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date: 18 January 2021

State Leaders and Foreign Policylocked

  • Jeff CarterJeff CarterDepartment of Political Science, University of Mississippi
  •  and Giacomo ChiozzaGiacomo ChiozzaSchool of History, Philosophy, Political Science & International Relations, Victoria University of Wellington

Summary

What choices do political leaders make in the international arena? And why? In what ways do the patterns of politics in the international arena shape the selection and prospects of leaders in power? These questions frame a thriving research agenda that has emerged over the last 20 years in political science and international relations. This agenda seeks to answer the fundamental questions of war and peace and cooperation and contestation from a perspective that focuses on leaders, leaders’ motivations, and leaders’ characteristics.

Two major approaches frame the analysis of leaders and foreign policy: the survival approach and the personal attribute approach. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but they are analytically distinct. The survival approach starts from the premise that leaders seek to remain in power. It then assesses the reciprocal relation between leaders’ quest to remain in power and their foreign policy choices. Specifically, research in the survival approach analyzes how leaders’ choices can be explained in light of the assumption that leaders seek power and how, in turn, leaders’ survival in power can be explained by their choices in the international arena. With the survival approach, leaders have agency but, in the end, they are exchangeable: they all seek power. The personal attribute approach, on the other hand, points to the many features that distinguish the personal profiles of leaders and seeks to provide a systematic explanation of how those features account for leaders’ foreign policy choices. In particular, research in the personal attribute area has explained leaders’ choices in terms of their orientation toward the use of force, their psychological traits and beliefs about the world, and their personal characteristics and background experiences.

The study of politics from the perspective of leaders integrates insights from the subfields of American politics, comparative politics, and international relations, and in so doing holds the promise to foster a productive and fruitful dialogue across the discipline of political science. Scholars who study politics from the perspective of leaders have generated a number of new theoretical developments, new typologies, new data collections, and new findings. Overall, the study of leaders and foreign policy has proved to be analytically fruitful, empirically rich, and politically relevant.

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