Why Are We So Busy Trying to ‘Figure Out’ Vladimir Putin?

On personality politics, great men, and the fallacy of thinking that individuals actually shape the world.


Do leaders matter in foreign policy? Of course they do. But if you read a lot of Western commentary on foreign affairs, you might conclude that individual leaders were the only thing that made much of a difference. If we could just put the right people in charge in Washington, Moscow, Paris, Baghdad, Beijing, Kabul, Cairo, Islamabad, etc., then everything would be peachy and any minor conflict that might arise could be easily and quickly resolved. In this view, most problems in the world are caused by political leaders who are myopic, old-fashioned, rigid, ill-informed, aggressive, paranoid, or just plain evil, and the key to successful diplomacy is figuring out what makes them tick (and getting rid of them if the opportunity presents).

Recent commentary on Russia and Ukraine illustrates this tendency perfectly. Instead of examining the historical roots of the conflict or the concrete interests of the various parties, commentary in the West tends to pin all the blame on one individual: Russia’s Vladimir Putin. According to the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, for example, the failure of Obama’s "reset" is due not to geopolitical conflicts, legitimate Russian concerns, or American hubris (the latter being something McFaul has contributed to through his own writings and public service), but rather to the replacement of the supposedly reasonable Dmitry Medvedev by the thuggish and backward-leaning Putin.

Similarly, Peter Baker’s recent news analysis in the New York Times — "3 Presidents and a Riddle Named Putin" — views U.S.-Russia relations almost entirely through the lens of failed U.S. efforts to understand the Russian leader’s personal psychology. Historical experience, NATO expansion, ballistic missile defense, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Kosovo, and Russia’s bleak long-term prospects all take a back seat to the supposed "riddle" of a single leader. Money quotation:

For 15 years, Vladimir V. Putin has confounded American presidents as they tried to figure him out, only to misjudge him time and again. He has defied their assumptions and rebuffed their efforts at friendship. He has argued with them, lectured them, misled them, accused them, kept them waiting, kept them guessing, betrayed them and felt betrayed by them.

This tendency to view world politics largely in terms of leaders and personalities is hardly limited to U.S. relations with Russia. Those who are most worried about Iran’s nuclear program tend to portray Iran’s leaders as irrational religious fanatics, while others debate whether current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a genuine moderate or merely a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Critics of Israeli policy tend to blame everything on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while discussions of America’s troubles in Afghanistan often finger the truculent Afghan President Hamid Karzai, instead of discussing the impossibility of the mission or the contradictions embedded in U.S. policy.

Indeed, Americans have a long history of demonizing leaders with whom they are at odds: Saddam Hussein was a bloodthirsty tyrant, the three Kims who have led North Korea since World War II are all dangerous oddballs, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is the latest incarnation of History’s worst monster. No matter how complex or unfathomable world politics really is, we always seem to boil it down to a simplistic caricature of good versus evil.

Why do we do this? It is partly because political leaders of all stripes work overtime to keep themselves in the spotlight and claim credit for positive developments, while their opponents try to pin the blame on them for any failures. Instead of looking at larger trends or forces, our political discourse naturally assigns responsibility to whoever happens to be "in charge." Journalists (and readers) are powerfully drawn to the human side of foreign policy, either by trying to psychoanalyze some enigmatic foreign leader or chronicling the individual role of a Kennan, Kerry, or Kissinger. Either way, our attention gets riveted on individuals and not on the broader environment in which foreign policy is made.

In his classic book, Man, the State, and War, the late, great international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz labeled this sort of thinking "first image" analysis. As Waltz made clear, there was a long tradition of writing about war and peace that located the problem in human nature and in the characteristics of individual leaders in particular. Some writers blamed war on man’s sinful nature, while others attributed it to psychological defects or hard-wired aggressive impulses. Regardless of the precise source, "first image" analysis focuses on individuals and assumes that things will go badly whenever bad guys are in charge. By this logic, all will be well as soon as wise, moderate, and benevolent leaders replace the troublemakers.

Waltz also pointed out the fundamental problems with this style of analysis. For starters, if individual human nature causes conflict and war, then what causes peace? Furthermore, leaders with many different backgrounds and beliefs have provoked crises or launched wars; men and women as varied as Adolf Hitler, Woodrow Wilson, Kim Il Sung, Indira Gandhi, Anwar Sadat, George W. Bush, and François Hollande. Even seemingly moderate individuals can be surprisingly comfortable inflicting great harm on others, as when soon-to-be Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in 1996 that she thought the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths caused by U.S.-led sanctions in the mid-1990s were "worth it."

But the real problem with the relentless focus on individuals is that it blinds us to the broader context in which all world leaders operate, and especially to the internal and external constraints that shape their conduct. To take an extreme case, Assad has been waging a brutal and inhuman campaign in Syria, but not because he derives great personal satisfaction from watching the country disintegrate amid massive human suffering. No, he’s doing these things because he fears that the Alawite minority that has dominated Syria (and to which he belongs) could be wiped out if his side loses. Given what Alawite rule has been like for other Syrians, his fear of violent retribution is well-founded. My point is not to defend Assad or his regime, of course; it is to help explain why he is acting as he is. Blaming it all on Assad’s dubious character is neither accurate nor likely to point the way to a solution, because any Alawite who replaced him would probably act in similar ways.

In world politics, all leaders have to balance various sorts of internal and external pressures and especially the need to defend their country in a world of separate states. Even very powerful states like the United States cannot act with complete impunity, and whoever is in charge needs to weigh options carefully, instead of indulging personal whims. That is why even murderous leaders like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong usually acted cautiously in foreign affairs. Focusing on the external environment also tells us when to be worried. When a strong state feels aggrieved and believes its vital interests are being threatened, for example, it is more likely to take risks and use force to defend them.

The setting in which states find themselves also helps us understand why very different countries and very different leaders often act in strikingly similar ways. The United States and Soviet Union were radically different societies, and Soviet leaders were unlike their American counterparts in myriad ways. Yet the two superpowers often acted in remarkably similar fashion throughout the Cold War. Both recruited allies all over the world; both built massive arsenals of nuclear weapons and deployed them in similar "triads"; both intervened in various developing countries; and both engaged in espionage, subversion, assassination, and other unsavory activities. Both states were also very careful when dealing with the other, however, and each generally avoided actions that risked escalation to world war.

Similarly, it is hard to think of three presidents as different in personal style and background as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, yet the continuities across their three presidencies are at least as striking as the differences. This is partly because the United States remains the world’s strongest nation and because its combination of power and security gives it the option of acting in many places but little reason to bear high costs or absorb significant risks. Plus, all three presidents were dealing with the same well-entrenched national security bureaucracy. Add these two things together, and even radically different presidents end up doing a lot of the same things.

When different states and different leaders act in highly similar ways, it is a good sign that their behavior is being shaped by powerful internal and/or external conditions. And what is true for the United States is even truer for weaker countries. When some country does something U.S. leaders don’t like, it’s not just because a particular foreign leader got some crazy notion into his or her head. It is far more likely that the leader is responding to a set of circumstances as he or she saw them and that plenty of other people in that country probably see things in much the same way. If so, then it may not matter as much which individual is in charge, and addressing the problem properly requires focusing less on a leader’s personality and more on the interests and conditions he or she is facing. Blaming everything on today’s "bad guy" may be emotionally satisfying and play well here, but it is a lazy and usually misleading style of analysis.

None of this is to say that individuals don’t matter at all or that we shouldn’t try to understand how Putin, Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, or other leaders see the world. But if we want to grasp the larger forces that drive global trends and ignite occasional crises, we’d be better off leaving that style of analysis to People magazine — which is really good at that sort of thing — and focus more of our attention on power, interests, and strategy.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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