Inside Story

Fighting for face

Books | What makes political leaders take their country to war?

Nick Haslam 14 March 2019 1448 words

Study in contrasts: the “dangerously charismatic” former president Bill Clinton at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York with president Barack Obama on 4 June 2012. Pete Souza/White House Photo

Who Fights for Reputation: The Psychology of Leaders in International Conflict
By Keren Yarhi-Milo | Princeton University Press | $66 | 360 pages

A psychobiography published in 1997 diagnosed Richard Nixon as an “anal” personality. Vamik Volkan and his co-authors divined that the thirty-seventh president symbolically associated leaks from the White House with a loss of bowel control, and that he made the fateful decision not to destroy the incriminating Watergate tapes because he saw them as “anal gems that could not be given away.” Nixon would not have been impressed, having once dismissed psychobiography as “pure baloney.” To the convinced Freudian, Nixon’s choice of words might support Volkan’s hypothesis, sausage having been unmasked as a symbolically faecal food by the psychoanalytic writer Alan Dundes.

Politicians don’t lose their personalities when they are elevated to leadership positions, and it would be surprising if their idiosyncratic ways of thinking, feeling and acting did not influence their behaviour and decisions. The challenge is to make sense of that influence in a way that is reliable, fair-minded and nuanced. It is easy to carry out psychobiographical hitjobs, caricaturing political enemies with armchair diagnoses and abusing the interpretive licence of psychoanalytic ideas. It is equally easy to pretend that the psychology of political leaders is irrelevant, and that only policy, ideology and economic system matter. The former approach is reductive; the latter ignores the human element.

One way out of this dilemma is to understand the personality of political leaders in a more sober and rigorous manner than most psychobiographers have done. In this fascinating book, Princeton University political scientist Keren Yarhi-Milo shows how this can be achieved. Yarhi-Milo turns to the mainstream psychology of personality traits rather than to Freud, and the result is a compelling investigation of one trait that appears to have very real implications for the fortunes of American presidents from the cold war to the present. Who Fights for Reputation is a substantial but accessible work of scholarship that sets a very high standard for future studies of personality and political leadership.

The trait Yarhi-Milo puts front and centre is “self-monitoring,” a personality characteristic that was introduced to academic psychology two months after Nixon left office in disgrace. The trait captures differences in how people adapt their expressive behaviour to its context. People who are low in self-monitoring are disinclined to present themselves in different ways to different audiences, instead seeking congruence between their beliefs and their behaviour. These low self-monitors value consistency, steadfastness and being true to their (static) selves.

High self-monitors, in contrast, adjust their performances of self to the changing demands and expectations of their situation. Strategic impression managers, they value flexibility and fitting in. High self-monitors see low self-monitors as stolid stick-in-the-muds. Low self-monitors see high self-monitors as inauthentic, status-seeking chameleons. As the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim opined during a cameo in Zelig, Woody Allen’s mockumentary about an extreme human chameleon, “one could really think of him as the ultimate conformist.”

Yarhi-Milo uses the concept of self-monitoring to explain how political leaders, and American presidents in particular, respond to external threats. She argues for the pivotal importance of “reputation for resolve” in militarised crisis situations, where leaders must signal a willingness to fight if a red line is crossed and, if it is, must be prepared to fight so that their future signals are to be taken seriously. Fighting for reputation in this manner might appear irrational in the contemporary circumstances, but on the longer view it could be a prudent way of deterring future aggressions. Similarly, deciding that preserving face is not a good reason to fight may be sensible in the short term but create a reputation for weakness that emboldens opponents.

Yarhi-Milo proposes that two factors interact to determine a leader’s willingness to use military force. One is the leader’s hawkishness: hawks who believe in the efficacy of military force are more likely to deploy it than sceptical doves. The other is the leader’s level of self-monitoring. Leaders who are high self-monitors — oriented to how they are perceived by others and concerned about image, face and status — are more likely to act militarily because they have a stronger desire to create a reputation for resolve. (There is an irony here that is unremarked by Yarhi-Milo: the leaders who are most exercised by the desire to appear steadfast are those who are the most mercurial.) The two factors interact because self-monitoring is especially influential among dovish leaders, who are more likely to be Democrats in the American political environment. As a result, high self-monitor doves may be more prone to fight than low self-monitor hawks. This argument has obvious relevance to the military adventures of charismatic liberal or social democratic leaders in recent history.

Yarhi-Milo proceeds to support her predictions using the methodological toolkit of the social sciences, notably a survey of the public, a statistical comparison of the eleven US presidents from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, and intensive historical case studies of how three of them — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — responded to foreign affairs crises. The extended statistical study is remarkable, and even readers allergic to p-values and negative binomial regression will find it compelling.

Yarhi-Milo recruited sixty-eight presidential historians to rate the self-monitoring levels of presidents they had studied closely, using the questionnaire normally used to assess the trait in psychological research. This is not putting historical figures on the couch so much as putting them to the (personality) test. Most presidents scored relatively high on the trait, with Carter, Ford and G.H.W. Bush relatively low and Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan and most of all Clinton especially high. The presidents’ hawkishness was assessed by a systematic analysis of the content of their foreign policy speeches, with Truman, Eisenhower and Ford adjudged high and Kennedy, Carter and G.H.W. Bush low. Nixon, perverse and pathological in the eyes of Volkan and colleagues, was rather average on both measures.

Strikingly, Yarhi-Milo’s analysis reveals that high self-monitor presidents were twice as likely as their low self-monitor peers to initiate “militarised interstate disputes,” or MIDs. This finding held equally for Republicans and Democrats: high self-monitors Reagan and Kennedy embarked on the most MIDs, and low self-monitors Truman and Nixon the least. These large effects persisted even after assorted historical, geopolitical and demographic factors were statistically controlled. In addition to initiating more MIDs, high self-monitor presidents were more likely to have had them end favourably to the United States, implying that their aggressive resolve may have paid off.

The exhaustively researched case studies that close out Yarhi-Milo’s book put flesh on the statistical bones of her key findings. Low self-monitor dove Jimmy Carter’s travails in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are placed in the context of his stubborn reliance on principle over persuasion. The battling influences of his advisers Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski are also brought to life, the latter a high self-monitor who urged Carter to pick fights with foreign leaders to project an image of toughness. The military assertiveness of high self-monitor hawk Ronald Reagan, who announced that “our days of weakness are over,” is examined through the escalating conflict in Afghanistan and interventions in Lebanon and Grenada. High self-monitor dove Bill Clinton, of the “dangerous charisma” and the “you-are-the-only-person-in-the-world gaze,” is tracked through actions in Haiti, the Taiwan Strait and Somalia, where his concern for maintaining the American reputation for resolve motivated a continuing presence that became deeply unpopular on the home front.

Throughout this intriguing work, Yarhi-Milo rehabilitates personality as a respectable focus for the study of political leaders, showing that presidential personality matters to an unexpected and highly consequential degree. She not only demonstrates that the personality traits of powerful people are themselves powerful, but also clarifies the image-burnishing concerns through which one such trait has its effects. Nations are led into armed conflict not only by pragmatic calculations of cost and benefit but also by considerations of reputation, and presidents who are more inclined to “fight for face” are more likely to weigh these considerations heavily.

Yarhi-Milo’s dispositional account of presidential behaviour can seem one-note at times, perhaps over-reliant on a single personality trait that has lost some favour in its academic home of personality psychology. But it offers a model for systematic future studies of personality and leadership on the world stage. Whether traits such as self-monitoring have similar effects in political systems where the power of leaders is more trammelled, and whether they predict leaders’ behaviour in domestic contexts as well as in foreign military conflicts remain to be examined. All the same, this illuminating book shows the wisdom of the simple but sometimes forgotten fact that, as Yarhi-Milo reminds us, “leaders are, at the end of the day, humans.” •