Maintaining the Inflated Self-Image:

Leader Narcissism and Foreign Policy Decision-Making


My dissertation 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.

The Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Concept defines grandiose narcissism as a desire to maintain an inflated self-image through promotion and protection. I use this definition to argue that narcissists will favor policies which maintain their inflated self-image This logically generates a few observable regularities. First, narcissists' focus on their self-image drives them to make foreign policy decisions opposite their reputation for dovishness or hawkishness. Narcissists behave this way to demonstrate that, broadly speaking, they 'can do it all.' Second, all narcissists will attempt to solidify their image as world peacemakers, by making grand diplomatic overtures towards Great Power rivals. However, narcissists are poor perspective-takers, and have difficulty cooperating and working with others when their image could be impacted. Narcissists also want to be seen as strong, and may lapse into projecting images of strength when they fear they seem too soft. Taken together, these tendencies and preferences cause narcissists to raise tensions with Great Powers, subsequently engaging in more Great Power conflict.

First, I use survey experiments to demonstrate that more narcissistic individuals see the presidency as a vehicle for self-aggrandizement and fame. I also demonstrate that narcissistic hawks and doves differ in how they approach international relations. In order to stand out from their respective crowds, narcissistic hawks prefer dovish behavior, while narcissistic doves prefer hawkish behavior. Finally, I also find that narcissists prefer engaging in Great Power politics rather than approaching smaller states. Narcissists also prefer working alone when reminded of their image.

Second, I develop an at-a-distance measure of grandiose narcissism in United States' presidents. I evaluate the validity of this measure with biographical research, Third, I use aggregate statistical analysis to test the argument that more narcissistic US presidents make foreign policy decisions with attention drawn to their image. I find that more dovish narcissistic presidents engage in more conflict, while more hawkish narcissistic presidents engage in less conflict. I also find that more narcissistic US presidents engage in more Great Power conflict. This relationship is driven largely by narcissistic US presidents engaging in bi-lateral Great Power disputes, or finding themselves alone when initiating against or being challenged by Great Power coalitions.

Fourth, I use process tracing across historical cases to perform more detailed and context-specific testing. I close my dissertation by applying my theory to explain and compare the foreign policies of Donald Trump and Joseph Biden. Taken together, this dissertation suggests that leader-level goals cannot be assumed away or overlooked. What leaders want has a direct impact on how they approach foreign policy. Leader goals also help us explain if different leaders will have a lasting impact on world politics, and what sort of impact they could have.