Self or State?: Leader Narcissism, Self-Interest, and Foreign Policy

My book manuscript pushes the question "how do leaders matter?" forward by asking "what do leaders want?" and investigating variation in leader goals. Instead of assuming that all leaders emphasize state interests or political capital above all else, I argue that variation in what leaders want and how much they value different goals is determined largely by personality. I use grandiose narcissism to study variation in what leaders want, and how that variation in leader goals impacts foreign policy decision-making and behavior. More specifically, I argue that grandiose narcissists focus on acting in ways which shore up and promote their inflated self-views. This impacts both the frequency of conflict and cooperation, with the only constant being a focus on high-profile events.

I use mixed-methods to test my theory and evaluate how grandiose narcissism in US presidents impacts foreign policy from 1789-2009. The first half of my analysis focuses on international conflict behavior. Narcissistic leaders' focus on inflated self-image maintenance affects the frequency of conflict initiation, and conflict targets. Narcissistic leaders will more often turn to international violence to achieve their objectives. These leaders are aggressive in pursuit of accolades and objectives associated with their grand visions, and often lack the perspective-taking abilities useful for navigating diplomatic solutions with care. Given their focus on high-profile achievements, narcissists will often engage in conflict against Great Powers. A notable sign of a narcissist's influence on international conflict is the reliance on fuzzy signals rather than clear and costly signals.

The second half of my analysis focuses on international cooperation. Narcissists, because their personal ambition and self-interest drives decision-making, impact the likelihood of cooperation as well. Narcissists are also more likely to pursue diplomatic initiatives. I am currently building a dataset of high-profile US diplomatic initiatives. Case studies demonstrate that leader-level narcissism has value when trying to explain why one administration tries to reshape Great Power alignments, while another stays the course and maintains the diplomatic status quo.