The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders
The influence of a leader’s personality upon the course of political events has been the subject of lively debate. The “great man” view of history, of which Thomas Carlyle was a prominent proponent, has often conveyed the march of history in terms of leading political actors. In the spirit of Carlyle, we often view a nation’s foreign policy in terms of the personalities of its leaders. Thus George III and Lord North are said to have lost Great Britain’s American colonies by virtue of their stupidity and arrogance. (If only the elder Pitt had continued in power after 1767!)
In 1919, Woodrow Wilson won the war but lost the peace because he negotiated ineptly, confused rhetoric with substance, and refused to compromise. Two decades later, Adolf Hitler set Europe aflame with a foreign policy that seemed to be rooted in his personal pathology. Perhaps the appeal of these familiar examples reflects our human tendency to reduce complexity to simplicity, attributing the causes of other people’s behavior to their internal dispositions rather than to their situations (Jones and Nisbett 1972).
Certainly in reviewing the history of the twentieth century, it would be difficult to portray the major events as simply a consequence of historical and political forces, ignoring the impact of such giant figures as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin. Adolf Hitler, and Mao Ze-dong.
Set against these personality interpretations is the counterargument that foreign policy decision makers generally respond to realistic appraisals of situations and act within the available constraints and opportunities. Thus given American reluctance to maintain troops in Europe after 1918 and to submit national sovereignty to a supranational league. Wilson’s weakness was one of position rather than personality. Even in the case of Hitler, the historian A. J. P. Taylor (1961) argues, his foreign policy
was that of his predecessors, of the professional diplomats at the foreign ministry, and indeed ofvirtually all Germans … to free Germany from the restrictions of the peace treaty, to restore a great German army: and then to make Germany the greatest power in Europe from her natural weight. (97)
The scholarly terrain is defined by these two boundaries: on the one hand is the naive view ofpolitical outcomes as merely the projection of leaders’ personalities, and on the other hand is the equally simplistic view that individual personalities have no effect.
Charting a course between these extremes, Greenstein suggests that a leader’s personality may be especially important under four conditions: when the actor occupies a strategic location, when the situation is ambiguous or unstable, when there are no clear precedents or routine role requirements, and when spontaneous or especially effortful behavior is required.
These conditions stress the importance of the context in which the actor is operating, observing that the impact of leader personality increases to the degree that the environment admits of restructuring.
Among the many fields of politics, these conditions are perhaps most often met in the arena of foreign policy. Included in the circumstances that Hermann (1976) has identified in which leader personality is most apt to affect foreign policy are the following: in proportion to the general interest of the head of state in foreign policy; when the means of assuming power are dramatic; when the head of state is charismatic; (4) when the head of state has great authority over foreign policy; when the foreign policy organization of the nation is less developed and differentiated; in a crisis; and when the external national situation is perceived to be ambiguous.
During the relatively stable era of the superpower rivalry, it often seemed that the powerful forces of the rival Western and Eastern blocs significantly reduced and constrained the capacity ofindividual leaders to affect the course of events in the arena of foreign policy. Yet few would doubt that the leadership actions of John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro, and Nikita Khrushchev in October 1962: of Richard Nixon in China; of Jimmy Carter at Camp David; and of Ronald Reagan. Mikhail Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin in the twilight of the cold war made a difference.
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