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.

I use mixed-methods to test my theory and evaluates how grandiose narcissism in US presidents impacts foreign policy and international conflict behavior from 1789-2009. Narcissistic leaders' focus on inflated self-image maintenance affects the frequency of conflict initiation, behavior during conflict, and conflict targets. First, 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. Second, during international conflict, narcissists will avoid making clear public statements of resolve and instead act-out their sense of self through strength projection and dramatically sinking costs. Narcissists will often fail to clearly state their country's interests during a conflict because they are more focused on maintaining their self-image. Finally, narcissists will often engage in conflict against Great Powers. This tendency towards Great Power conflict emerges from their more frequent focus on and engagement with Great Power politics. Although narcissists are driven towards securing high-profile diplomatic success, they will often engage in aggressive behavior. These behaviors often occur behind-the-scenes and occur when narcissistic leaders are frustrated by a lack of progress or they perceive an opportunity to promote their inflated sense of self through domineering behavior.