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Bringing the Statesman Back In
In January 1762, Prussia hovered on the brink of disaster. Despite the masterful generalship of Frederick the Great, the combined forces of France, Austria, and Russia had gradually worn down the Prussian army in six years of constant warfare. Austrian armies had marched deep into Saxony and Silesia, and the Russians had even sacked Berlin. Frederick's defeat appeared imminent, and the enemy coalition intended to partition Prussia to reduce it to the status of a middle German state no more powerful than Bavaria or Saxony. And then a miracle occurred. The Prusso-phobic Czarina Elizabeth unexpectedly died, only to be succeeded by her son Peter, who idolized the soldier-king. Immediately Peter made peace with Frederick and ordered home the Russian armies. This reversal paralyzed the French and Austrians and allowed Frederick to rally his forces. Although Peter was soon ousted by his wife, Catherine, the allied armies never regained their advantage. In the end, Frederick held them off and kept Prussia intact. 
Frederick's triumph in the Seven Years' War was essential to Prussia's eventual unification of Germany and all that followed from it. Conceiving of European history today without this victory is impossible. It is equally impossible to conceive of Prussian victory in 1763 without the death of Elizabeth and Peter's adoration of Frederick. In the words of Christopher Duffy, "It is curious to reflect that if one lady had lived for a very few weeks longer, historians would by now have analyzed in most convincing detail the reasons for a collapse as 'inevitable' as that which overtook the Sweden of Charles XII."  In short, had it not been for the idiosyncrasies of one man and one woman, European history would look very, very different.
The story of Prussia's reprieve is, admittedly, an extreme example of the role that individuals play in international relations, but such influence is by no means exceptional--far from it. How can we explain twentieth-century history without reference to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, or Mao Zedong? Nor would any policymaker in any capital try to explain the world today without recourse to the personal goals and beliefs of Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin, Jiang Zemin, and Saddam Hussein, among others. Indeed the policymaking community in Washington takes it as an article of faith that who is the prime minister of Great Britain, the chancellor of Germany, or the king of Saudi Arabia has real repercussions for the United States and the rest of the world. As Henry Kissinger remarked, "As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces. But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make." 
For these reasons, the tendency of scholars to ignore the role of personalities in international relations is particularly troubling. Most political scientists, when pressed, will admit to the importance of personal idiosyncrasies and human error in determining the course of international relations. Most will further concede that because they do not attempt to explain the roles of either human error or personality in international relations, they cannot explain all of the variance in the affairs of nations.
However, political scientists most frequently have argued that they must set aside both fortuna and virtu, and instead focus only on impersonal forces as the causes of international events. Their reasons for doing so fall under three rubrics. First, many political scientists contend that individuals ultimately do not matter, or at least they count for little in the major events that shape international politics. Instead they argue that the roar of the anarchic system, domestic politics, and institutional dynamics drown out the small voices of individual leaders. Second, other political scientists posit that although individuals may matter from time to time, their influence does not lend itself to the generalizations that political scientists seek. Simply put, individuals are too individualistic. Third, several leading international relations theorists have raised a number of specific objections that they argue render the study of individuals theoretically hopeless.
We believe that political scientists are simultaneously too modest and too arrogant in these claims. Too modest because political scientists need not throw up their hands and believe that they have nothing useful to say about the role of individuals in international relations. The theoretical objections raised over the years do not stand up under closer examination and should not prevent us from mining this rich ore. Too arrogant because too many political scientists imply or assert that the impersonal forces on which they focus their attention explain the vast majority of events in international relations. In so doing, they marginalize the crucial impact of individuals on war and diplomacy and neglect the extent to which social science can tease out useful generalizations regarding the role played by individuals.
It is time to rescue men and women, as individuals, from the oblivion to which political scientists have consigned them. This article is not intended as a comprehensive account of the importance of individuals--such an effort would require the work of many lifetimes--but it is intended to question scholars' current assumptions about international politics and show the plausibility of analyzing international relations by focusing on the role of individuals.
What is the impact of individuals on international relations? What aspects of state behavior do they affect? Under what conditions are they influential? These are the questions this article seeks to answer. We contend that the goals, abilities, and foibles of individuals are crucial to the intentions, capabilities, and strategies of a state. Indeed individuals not only affect the actions of their own states but also shape the reactions of other nations, which must respond to the aspirations, abilities, and aggressiveness of foreign leaders. Of course, individuals matter more to international relations under certain circumstances. Individual personalities take on added significance when power is concentrated in the hands of a leader, when institutions are in conflict, or in times of great change. Individuals also shape many of the drivers identified by other theorists, such as the balance of power, domestic opinion, and bureaucratic politics. These paradigms suffer when individuals are ignored.
This article has four parts. We first rebut the specific, theoretical arguments denigrating the utility of theories of the impact of individuals on international relations. We then counter the argument that individuals do not have a significant impact on international events by examining five historical cases that show that the role of individuals was crucial to the outcome of each. We next refute the argument that it is impossible to generate hypotheses regarding the role of individuals, by teasing out plausible, testable hypotheses from the cases in the previous section. We conclude by noting how the study of individuals enriches our understanding of international relations.
Rebutting the Theoretical Objections
The study of individuals has not been attacked so much as ignored by international relations theorists. This is not to say that no work has been done on this topic. At least since the time of Aristotle, scholars have tried to explain politics in terms of individual behavior. Indeed classical realist thinkers such as Thucydides, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Hans Morgenthau all explicitly acknowledge the impact of individual personalities on international relations. Since then, however, work on individuals in political science has generally been left to psychologists, historians, and area studies specialists.  These scholars have produced many excellent studies on the importance of individuals, but they have not treated the subject in a systematic fashion that would help answer the general questions of when and how individuals affect international relations. These works provide a foundation on which to build, but as they are, they remain incomplete. 
One exception to political scientists' neglect of individuals is Kenneth Waltz's seminal work, Man, the State, and War. Waltz famously outlines three levels of analysis, calling them "images" of international relations. In the first image, the behavior of nations springs from the behavior of individuals. Waltz's second image considers the behavior of nations to be driven by their internal organization, positing that different kinds of governments and social structures produce different kinds of international behavior. Finally, the third image contends that the behavior of nations is driven by their relative position--in terms of both power and geography--in an anarchic international system. 
Although Waltz is unusual in even considering the first image, he nonetheless rejects it. Waltz, and those following in his tradition, believe that the third image best explains international relations--or the most important elements of it, such as the causes of great power wars and alliances.  Champions of the third image have many critics. Nevertheless, even scholars who challenge Waltz's focus on the third image generally do so in the name of second-image factors, such as bureaucracy, culture, and political systems. Thus even Waltz's critics neglect the first image. 
OBJECTION 1: THE FIRST IMAGE CANNOT PROVIDE AN ADEQUATE EXPLANATION FOR INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS BECAUSE HUMAN NATURE IS A CONSTANT, WHEREAS INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS VARY
In Man, the State, and War, Waltz argues that if human nature is constant, the behavior of nations--the example he employs is war making--should also be constant. That is, nations should always be at war. Because nations are not always at war, Waltz claims that human nature cannot possibly explain why nations go to war.  On this point, Waltz is simply mistaken: Human nature is not a constant; it is a variable. By defining the first image solely in terms of an ineffable quality shared among all humans, Waltz has constructed a straw man. Not all men and women are entirely evil, aggressive, greedy, or vainglorious. A few are, but a few others are wholly generous, humble, and restrained. The vast majority of humans, however, possess a mix of traits. Thus "human nature" entails a tremendous range of variance. Properly understood, the first image should generate theories derived from the distribution of these traits across the population and their impact on international relations.
As soon as one recognizes that personalities vary widely, Waltz's criticism of the first image becomes unconvincing. Because personalities differ, it is entirely possible that variance in the traits of individuals explains differences in international relations. For instance, although not all wars have been caused by aggressive, risk-tolerant, greedy, or vainglorious leaders, those leaders who did manifest these traits regularly went to war--often for seemingly absurd reasons, and often more than once. Indeed leaders most notorious for these traits, such as Louis XIV, Peter the Great, Frederick the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon III, Wilhelm II, Benito Mussolini, and Hitler, have fomented some of the greatest conflicts in modern European history. 
OBJECTION 2: THEORIES FOCUSED ON THE INFLUENCE OF INDIVIDUALS IN INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS CANNOT BE PARSIMONIOUS
In his book Theory of International Politics, Waltz claims that parsimony must be an important criterion for judging the value of a theory.  He argues that the more closely a model approximates reality, the more variables it will include; therefore a realistic theory will be less parsimonious and thus less useful.  First, we contend that it is possible to derive elegant theories from the first image--a challenge we answer in the third section of this article. Of greater relevance, however, we dismiss the contention that parsimony is somehow more important than accuracy when deriving political science theory. The field of international relations is an effort to explain the interaction of states and, ultimately, predict their behavior. Consequently, realism (with a small "R") is the best, and perhaps the only, determinant of the utility of a theory: How well does the theory actually explain behavior and allow us to predict future actions? Creating parsimonious models may be useful for illustrative or he uristic purposes, but this is, at best, several steps removed from the actual goals of the discipline. A massive model with hundreds of variables that took a month to run but predicted international behavior perfectly would be far more useful by any measure than a model with only a single variable that could illustrate only occasional tendencies and only in badly underspecified circumstances. 
OBJECTION 3: STATE INTENTIONS ARE NOT GERMANE TO THEORIES OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
Many proponents of the third image acknowledge that individual leaders often have a heavy influence on state goals.  Because they believe that state intentions are not necessary to the construction of a theory of international politics, however, any impact that individual personalities may have in this sphere is likewise irrelevant. Instead they claim that all states are functionally equivalent, and therefore their intentions are irrelevant because they all have the same primary or "dominant" goal, namely their own security.  Even the most benign state is not certain how other states will act, either now or in the future, and thus must take steps to defend itself. 
The assertion about the essential irrelevance of actor preferences is empirically weak and (again demonstrating the danger of overly parsimonious models) analytically misleading. For example, Stephen Walt's work on alliance formation demonstrates that, by omitting state intentions, Waltz's argument that alliance formation is based purely on the distribution of power poorly predicts actual alliance patterns.  Other scholars have established the importance of the distinction between "status quo" states--those nations content with the state of affairs as they are--and "revisionist" states--those unhappy with the current state of affairs and willing to change it. Revisionist states want more territory, influence, prestige, or other objectives that are not always directly related to their security. They may go to war or otherwise disrupt the international system even when they are secure. At times, they may even jeopardize their security to pursue these aims.  On the other hand, status quo states are able to assure potential rivals of their benign intentions--thus preventing uncertainty and misunderstanding from escalating into war. This allows status quo states to take steps, such as keeping their defense budgets low, even though this would endanger their security in a world that followed structural realist precepts. In short, state intentions are a critical factor in international relations and, to the extent that individual personalities shape those intentions, they too must be considered important.
Individuals Matter: Lessons from History
Individuals play a central role in shaping international relations, including the causes of war, alliance patterns, and other areas that international relations scholars consider important. To demonstrate this claim-and to provide the historical foundation on which we build testable hypotheses in the next section-we draw on five cases: (1) Germany under Hitler; (2) the contrasting impact of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II on European politics; (3) France under Napoleon Bonaparte; (4) a comparison of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Syria under Hafiz al-Asad; and (5) the behavior of Iran in its war with Iraq under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
We chose these cases according to several criteria. They demonstrate the importance of individuals regardless of political system, period of time, or region of the world. They highlight particular aspects of the impact of individual leaders on international relations. Each case also suggests theories derived from the first image related to some of the most fundamental questions of international relations theory of the last thirty years: the causes of war, the formation of alliances, and the likelihood of cooperation under anarchy, to name only a few. 
The personal characteristics and idiosyncrasies of Adolf Hitler led to the deaths of millions and changed the history of the world. Hitler's unique pathologies were the single most important factor in causing both World War II in Europe (at least in the sense of the continent-wide total war that ensued) and Germany's eventual defeat. Hitler defied both domestic opposition and systemic logic in igniting World War II, leading Germany to astonishing victories, visiting unimaginable misery on the world, and then causing the collapse of the empire he had built. Understanding international relations during the 1930s and 1940s is impossible without grasping the impact of Hitler himself.
Germany after World War I was clearly a revisionist state, but Hitler's ambitions far exceeded those of the people he led. The German people detested the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Most believed that Germany should rearm, regain its pre-Versailes territory in the east, and demand integration with Austria and the German-populated Sudetenland.  However, though revisionism was the Zeitgeist in interwar Germany, European hegemony and global domination were not. The vast majority of Germans had lost any inclination toward military expansion after living through the horrors of World War I. Although many Germans wanted to revise the Treaty of Versailles, few were willing to wage another major war to do so.  Indeed, on September 27, 1938, when Hitler mobilized the German army to attack Czechoslovakia, the Berlin crowds turned their backs on the German troops marching through the streets of the capital. 
Nor were most German elites sympathetic to Hitler's aspirations. Even most of the mainstream nationalist parties and the army high …