as a crown prince that Belgium needed a colony to enhance its status among the states of Europe, in the end he acquired the Congo as a personal possession. The Belgian state was not involved until much later and did not reap the economic benefits that were derived from the Congo. In fact, the state went so far as to loan money to its king to support his investments in the Congo! It took a great deal of insight into—and clever manipulation of—the personalities of other countries’ leaders and the various people he employed for King Leopold II to achieve his ultimate objective. It was a sort of diplomacy the king became quite good at: he knew just how to flatter Stanley to convince the famous explorer to work for him. He exploited this talent many times over with numerous other individuals. He was also quite good at managing his own public relations, gaining quite a bit of publicity both domestically and abroad for his supposed humanitarian and scientific ventures. On the downside was the observation that the king was a “Machiavellian amoralist” who was prepared to use coercion and brute force to squeeze as much money out of a colony as he could. Interestingly, this observation about the king pre-dated not only his actual acquisition of the Congo but also his ascendance to the throne of Belgium. It was based on statements the king had made as a younger and less savvy crown prince, when he displayed his ambition in raw and unpolished form. These insights derived from the king’s younger years support the notion that a person’s early life may provide important clues to his or her orientation toward life and leadership.


Do notice that the use of a person’s early life to predict their performance in office is predicated on the notion that personality is formed early and remains fundamentally unaltered throughout life. While some aspects of personality may be indeed be hardwired or stem from important childhood experiences, it would be problematic to use a person’s early life for more than general tendencies, which may manifest themselves in many different ways in later years. This does not mean that insights derived from a person’s early life are useless, but it does indicate that we must exercise caution: it is easy to over interpret the significance of early experiences, especially in hindsight. After all, the attitude Leopold displayed as a young man toward the moneymaking potential of colonies took on heightened significance only after an international movement exposed the atrocities that accompanied the rubber trade—the most important source of wealth during the time the king controlled the Congo. Had the atrocities never been exposed, he might have been remembered as a humanitarian rather than an opportunist. In fact, some continued to portray King Leopold II’s involvement in the Congo as benevolent. King Baudouin, the grandson of Leopold II’s nephew (who succeeded him on the throne), painted his ancestor in this manner at the Congo’s independence day ceremony in 1960.


On the other hand, evidence from Leopold’s upbringing and the international climate of his lifetime could easily be used to argue that it would have been difficult for him to be satisfied merely with managing the affairs of a small country. His father, Leopold I, had been an ambitious German nobleman who, as the result of a strategic marriage and his own political efforts, was tapped for kingship when Belgium emerged as an independent state. King Leopold I had sought to enhance the status of the new Belgian royal family by arranging a politically expedient, but personally miserable, marriage for his son. Added to the misfortune of an unhappy marriage was the death of Leopold II’s only son at a young age. Leopold II may have poured so much energy into his colonial ambitions to escape his private misery. Or perhaps he was merely following in his father’s footsteps. After all, his father had also been interested in acquiring a colony for Belgium, though that interest had not been as single-minded as his son’s was. Moreover, an interest in acquiring a colony was not all that unusual among leaders in the nineteenth century Europe. What set King Leopold II apart was the enormous drive and persistence he brought to the task, as well as the lengths to which he went to present a humanitarian persona to his European and North American audiences while simultaneously condoning and even advocating brutal practices to squeeze wealth out of the Congo. Given his bluntness as a young man, he made quite a transformation.


In sum, although statements made by Leopold II as a young man seem prophetic in hindsight, other details regarding his upbringing might also lead to the suspicion that as king he would feel the need to demonstrate his royal prowess—and in nineteenth-century Europe the acquisition of a colony was an acceptable way to aggrandize one’s stature. Nevertheless, the dramatic shift from the blunt young man to the later humanitarian public persona brings up an important dilemma in studying the personalities of leaders. Not all are so blatantly Machiavellian as King Leopold II, but most engage in some form of public image making. Niccolo Machiavelli, a fifteenth-century political thinker, counseled that it was more important for a king to appear benevolent than to actually be good. Machiavelli’s advice was based on the notion that most people will judge a leader on the basis of his or her public image and will not perceive the true character hidden behind it. Although Machiavelli’s advice has made his name synonymous with duplicity and unscrupulous behavior, most people also accept that a person’s public face and private thoughts cannot be equated.


Conversely, information about the private person is not necessarily a good guide regarding the sort of leader a person would be. Consider, for instance, a historical figure that did not smoke or drink, ate a vegetarian diet, and was monogamous. You might consider such a person to be morally upright and expect him or her to be a leader who does not engage in demagoguery or deception. You might consider voting for such a person. However, this same historical figure instituted a policy of systematic and institutionalized discrimination against several ethnic and religious groups, including the systematic killing of six million Jews. Although the institutionalized discrimination was public knowledge, the large-scale murders were not advertised. In fact, many Jews were led to their death believing they were simply going to take a shower. By now, you will have guessed that this historical figure is Adolph Hitler. Superficial biographical information can be quite misleading regarding a person’s political leadership qualities and performance.


Treatments that focus on the person’s early life are not without problems either. The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein were both brutal dictators. Biographies of both frequently report that they had abusive fathers who abandoned their families while their sons were still young. Psychologists have found that children of abusive parents are very likely to become abusive adults themselves. Hence, recounting this childhood experience makes sense of their later performance as leaders of their respective countries. The pieces of information about these men’s lives fit together nicely in hindsight. As you may have noticed, psychologists note a greater likelihood, but not a certainty, that children of abuse will become abusers. More important for our purposes, it is not clear whether private abusive relationships are in any way predictive of a person’s actions as a political leader. And not all leaders who have perpetrated heinous acts have had such backgrounds: Hitler, for instance, did not have an abusive father and had a doting mother. There was not much in his early life that would have predicted his rise to power or the genocide that his regime perpetrated.


This does not mean that an interest in the biographies of leaders is fruitless. It does mean, however, that we must be careful to not over interpret the significance of snippets of information about a person’s life and seek to gain a more comprehensive picture. In addition, we must ask whether the early life experiences of Stalin and Saddam would have seemed equally predictive of their brutality as leaders at the start of their political careers. Hitler’s youth provided little indication of his later leadership, and he himself recalled his extended stay in pre–World War I Vienna, where he arrived as an eighteen-year-old, as a formative experience. While there, he experienced poverty and rejection, but he also absorbed many of the ideas that would later shape his political philosophy. Not all leaders express their political philosophy as clearly as Hitler did in his book Mein Kampf. Most often, it is a lot more difficult to decipher a leader’s character and personality and a lot less clear how the individual views the world and what motivations drive him or her.


Foreign policy analysts are thus faced with a problem: how do we evaluate personality when a leader’s early life is at best a rough guide and we cannot assume that a leader speaks his or her mind? Before we attempt to answer this question, let’s take a step back and summarize the reasons we want to look beyond the public persona and learn about the personalities of leaders. One, doing so helps us evaluate what sort of leader a person is (or would be).More than merely evaluating whether a person is a good or bad leader, understanding what drives a person can help to evaluate the strengths a person brings to a leadership position—and the weaknesses for which a good advisory system could perhaps compensate. Such information serves the public interest. Two, assessments of the personalities of leaders can facilitate diplomatic negotiations. It can help leaders understand why their counterparts in other countries make the foreign policy decisions they do. It can also help them structure their own foreign policies to have the best possible chance to achieve the desired outcomes. In short, accurate assessments of leaders provide useful knowledge.


The Quest to Understand Leaders

We must begin with the assumption that the public persona and private individual are not synonymous. Given this assumption, how do we go about our quest to understand leaders’ personalities? Studies of leaders frequently borrow concepts from psychology, which has devised many instruments for studying individuals and their motivations, their approaches to problem solving and decision making, and their basic view of the world around them. Psychologists have arrived at their notions about personality through carefully constructed experiments that have provided insights into the general tendencies of human behavior. Most often, psychologists will avoid making definitive predictions about a single individual’s behavior but will instead cast their assessments in terms of the behavioral patterns that are likely to be associated with specific personality types. Foreign policy analysts who study leaders are similar to their colleagues in psychology in that they also discuss their assessments in terms of the likely patterns of behavior associated with leaders’ personalities. There is, however, an important difference between the two disciplines: psychologists are interested in general knowledge about human behavior, whereas foreign policy analysts are interested in evaluating specific individuals—domestic and foreign leaders. And unlike the counseling psychologist, who tends to focus on individuals for therapeutic reasons, foreign policy analysts are interested in assessing what sort of leader a specific individual is (or would make) and what kind of foreign policy decisions can be expected from a specific leader. A second important difference is that psychologists, whether they are engaged in research or counsel individuals, have direct access to their subjects, whereas foreign policy analysts usually do not: foreign policy decision makers are unlikely to make them available for such testing. This means that the study of leaders must rely on indirect methods.


Foreign policy analysts, who are interested in understanding how leaders view the world, what motivates them, and how they make decisions, have no choice but to devise ways to read between the lines of the public persona to find hints of the individual behind the image. This is not an easy task. A number of different strategies have been proposed. Some of these rely on biographical information, as well as interpretations of a leader’s public pronouncements and actions. Others rely primarily on official speeches and less formal comments made during interviews or press conferences. In some cases, the strategy is dependent on the availability (or paucity) of information. For example, an effort to understand Soviet leaders during the Cold War would not have been able to rely on as much information as an assessment of a current or former U.S. president. Details about the decision making process, such as transcripts or notes taken by participants in policy meetings, would simply not have been available— nor would spontaneous interview responses. Students of the Soviet Union often had to make do with interpretations of subtle shifts in the use of language in official newspapers.


An early study of the leaders of the Soviet Union juxtaposed Russian literature and texts produced by that leadership to investigate the “unexpressed content” of the latter. The study sought to describe the Soviet operational code that, presumably, provided some insight into the likely foreign policy behavior of that country’s leadership. It was one of the first studies to consciously apply psychological concepts to the study of leaders. It relied heavily on psychoanalysis. Although the study is now regarded as a classic in foreign policy analysis, there was much skepticism about its findings among area specialists: the study cited the work of two anthropologists who had argued that certain Russian characteristics had their origins in the practice of swaddling babies. The study of the Soviet operational code focused on the personalities of the Politburo members rather than on the possible childhood origins of personality traits, but because it included references to a discredited theory, the potential contributions of the operational code as a methodology were not widely recognized among area specialists.


The operational code as a methodology seeks to describe a leader’s fundamental beliefs, which provide norms, standards, and guidelines for decision making. The operational code does not tell us what, specifically, a decision maker will decide. Instead, it provides insight into the decision maker’s perceptions and evaluations of the world, and estimates of how he or she will weigh the benefits and risks of various courses of action. In other words, the operational code is designed to allow us to “get inside the mind” of decision makers. Although later studies that employed the operational code methodology invariably focused on individual decision makers, the pioneering study of the Soviet operational code actually sought to delineate the collective preferences of the Politburo, the Soviet Union’s highest decision making body. It justified this focus on the basis of the centrality of this group for Soviet policy. One of the fundamental tenets of the Soviet operational code was, quite consistent with Marxist philosophy, that history was not accidental. The larger trends of history, such as the transition from capitalism to communism, were regarded as predictable, even if the specific path and pace that would bring the world to that future state of affairs was not. This deterministic view of history did not mean that gains for communism would emerge easily: on the contrary, gains could only be the result of struggle.


The point here is not to render a verdict about the correctness of the Soviet view of history. Rather, what is important to note is that the study’s author used the publicly available writings of Soviet leaders and the imagery in Russian literature to read between the lines of the official pronouncements in an effort to grasp how Soviet leaders understood the world around them and what motivated them. The objective was not to predict specific foreign policy decisions but to understand what policy options the members of the Politburo would entertain seriously in a given situation—and to exclude those that would be ruled out quickly or not even considered. Although the initial version of the operational code was met with skepticism, the idea was later revised into a framework for systematic analysis and has become an important strategy for evaluating leaders, as we shall see.


Foreign leaders are not the only subjects of efforts to understand the personalities of decision makers. A good amount of effort has been expended on strategies to study the personalities of American presidents, motivated to a large extent by the knowledge that these leaders can affect the course of world politics in important ways. One strategy to assess presidential character is centered on two questions. One, how active or passive is the leader? That is, how much energy does the person invest in his or her political office? Two, does the leader rate political life positively and derive satisfaction from it, or does he or she perceive elected office negatively in terms of duty? The answers to these two questions yield four types of leaders. The first category is leaders who invest a lot of energy and derive a lot of satisfaction from the job (activepositive). Think about presidents like Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy or George H.W. Bush. Each of these men made efforts to be well informed. Each was willing to listen to the perspectives of their advisors but also comfortable making tough decisions after evaluating the information presented to him. The second type of leader invests a lot of energy but perceives the job as a chore (active-negative). These are leaders who are primarily interested in getting and keeping power. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are often mentioned as fitting this category. The former had a tendency to micromanage rather than to defer to specialists within the administration. Nixon’s preoccupation with power—and his fear of losing it—led him to engage in secretive and dishonest tactics that eventually cost him his presidency.


The third type of president is less energetic but does find the job satisfying (passive-positive). Consider Ronald Reagan’s jovial demeanor. His emphasis was on speechmaking and playing host, not on reading extensive briefing papers. In fact, he preferred to receive one page “mini-memos” and left much of the negotiation and deal making to his staff. The fourth and last personality category is also a less energetic leader. In contrast with the previous category, this one perceives the presidency as a chore (passivenegative). Like the active-negative type, this personality is motivated by a sense of duty. Dwight D. Eisenhower personifies this well-developed sense of service to country.


Although the first type, the active-positive president, appears on the surface to be most desirable, none of the categories are invariably desirable or problematic—each has its own pitfalls. The potential problems of passivity may be most obvious: if a president is not engaged in the subject matter of the political problems of his time and reads only summaries rather than full briefing papers, he (or she) may be open to manipulation by advisors and lose control of the decision making process. The active-positive personality may appear to be well suited to leadership, but the focus on rational problem solving may lead to a tendency to ignore the rough-and-tumble of political deal making. The classification of leaders into four categories is, of course, a relatively crude approximation of personality. The three presidents listed as examples of the active-positive category—Truman, Kennedy and Bush—may have shared certain traits, but they were also distinctly different individuals. That point is obscured by the relatively simple classification scheme, although studies based on this scheme did address these differences between individuals who were placed in the same category. Such studies relied on the interpretation of biographical material, speeches, and writings of and about the individual. The study of presidential character drew on a more comprehensive set of source materials than the original operational code study. Both approaches, however, relied on the (foreign) policy analyst’s personal expertise—including knowledge of the principles of psychoanalysis—as the foundation for interpretation of these materials. This made it difficult for others to replicate these studies and limited the possibility of broad application of these strategies to efforts to understand the personalities of leaders.
More systematic and more easily replicated strategies for reading between the lines of the public persona—strategies that also use publicly available materials—have emerged. One of these methodologies was a reinvention of the operational code, a strategy for determining a leader’s fundamental premises and beliefs about politics. The original study was distilled into ten questions; the first five of these address the leader’s the philosophical approach to politics and second five address instrumental beliefs about how to attain desired objectives.


Operational code studies have relied on the writings and recorded verbal comments of decision makers. An investigation of the operational code of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, for instance, relied primarily on his academic writings. It found that important themes of Kissinger’s philosophical beliefs can already be found in his undergraduate honors thesis and remain quite stable. This former policy maker is known for a role in ending the Vietnam War and for “shuttle diplomacy” to investigate possibilities for negotiations among Israel and its Arab neighbors. Kissinger believed that the control that an individual can have over the course of history is limited. Rather, the role of chance and the shadow cast by past events are important. While policy makers are not on the sidelines of history, they cannot expect to have a major influence on historical developments, because they must play the game according to existing rules that can be manipulated but rarely changed. The impact that leaders can have is, in his mind, contingent upon their insight into the forces of history and their strategic responses to these. This operational code explains Kissinger’s tactics regarding the end of the American involvement in Vietnam, which was incremental: strategic demonstrations of power were followed by overtures for negotiations. In sum, Kissinger operated not from some grand vision for a future world order but from a point of view that focuses on leaders’ tactical and strategic choices in pursuit of the “national interest.”


Not all decision makers have such a constant and unchanging set of beliefs. Former U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright evolved in his core beliefs.30 His changing identification of malignant forces in world politics entailed a changing answer to part of the first philosophical question: What is the fundamental character of one’s political opponents? Fulbright started out with the belief that malfeasant leaders of states are a core problem and that, certainly in the United States, the legislature has a key role to play in ensuring that foreign policy is rational and avoids miscalculations. During the Cold War, he shifted to the view that the United States faces an inherently aggressive opponent in the Soviet Union, which must be countered with a single-minded and purposeful response. Power is the key in this approach. By the time of the Vietnam War, Fulbright once again changed his identification of the fundamental character of the opponent: he now perceived the arrogance of great powers as a major threat to the international order. He believed this in general, but more importantly, he believed it with respect to the United States in particular—which explains his opposition to the Vietnam War in this time period.


The operational code, as an approach to studying leaders, seeks to utilize their writings and recorded verbal statements. Access to such materials is more straightforward in societies that keep extensive written records. In addition, operational code studies traditionally required that the analyst be able to understand the language in which these materials were written well enough to make nuanced judgments, because such studies employed qualitative analyses. It will come as little surprise that the majority of operational code studies have focused on American and other western leaders.

  • First, these societies have a tradition not only of record keeping but also of providing relatively open access to these materials to foreign policy analysts.
  • Second, not only is it difficult to obtain materials from other countries, but also American foreign policy analysts have a relatively underdeveloped knowledge of foreign languages.


One strategy for overcoming the second problem is the use of translated speeches and other verbal statements. Although it is possible for translated text to miss the subtleties of linguistic expression in a specific language and for errors to occur in translation, the use of such text enables foreign policy analysts to broaden the scope of leaders they can analyze considerably. One effort to understand the personality and style of leaders from a number of different countries utilizes translated text. This is then analyzed systematically for specific linguistic markers that are taken to reveal personality traits. This strategy for leadership trait analysis is founded on a set of questions that probe various aspects of a leader’s personal characteristics that are relevant to foreign policy decision making. Leadership trait analysis differs from the operational code. There are fewer questions, and the questions deal more directly with political life. For example, this instrument focuses on whether the leader believes he or she can control events and feels the need to exercise influence rather than whether the person believes that individuals can generally affect the course of history. In addition, where the operational code traditionally relied on the judgment of the analyst on the basis of a qualitative but structured interpretation of the writings and speeches of leaders, leadership trait analysis relies on a systematic content analysis of text. The latter scheme looks for specific words and phrases in interview responses and speeches of leaders. For example, the trait of conceptual complexity is evaluated on the basis of the frequency with which a decision maker uses qualifiers such as possibly, perhaps, sometimes, and maybe, which indicate high complexity, versus qualifiers such as certain, always, undoubtedly, or indisputable, which indicate low complexity. How does this trait matter in the conduct of foreign policy? Lower conceptual complexity correlates with more conflictual state behavior, including less reliance on diplomacy and quicker commitment to action. Interestingly, the two leaders who most closely cooperated to orchestrate the 2003 invasion of Iraq, President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, both score relatively low on conceptual complexity. In addition, there is evidence that this variable affects the foreign policy making process as well: higher conceptual complexity is linked to greater openness to and use of new information.


The leadership trait analysis focuses on much more than conceptual complexity. It also evaluates whether leaders believe they can control events, as well as their need for power, their self-confidence, their in group bias, their level of distrust of others, and the degree of task emphasis. Tony Blair’s low cognitive complexity explains why he “did not recognize the caveats and uncertainties” expressed in the intelligence he received on Iraq prior to the decision to invade. He combined this trait with a strong belief in his ability to control events as well as a high need for power. This predisposed him to taking tight personal control over policy making with a small, closely knit circle of advisors. On the other side of the Atlantic, there is evidence that strong scores on distrust of others, coupled with a relatively low conceptual complexity, “help to explain President Bush’s insistence that Saddam, his WMD stockpiles, and his links to terror constituted a severe threat to America’s security in the post–September 11 world, when others were more skeptical.” High scores on distrust predispose leaders to perceive threats as credible and often increase their willingness to confront such threats aggressively. This distrust was characteristic not only of Bush’s personality, but also of others within his administration, although there were distinct differences between the scores on this variable for different individuals. Unfortunately, the decision makers with the lowest scores for distrust of others were also least central to the decision making process. In essence, there may have been insufficient questioning among administration officials of their predisposition to distrust Iraq’s leader.


The presidential character, operational code, and leadership trait analysis are not the only strategies that have been employed. However, these different strategies do demonstrate the variety of approaches that have been employed to evaluate the personalities of leaders. Initially, many studies employed concepts from psychoanalysis and required that foreign policy analysts read and interpret large amounts of information. The original operational code study and the study of presidential character represent this generation of leadership analysis. The revised operational code infuses qualitative analysis with a systematic approach through the use of ten questions, and in the past decade scholars working with operational code analysis have developed a strategy for machine coding the speeches of leaders.


The advantage of doing this is not only that a computer can code large amounts of text in a fairly short time, but also that the material is evaluated in a very consistent manner. The leadership trait analysis method of evaluating leaders builds on the expertise of a more recent generation of experimental psychological researchers and relies on quantitative content analysis techniques. Although this strategy initially used human coders to analyze text, it now also employs a machine coding strategy. Both the leadership trait analysis and the current generation of the operational code use transparent methods that make it easier for readers to understand how analysts arrived at their conclusions. Before computer-assisted content analysis, the coding of text—an integral part of content analysis—was very labor intensive and required human coders trained in the specific methodology. This made such analysis time consuming and cumbersome. The move to computerized content analysis techniques has made this sort of analysis easier and quicker and the results more consistent. As a result, more researchers are now exploring the possibilities of both operational code and leadership trait analysis to evaluate the personalities of leaders and their advisors. This creates possibilities for increased usefulness: quick turnaround on the assessment of current leaders can provide foreign policy decision makers with insights into their counterparts in other countries that can help them understand how best to approach and negotiate with those leaders.


The Impact of Emotions

Thus far, leaders have been portrayed as goal-directed, and purposeful. This is not incorrect, but it is incomplete: it implies that foreign policy decision makers have a cool and rational distance from the problems they face. That is not always the case. Affect, or emotion, influences foreign policy decision making in a myriad of ways, some of which are not yet well understood.


The impact of emotions on decision making is not wholly separate from the impact of personality. Consider that one of the characteristics measured by the leadership trait analysis method is the leader’s propensity to distrust others. The operational code includes among the philosophical questions a measure of the subject’s optimism or pessimism regarding the prospect of realizing his or her values and aspirations. Both trust-distrust and optimism-pessimism have their foundations in personality: people often are predisposed toward trusting or distrusting others, or they tend toward optimism or pessimism. Of course, such a predisposition can be modified by hard-won life experience. In addition, moods are not constants but vary across time for each individual. The impact of these moods or emotions on decision making is the subject matter of this section.


What are emotions? Emotions consist of both psychological and physical components. Individuals describe the psychological (or mental) aspects to others as feelings, and these feelings may be accompanied by physical changes.42 Emotions are often described as spontaneous reactions. Because of this, emotions are sometimes perceived as detracting from reasoned judgment,43 although others liken them to stress: while a little stress enhances performance, too much impairs it.44 In either case, there is a recognition that emotion affects judgment: individuals in a positive mood tend to rely on general knowledge and make judgments on the basis of stereotypes, prior judgments, and other mental shortcuts, whereas decision makers in a sad mood tend to be much more attentive to detail and engage in careful step-by-step analysis of the situations they face.45 Consider, for instance, the impact of King Leopold II’s personal unhappiness on his devotion to his colonial ambitions. Would he have pursued the Congo as single-mindedly if he had been happily married? Would he have done so had his only son survived to adulthood? We cannot be certain of the answers; such speculation amounts to counterfactual history. What we do know, however, is that the king was not a happy man, and it is not unreasonable to suspect that this affected his decision making.


Emotion influences not only the decision making process but also judgments about the object of attention. Although people in different cultures experience the same range of emotions, different societies have different norms regarding the expression of emotion. Hence, it may be difficult for decision makers to accurately interpret the emotions of their counterparts in other countries—especially if social norms and cultures are very different. Trade negotiations between the United States and Japan long suffered from misunderstandings between the two countries’ representatives. The Americans would walk away from negotiations thinking they had a deal, while the Japanese interpreted their responses to be merely polite pleasantries—not commitments. The former value directness in communication, but the latter value politeness and subtlety. The social norms with regard to overt display of emotion are very different in the two societies, making it difficult for diplomats of either country to interpret the other’s motives and intentions accurately.


This point at a problem that is central to foreign policy making: interpreting the foreign policy behaviors of other countries and their leaders is rarely straightforward. Emotions affect these judgments. Preexisting positive or negative feelings about other countries and their leaders influence judgments about their foreign policies.

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