Why We Sometimes Favor Aggressive Political Leadership

A few weeks ago, Canada lost its bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. For some, it was a non-event. But for others, it reminds of a moment from five years ago when the new government promised Canada a fresh, progressive, and multilateral foreign policy. After a similar UN Security loss by the Conservative government in 2010, Justin Trudeau stated rather bluntly: “Canada’s back.” Canada would supposedly regain its voice on the world stage with a new diplomatic approach. Now, many are left questioning how that policy has worked for Canada today.1

Leader persuasion is an essential skill for gaining popularity and enacting policy. There exists a body of political research that focuses on how, when, and why political leaders succeed. Much of the research explores “hawkish” policy, which is when leaders take an aggressive approach to international relations. Hawkish leaders are typically perceived to be stronger and more uncompromising than their dovish counterparts.2 Examples include Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, and Margaret Thatcher, who once famously reminded George Bush not to “go wobbly” in response to Sadam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

These leaders stand opposite to “dovish” leaders, who usually advocate for more peaceful or diplomatic measures, such as Jimmy Carter, who focused on human rights with his national security policy back in 1977.1 These categories do not necessarily define partisanship, as hawkish democrats and dovish Republicans do exist. These terms do, however, help describe the typical approaches that leaders use, especially in foreign policy matters.

Trudeau’s (failed) attempt to gain a seat at the UN Security Council highlights a misperception of hawkish policy’s success. A significant part of Trudeau’s early campaign was his promise to bring Canada a new foreign policy that contrasted the hawkish strategy used by previous governments.1 Reportedly, “Trudeau has repeatedly pointed to the 2010 failure to win a seat as a sign the Conservative approach to more hawkish foreign policy was not as effective as his own focus on multilateral and quieter diplomacy.”1

When Canada lost, critics were quick to blame the government’s “dilettante” strategy and lack of a coherent foreign policy. His “quiet and multilateral” position was perceived to be a passive approach.1,3 It’s plausible to think that an amicable demeanor might fair better in foreign policy, but research demonstrates the opposite to be true in many cases.

Why hawks win

Experts have consistently found that hawkish policies in fact do better in foreign policy, especially in reconciliation.2,4,5 The popular phrase “Only a Nixon could go to China” describes this phenomenon. Many believe that the hawkish demeanor of US President Richard Nixon was necessary for the successful rebuilding of US/China relations in 1972.4

To test this effect, an experiment asked individuals to rate a fictional leader who is attempting to reconcile with another foreign leader. In the experiment, the leader was either hawkish or dovish, a republican or democrat, and either enacted a policy change or went with the status quo. When enacting change, the hawkish leader was viewed favorably, while the dovish leader was ridiculed.4

When an aggressive leader enacts new changes, people perceive them as acting moderately, so would seem. When a dovish leader does the same thing, individuals perceive it as a passive measure.4 For a hawkish leader, a policy change signals a major decision made in the nation’s best interests — a luxury that dovish leaders do not necessarily enjoy. Cognitive biases can explain why.

This behavior is a function of fundamental attribution error. With this bias, we tend to inaccurately attribute success (or failure) to the person, not the situation. For a hawkish leader who is known to be more hostile, people will attribute their hostile actions to their character. When they engage in moderate behavior, like attempting to reconcile, we perceive it as a deviation from their normal behavior in response to the situation.2,6 On the other hand, a dovish leader who attempts to reconcile does not receive this advantage, as it is consistent with their behavior.

Positive illusions — or unrealistically favorable attitudes towards ourselves or others — also contribute to our preference for hawkish leaders. Because of it, our faith in beneficial outcomes is increased with an apparently strong leader. For example, we tend to go to war because, rather logically, we think we can win. A leader who is confident in going to war is more assuring than a passive one, all else equal.2,5,6

The hawkish advantage in elections

Hawkish leaders also perform well during election season — though only in certain contexts. In 1968, the level of violence in times of protest shaped how voters perceived leadership styles. In times of peaceful protests during the civil rights movement, swing states preferred Democratic leaders who supported the movement. In times of violent protests, these states preferred Nixon’s style of leadership, which contained promises of “restoring law and order”.7 Over 50 years later, history is reoccurring.

Source: Will protests help Donald Trump as they did Richard Nixon in 1968? (2020, June 8). The Economist.

Some researchers make the case for all politicians to take hawkish approaches to reap advantages. Recent findings say otherwise. A different study looked at perceptions of the 2008 US Election candidates and found that when an individual believed that a democrat leader was more hawkish than themselves, they preferred them less.

The driving explanation for this is that in the post-9/11 US, people were more hesitant about war and preferred a leader that did not invoke an urge to engage in combat.5 Although war-averse, the participants still believed that the hawkish leaders were better equipped to handle matters of foreign policy and security and preferred them for dealing with those matters.

The studies present a notable paradox. On the one hand, already elected hawkish leaders have an advantage over dovish leaders when enacting forms of reconciliation. Yet before elections, more peaceful candidates can’t take advantage of this preference. Context is therefore a major player in these perceptions. The research shows that bias plays a role in our perception of good leadership, but so does our exposure to war or violence. The influence of context on our decision-making deserves recognition, especially in light of current events.

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Regarding the UN Security Council vote, critics everywhere contribute differing explanations to Canada’s UN Security Loss.1,3,9,10,11,12 The persistent belief five years ago that a dovish strategy would benefit Canada’s foreign policy is now up for question. The research, and the result, say that the strategy has failed. But given that dovish leaders can’t take advantage of the “hawkish benefit”, it’s hard to say if a different strategy would yield different results for Canada, or if the government would have been elected in the first place.

What a dovish leader can do

Researchers from Cornell, Stanford, and Georgetown agreed that hawks have an advantage in ratifying political bargaining and arms deals. But, dovish leaders can overcome this. In ratifying arms deals, they found that dovish leaders can overcome their disadvantage by paying a “premium”. In an arms deal treaty, doves’ tendency to cut military effort may cause other legislators voting on the issue to believe that the other party will not follow through with their obligations without a more aggressive stance.

However, if a dovish leader works with hawkish legislators on the deal who act as endorsers, they can successfully ratify the deal. To gain this endorsement, the dovish leader can spend money on areas outside of the deal, such as increased military spending. It isn’t that dovish leaders are unable to successfully enact foreign policy deals, but they do so at a greater price than hawkish leaders.8

“Nice guys finish last”, or so it seems. In the realm of security, people perceive hawkish leaders as more successful. Our cognitive biases contribute to this perception, such as when we give hawkish leadership undeserving advantages.2,6 These biases are context-dependent and beneficial for elections, though this depends on certain factors. Dovish leaders can overcome this “advantage”, but their success in foreign policy may come at a higher cost.

Over 10 years ago, Daniel Kahneman put it best in saying: “Understanding the biases that most of us harbor can at least help ensure that the hawks don’t win more arguments than they should.”6 Aggressive policy certainly shouldn’t be avoided in all situations. But in a time where we are increasingly evaluating policy and leadership in several contexts, it’s imperative to assure our decision-making gives credit only when it truly is due.

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