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

My book manuscript moves forward the question “how do leaders matter?’ by asking whether a leader’s self-interest and personal ambition can shape the scope and direction of a state’s foreign policy. I argue that grandiose narcissists prioritize their psychological goal to maintain their inflated self-image when approaching foreign policy. Narcissists often run campaigns emphasizing a break from the foreign policy status-quo, and a return to self-interest. While these claims currently sound like retrenchment advocacy, elected narcissists pursue foreign policies focused on high-profile opportunities to promote and protect their inflated self-image. By taking variation in leader narcissism seriously, we can better explain why and when state’s pursue greater engagement with high-profile events and Great Power politics than if we continue to assume all leaders care only about state interests or political survival. More specifically, I argue that narcissists more frequently initiate Great Power conflict and high-profile diplomatic ventures.

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. Additionally, narcissists are most likely to unilaterally initiate Great Power conflicts.

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 high-profile diplomatic initiatives. Regardless of whether these initiatives succeed, narcissists more frequently attempt to redirect global attention towards flashy diplomatic overtures and events such as summits, personal mediation of disputes, and well-documented visits to rival states. 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. 

My book shines light on the importance of personal ambition in explaining variation in a leader's broad approach to foreign policy and global politics. Narcissists are best understood as personal status-seekers, rather than hawks, doves, retrenchers, internationalists, or any label connected to a political belief system. Their personal ambitions shape their conception of ‘the national interest’, and they pursue their self-interest at nearly any expense. In other words, narcissists have Narcissistic Grand Strategies where they ‘go big, go alone and prioritize the self.’