Too much self-confidence can lead to foreign policy fiascos for Prime Ministers

Finding someone to blame for policy fiascos is part of politics, but a new study of British Prime Ministers suggests that many of them should be pointing the finger squarely at themselves.

Klaus Brummer studied the personality traits and political beliefs of 13 British Prime Ministers to determine the importance of individual decision makers – rather than other factors – in the context of foreign policy fiascos. In particular, he wanted to know whether those PMs who had disasters happen on their watch had different personality traits and beliefs from those who didn’t – and how those traits and beliefs might have contributed.

As he explains in the Journal of European Public Policy: “The idea is that ‘extreme’ manifestations of individual idiosyncrasies, relating to personality traits and/or political beliefs, increase the likelihood of decision-makers to engage in low-quality decision-making processes that in turn increase the likelihood of ending up with policy fiascos as outcomes.”

Brummer assigned six PMs to his foreign policy ‘fiasco’ group (Chamberlain [Appeasement], Eden [Suez], Macmillan and Wilson [EEC], Major [ERM], Blair [Iraq]). To his ‘non-fiasco’ group he assigned seven: Churchill, Attlee, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher, Brown and Cameron. For his data, Brummer coded and studied almost 370,000 words of political speech, including Hansard and transcripts of interviews, noting seven leadership traits and leaders’ beliefs about the nature and actions of politics.

Brummer’s instincts were right. His results suggest that ‘fiasco’ leaders do exhibit extreme versions of certain personality traits which set them apart from ‘non-fiasco’ PMs, and, as it happens, other world leaders. Specifically, ‘fiasco’ PMs appear to have less need for power and a lower ‘task orientation’ than ‘non-fiasco’ PMs; they also show a significantly higher levels of self-confidence.

“Maybe fiascos are the result of a lack of individual leadership exhibited by prime ministers who fail to provide direction to their decision group (owing to a low need for power) and refrain from changing their approach (owing to high self-confidence),” he suggests.

Brummer’s study also suggests that ‘fiasco’ PMs have a ‘gloomier perception of the political universe’ and follow a more ‘conflictual approach to politics’ than ‘non-fiasco’ PMs, which ‘might predispose them to acting too soon or doing too much’.

The combination of extreme versions of personality traits and beliefs is a recipe for disaster, or at least fiasco. “Leaders with a markedly high level of self-confidence … are more likely to jump to conclusions and subsequently maintain their course of action even in the light of contradictory new information. If such a highly self- or, rather, over-confident leader’s preferred course of action is to pursue goals through conflictual strategies based on a pessimistic, conflict-prone view … the odds are that policy changes will not be forthcoming even though …  the situation on the ground would suggest otherwise.”

In other words, failed PMs also have themselves to blame.

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Taylor & Francis Group partners with researchers, scholarly societies, universities and libraries worldwide to bring knowledge to life. As one of the world’s leading publishers of scholarly journals, books, ebooks and reference works our content spans all areas of Humanities, Social Sciences, Behavioral Sciences, Science, and Technology and Medicine. From our network of offices in Oxford, New York, Philadelphia, Boca Raton, Boston, Melbourne, Singapore, Beijing, Tokyo, Stockholm, New Delhi and Johannesburg, Taylor & Francis staff provide local expertise and support to our editors, societies and authors and tailored, efficient customer service to our library colleagues.

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