Who Fights for Reputation: The Psychology of Leaders in International Conflict

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: While Keren Yahri-Milo’s latest book shows how a leader’s personality can influence their willingness to use military force to defend their national reputation, her argument occasionally falls short and leaves some important questions unanswered.

One of the most frequently and feverishly debated questions surrounding the use of military force is “whether, and when, it is worth fighting for reputation.” In her book Who Fights for Reputation: The Psychology of Leaders in International Conflict Keren Yarhi-Milo attempts to answer this question with a mixture of psychology and foreign policy.

Specifically, Yarhi-Milo examines “which individual leaders are most likely to believe that reputation matters, and use their military capabilities accordingly,” and concludes that the single most important feature in deciding such things is a leaders’ level of “self-monitoring,” or how they “strategically cultivate their public appearances.”

“High self-monitors place importance on social status and are willing to modify their behavior (sometimes in ways that are incongruent with each other) in order to improve others’ perceptions of them.” Yahri-Milo ranks leaders’ self-monitoring along with “the strength of an individual’s belief in the efficacy of military force” in order to determine how self-monitoring influences force decisions.

Within this framework, Yahri-Milo’s conclusions aren’t too surprising. She concludes that high self-monitoring hawks are the most likely to use force, that high self-monitoring doves are more likely to use force than their low self-monitoring counterparts, and that low self-monitoring doves are a rarity.

Four scholars offered their thoughts on Yahri-Milo’s book in an International Security Studies Forum roundtable.

Carla Martinez Machain holds that "this study’s specificity is also the book’s major shortcoming in that it makes its contribution somewhat narrow.” According to Machain, the argument essentially boils down to the distinction between low and high self-monitoring doves, and does not contribute to a broader understanding of how these traits affect “foreign policy outcomes.”

Taking a different approach, Michael Poznansky notes that Yahri-Milo fails to distinguish between high- and low-stakes crises, which often complicates or clouds her more probing analyses into personality-driven military interaction. And while Poznansky applauds Yahri-Milo for looking into the role of advisers in shaping foreign policy, he suggests that she devote more time to describing why she deemed some advisers more influential than others, and analyzing how circumstances influence a leader’s willingness to listen to their advisers.

Kenneth Schultz uses Yahri-Milo’s book to launch a broader critique into the state of leadership studies within the field of international relations. Schultz notes that there is a large body of research dedicated to “that connect individual attributes with the use of military force,” and while he praises Yahri-Milo for her interesting approach to this subject, he asserts the difficulty of determining which of a leader’s many personality traits influence their decisions.

As Schultz puts it, “we could conclude that President Lyndon Johnson escalated the Vietnam War because he was Southerner, because he believed that most threats derive from external aggression, because he served in the military but had only limited combat experience, or because he was a high self-monitor.” The crucial task, according to Schultz, is not necessarily isolating these attributes but determining “which of the many ways people differ from one another matter most.”

“Similarly, Rachel Whitlark wonders how a leader’s concern about a reputation for resolve weighs against his or her desire for a reputation for other attributes, like intelligence, prestige, etc.” Whitlark also raises the distinction between leaders who proactively use force to bolster their reputation, and those who do so in response to an attack.

Ultimately, while the participants in this roundtable had questions and criticisms for Yahri-Milo’s argument and methodology, they all agreed that her book is an important contribution to the field of international relations.

Read the full roundtable here.