For scholars studying the effects of presidential leadership on U.S. foreign policy, Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 has offered quite the test. What does it mean for the United States to elect a leader with no experience in government, little knowledge of foreign policy, and an explicit disdain for expertise?
After a year in office, Trump has confirmed a lot of what we knew about how leaders matter: he has held firm to the few beliefs he brought with him to office, demonstrated the importance of substantive knowledge (or lack thereof) for decision-making, and shown why advisers cannot substitute for experienced leadership. In other ways, he has proven a surprise, principally by failing to appoint people who could help him get what he wants. And as the world faces at least another three years of Trump, there are few reasons to think his behavior will change in the future.
GREAT MAN THEORY
International relations scholars long believed that leaders do not matter much—states will act how they act, regardless of who is at the helm. The political scientist Kenneth Waltz, for instance, has argued that the constraints of the international system, not individuals or domestic politics, determine the actions of states.
More recently, however, that view has begun to change. Long before Trump’s election, scholars had assembled a wealth of new evidence about how individual leaders influence their countries’ behavior. One major finding is that leaders’ background experiences and beliefs—formed long before they arrive in office—shape how they make decisions, from taking in and processing information to deliberating with advisers and, ultimately, deciding on a course of action. What we see when leaders enter office is essentially what we’ll get, at least for the first few years.
Three insights from this body of scholarship stand out in particular. First, leaders’ beliefs are “sticky,” meaning that they are formed before leaders enter office and tend not to change much over time. As former U.S.
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