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Archive: On Leadership

International Interactions Policy Blog

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International Interactions is a peer-reviewed journal with direct relevance to a wide and interdisciplinary audience. Readers include political scientists, economists, historians, mathematicians, statisticians, anthropologists, sociologists, and other social science researchers with an interest in international relations, as well as informed professionals in business and government.

Launched in 2019, the International Interactions blog synthesizes scholarly findings for a practitioner audience. Each blog post describes the policy takeaways of a recent II article, in the authors' own words, for use by engaged policymakers who can apply this research to current issues and challenges. 

Below, you'll find an archive of posts relating to Leadership, plus links to the full journal articles. Access all categories alongside the latest post on the blog's main page.

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Mutual Uncertainty in Foreign Policy | June 2020

Brandon Yoder & Kyle Haynes, Mutual uncertainty and credible reassurance: experimental evidence, International Interactions, 46:4 (2020). Read now >>

In this paper, we present a laboratory experiment testing a theory of interstate reassurance we developed in another recent article.¹ There, we showed that, in many real-world contexts, mutual uncertainty about intentions can allow states to credibly reassure each other. Specifically, this holds with respect to policy issues where cooperation is subjective – in other words, where it is not clear ex ante which types of policies the receiver would view favorably or unfavorably. Under this sort of “subjective” cooperation, high uncertainty about the receiver’s preferences leaves the sender with little incentive to misrepresent their own preferences.

We test this theory using a laboratory experiment that replicated the incentives of our previous model (Haynes and Yoder 2020). The model yielded four hypotheses. First, we expected senders to be more likely to honestly signal their preferences when they were highly uncertain of the receiver’s preferences. Second, we expected receivers, as a result of these more honest signals, to be more likely to correctly guess the sender’s preferences when the latter was highly uncertain. We also expected receivers to express greater confidence in these guesses. Finally, because we expected receivers to have better information about the sender’s preferences when the sender was highly uncertain, we expected receivers to be more likely to implement an optimal strategy toward uncertain senders.

Our results largely supported the theory, but with one very interesting wrinkle. Senders were indeed far more likely to signal honestly when they were less certain of the receiver’s preferences. In response, receivers were more likely to both implement an optimal strategy toward the sender, and guess the sender’s type correctly. But importantly, receivers did not express greater confidence in their guesses of the sender’s preferences, even when they had monetary incentives to accurately state their confidence.

This finding suggests that receivers were indeed forming more accurate beliefs about the sender as the theory would expect. The receivers simply didn’t realize that their beliefs were more accurate, and so did not express greater confidence in them. Our experiment thus highlights the possibility that the accuracy of policymakers’ beliefs might significantly diverge from the confidence with which they hold these beliefs. Existing research on signaling typically assumes that more confident beliefs are also more accurate, and vice versa. We show that, in practice, these distinct dimensions of policymakers’ beliefs can differ significantly.

Our findings have important implications for contemporary international politics. In particular, scholars and policymakers have spent decades debating the extent to which China’s future intentions are incompatible with America’s preferences for the global order. We suspect that this durable uncertainty arises in part because the United States’ transparent domestic institutions, and extensive role in shaping the international status quo, have given Chinese policymakers a very clear idea of America’s foreign policy preferences. This theoretically allows China to more effectively misrepresent any revisionist intentions it holds, since its leaders would know precisely how to mimic American preferences.

But importantly, the presidency of Donald Trump has blown apart the prior consensus across Democratic and Republican parties regarding the general shape of the international order. As a result, foreign policymakers cannot know with any meaningful degree of confidence what American foreign policy preferences are today, much less what they will be a year from now. As a result, we argue, foreign leaders today have far less incentive to conceal their true policy preferences from American leaders. They simply can’t know what the US wants, and so can’t parrot US preferences in order to conceal their own. In effect, the incoherence of US foreign policy under the Trump administration may actually yield more accurate information about the foreign policy preferences of other states.

But our experimental results also show that, while these dynamics may produce more accurate beliefs about foreign leaders’ policy preferences, these beliefs may not necessarily be held more confidently. Our article revealed the possibility of a divergence between accuracy and confidence of beliefs, but did not explore the implications of this divergence in great detail. Future research should explore this divergence further, specifying when it is most likely to occur, and what types of consequences might follow from it. Full article >>

¹Haynes, Kyle and Brandon Yoder. (2020) “Offsetting Uncertainty: Reassurance with Two-Sided Incomplete Information.” American Journal of Political Science 64(1): 38-51.


Leadership, Combat Experience, and Crises | May 2020

Ross A. Miller, Welcome to the Jungle: a research note on leader entry, combat experience, and dispute targeting, International Interactions, 46:4 (2020). Read now >>

Are new leaders with combat experience less likely to be threatened by international adversaries than those without? Unfortunately, not. In fact, they are about three times MORE likely to be challenged.

Previous studies imply that leaders with military training should deter challengers, because they are assumed to view the use of military force as the “continuation of politics by other means.” The commonly-held assumption is that the more “trigger happy” the leader, the less likely an international challenge is. Indeed, in October 2008, then-Vice Presidential candidate Joseph Biden Jr. appeared to apply this very logic, when he warned that, if elected, Barack Obama—a candidate with no military training—would be tested by an international challenger within six months of taking office.

This article argues that, although leaders with combat experience have military training, they have also encountered the human costs of war, which fundamentally changes their worldviews on the utility of military force. Instead of seeing war as simply a “continuation of politics by other means,” combat-experienced leaders are conservative in its application, because they understand all too well its costs. Adversaries account for this conservatism, making combat-experienced leaders attractive targets of demands, especially early in their tenure.

Empirical analyses of about 200,000 observations of state-to-state interactions from 1900-2001 reveal that the risk of an international challenge is greatest early in the tenure of combat-experienced leaders. They are significantly more likely to be the targets of a threat, display, or use of military force than other leaders—including those with military service. Over time, this risk declines as both leaders and adversaries adapt. Full article >>


An Alternative Theory of Diversionary Behavior | March/April 2020

Dennis M. Foster & Jonathan W. Keller, Single-party government, Prime Minister psychology, and the diversionary use of force: theory and evidence from the British case,International Interactions,46:2 (2020).Read now >>

How does the structure of party government in parliamentary systems – and in particular, the presence or absence of a legislative majority by a single party – affect the likelihood that a country will use military force abroad to divert attention from domestic economic failings? While much previous work has examined diversionary conflict in the context of the US presidential system, and many scholars have looked at general tendencies towards diversion from various domestic problems across all democratic states, relatively few have developed theories specifying differences in the expectation of diversion across particular governmental arrangements. Of these, nearly all contributors surmise that one particular arrangement is least prone to diversion from economic problems: single-party majoritarian (or SPM) government. In SPM government, according to this account, one party’s legislative contingent operates as the government without the necessity of coalition building; therefore, policy formulation and execution is seen as being accomplished by a cohesive, disciplined, and unfettered unit of co-partisan government actors, from the elite to the rank-and-file. At the same time, the Prime Minister (PM) is relatively constrained in the unilateral conduct of foreign policy, due to parliamentarism’s merger of executive and legislative functions. Thus, PMs in SPM systems are alleged to have relatively little need to engage in diversion from poor performance (as single-party government allows for the development of effective policy fixes) and little institutional capacity to engage in diversion (as the PM is but primus inter pares among the government’s foreign policy decision-makers).

We develop an alternative theory of diversion from economic difficulties by SPM systems that, first, raises questions about the ease with which SPM governments can fix economic problems. If reversing inflation or unemployment, or increasing economic growth proves difficult – and much literature in political science and economics claims that it often will be – then PMs in SPM systems sit atop a government that cannot deflect blame from its failures to “right the ship.” Furthermore, the historical record indicates that these leaders are, in fact, often able to exercise a fair amount of autonomy from the Cabinet in the conduct of coercive diplomacy and the use of force. Given these factors, we contend that, all else equal, the structural and environmental influences of SPM government on the likelihood of armed diversion are indeterminate. Instead, drawing on a substantial literature on leadership psychology, we turn to an examination of PM’s cognitive frames to gauge the likelihood of diversion from economic problems under SPM governments. In short, the way PMs perceive the indeterminate environment and structure that surrounds them is the primary predictor of whether they believe economic fixes to be viable, the use of force to be applicable, and diversion to be preferable. Specifically, we hypothesize that the more a PM’s psychological profile tends towards distrust – a trait that favors the use of blunt and forceful policy instruments, causes hypersensitivity to criticism and cost, and compels the leader to see other domestic actors as challengers to one’s position of power – the more likely s/he is to view economic problems as dangerous and insurmountable, and thus the more likely s/he is to pursue diversionary military gambits when faced with a poor economy.

In the absence of comprehensive data on the psychological traits of PMs across states, we offer a partial test of this hypothesis via analyses of the British foreign policy experience in the period 1945-2007. The UK, a militarily and economically powerful state characterized by SPM government, represents an exemplar, in that we can gauge the behavior of both trusting and distrustful PMs who have a relatively strong capacity to either ameliorate economic difficulties or to use force abroad instead. Our findings show that the likelihood that the UK initiates Militarized Interstate Disputes (MIDs) given higher levels of economic misery (the sum of inflation and unemployment) is indeed contingent upon levels of distrust evinced by PMs in their scripted and spontaneous rhetoric in the House of Commons, with more distrustful PMs being significantly more likely to use force when economic misery is high than more trusting PMs. Full article >>