Beyond Narcissism: What Political Psychology Tells Us About Foreign Policy Under Trump

President Trump at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, February 22, 2016. Photo via Gage Skidmore.

By Joshua D. Kertzer and Thomas Zeitzoff.

Much of the focus of the post-inauguration coverage has been on the decisions made by President Trump. From Trump’s bombastic tweets about the news media, to his erroneous claims about voter fraud, to his counterintuitive cabinet appointments, domestic analysts and world leaders alike are trying to understand Trump’s decision-making process. Is he simply shooting from the cuff and showing his inexperience? Or sly like a fox? In fact, one of the few things that observers agree on is the high level of uncertainty surrounding President Trump’s foreign policy. Fortunately, there’s been a resurgence of interest in leaders in international relations over the past several years. Below, we offer some insights from recent research in political psychology in international relations on what to expect about foreign policy under the Trump administration.

Trump’s Actuarial Risk Profile

There have been longstanding debates in psychology about both the ethics and efficacy of assessing leaders’ personalities at a distance, as psychiatrists are ethically bound to avoid offering professional diagnoses about individuals they have not personally examined. In the case of Trump, the controversy is exacerbated by the flurry of think-pieces alleging the president has narcissistic personality disorder, as well as a petition signed by nearly 20,000 (alleged) psychologists, clinical psychiatrists and mental health professionals expressing concern that Trump “manifests a serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States.”

Rather than speculate about personality disorders, we turn instead to the relationship between Trump’s observable characteristics and his potential foreign policy behavior. What does IR research tell us based on Trump’s demographic characteristics – his age, life experiences, and gender – about what type of foreign policy we can expect?

First, at 70 years old, Trump is the oldest US president ever to take office. Research by Michael Horowitz, Rose McDermott, and Allan C. Stam suggests that older leaders, particularly in democracies, are at a heightened risk of initiating, and escalating, conflict. The exact mechanisms behind this relationship are subject to debate, but older leaders may have shorter term horizons, making them more likely to take risks in order to make their mark. Second, although Trump has stated that the military boarding school he attended gave him “more training militarily than a lot of the guys who go into the military,” he has no formal military experience. Recent scholarship by Michael Horowitz, Allan Stam, and Cali Ellis suggest that leaders at the highest risk of initiating conflicts are those that have served in the military, but never saw combat, since combat experience makes leaders “more knowledgeable about the risks and consequences” of the use of force. Third, one of Trump’s most frequently brandished credentials on the campaign trail was his experience as a business leader. Ongoing research by Matthew Fuhrmann finds that leaders with business backgrounds are more likely to free-ride in alliances. Fourth, although there have been debates about the relationship between gender and conflict propensity, there is little systematic evidence to suggest that male leaders are more conflict-prone than female leaders, such that Trump’s gender offers little indication of his potential foreign policy behavior.

Trump Is Unlikely to Be A Master Negotiator

Much of a President-elect’s appeal lies in brash style, and self-professed skill and acumen as a negotiator able to “get things done.” Political psychologists have studied the individual-level determinants of negotiation success, and the findings have important implications for Trump’s negotiating prowess. In a forthcoming article by Brian Rathbun, Joshua Kertzer, and Mark Paradis in International Organization, bargaining skill is argued to be a product of two negotiator-level characteristics. The first is high epistemic motivation: the extent to which individuals are motivated to carefully consider and think through different options. The second is a proself social value orientation: the extent to which individuals focus on gains for themselves rather than on shared gains with the other side. If prosocials are preoccupied with fairness, proselfs focus instead on relative and absolute gains. Individuals who are high-cognition proselfs are good negotiators resembling the ideal-typical notion of “homo economicus”. When in a position of strength, they exploit their bargaining leverage, but in a position of weakness, they understand the importance of making concessions in order to secure a deal. Low-cognition proselfs, however, are bad negotiators, overplaying weak hands, and more likely to experience bargaining failures and scuttle mutually beneficial deals that were otherwise achievable.

Where does Trump fit into this framework? In campaign speeches, Trump promised to put America first in terms of foreign policy, and strongly suggests he sees the world of international relations as zero-sum — if other countries are doing well, America must be losing. This zero-sum worldview, with its focus on relative gains, suggests a proself value orientation. Furthermore, anecdotes from past business associates, biographers, and campaign staffers suggest that Trump makes quick decisions, shies away from deep deliberation, and tends to lump unrelated issues together. His low levels of intellectual curiosity – and preference for following his gut and making spur of the moment decisions – suggests someone low in epistemic motivation. Indeed, this paucity of epistemic motivation is a hallmark of Trump’s style, as well as a potential source of his appeal: in one analysis of polling data from the 2016 American National Election Survey, for example, even controlling for partisanship, political ideology, age, education, and gender, a major predictor of support for Trump was respondents’ own low levels of epistemic motivation. If Trump is indeed a low-cognition proself, he is likely to be less skilled of a negotiator than one might expect from the author of The Art of the Deal.

The Inexperience Factor

How will Trump’s relative political inexperience play out in terms of his foreign policy? As recent research by Elizabeth Saunders suggests, Cabinet appointees and advisors – particularly the National Security Advisor and Secretary of State – will play an outsized role in determining Trump’s foreign policy, as inexperienced presidents tend both to delegate to their subordinates ex ante, and to monitor them poorly ex post. However, presidential inexperience in and of itself also heightens the risk of conflict. Presidents are most at risk of conflict early on in their tenure as world leaders seek to test their resolve. This is likely to be even more pronounced under Trump given uncertainty over his policies and contradictory statements he and his advisors have made.

In sum, Trump’s demographic and psychological profile portends a lot of uncertainty and heightened risk for conflict. Buckle your seatbelts.

Joshua D. Kertzer is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Harvard University. Thomas Zeitzoff is an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University and a regular contributor at Political Violence @ a Glance.

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