By Danielle Spears and Taylor Marvin

Michael Horowitz, assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, appeared before a small audience of academics and students at UCSD on Jan. 20, 2011 to discuss his ongoing research investigating the question of whether national leaders who serve in military forces before coming to power are more or less likely to initiate violent conflicts. Horowitz began his presentation by acknowledging that the personalities of national leaders do have a strong influence on state policy, especially in authoritarian forms of government where leaders are relatively unconstrained by political checks on their power. The question becomes more complicated, however, since Horowitz distinguishes leaders who saw combat from those who didn’t and takes into account whether or not a leader served in the national armed forces or in an insurgent rebel group.

The assumption Professor Horowitz is investigating is fairly common sense. It seems likely that leaders with prior military experience who never saw combat would be more risk tolerant—and more likely to initiate conflict—than those with neither combat nor military experience and that leaders with experience in rebel groups would be most comfortable with the risk of military conflict, since an individual must be fairly risk tolerant to join a rebellion in the first place.

Horowitz has found some interesting patterns by examining newly gathered data on the background experiences of heads of state from 1869-2004. Prior military experience seems to be correlated with an increased chance of entering armed conflicts, though leaders with combat experience do not appear to be any less risky than their peers who served in military forces but didn’t witness combat firsthand. This tendency is especially strong in autocracies without checks on executive authority. While Professor Horowitz’s research is still ongoing, it looks to be an important contribution to our understanding of the role of executives’ personal experiences in public policy and to our ability to predict the resolutions of potentially violent conflicts.

PROSPECT: I want to congratulate you on the publishing of your book, “The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences in International Politics.” The book’s description mentions how expensive innovations tend to favor wealthier countries and pose financial and organizational challenges to their respective governments. In your focus on political leaders, do you think that past military experience has differing effects between actors of wealthy nations versus those of poorer or less powerful regimes? Does your data support this?

HOROWITZ: That’s a great question and thanks for referencing my first book. To be perfectly honest, my co-author [Allan Stam of the University of Michigan] and I have not yet looked at how prior military experience might influence actors in wealthier nations compared to poorer nations. However, that is one of the things we attempt to control for in our analysis, the relative wealth of countries.

PROSPECT: In light of this study, how important is the relationship between leaders and their political regimes?

HOROWITZ: I think the relationship between leaders and their political regimes is very important. Leaders do not rule in a vacuum, they rule in the context of a particular type of political regime. For example, Barack Obama faces a very different institutional context in the United States than Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, so it is vital to take that into account.

PROSPECT: The nature of your work seems to integrate aspects of psychological and sociological research, which makes it very interesting. You mentioned a few colleagues that have chosen similar areas of study. Do you think that your focus on the personal experiences of leaders is a growing field of research?

HOROWITZ: I do think the study of leaders is a growing area of research in political science. Leadership is something that is important to the public as a whole. Why else would we have these enormous debates about the qualifications of our candidates for President? There are also other academic fields, such as psychology and business, where the study of leaders is more developed. There is now renewed interest in political science in studying leaders, their attributes and their consequences for international politics.

PROSPECT: How do you imagine the findings of your work may be used to benefit researchers or our own political leaders in the future? Where would you like to see your work in the next year?

HOROWITZ: I would like to see my work on leaders moving towards being accepted in peer reviewed academic journals and perhaps as a book. More broadly, I think some of our findings might help provide context for policy makers interested in the tendencies of foreign leaders, so my co-author and I may speak with people in Washington D.C. about these issues as well.

PROSPECT: The “Rebel War Loss” statistic is interesting because it shows that rebel leaders can be risk-prone even if they have negative background experiences to draw from. Was this information surprising to you? If not, what data have you found to be truly surprising, or has it been fairly predictable thus far?

HOROWITZ: I think several of our findings are surprising—perhaps not for the general population, but within the confines of political science research. Political scientists have tended to assume that leaders do not matter, that factors such as material power and regime type matter much more. Our most interesting finding shows that the “riskiest” leaders might be those with prior military experience but without combat experience. Those are the leaders comfortable enough with the military to lean towards using force in a crisis, but without the negative experiences associated with the personal risks of war.

PROSPECT: During Q&A, one audience member brought up the psychological question of “type” concerning leadership personalities. How does this affect your personal approach to the question of military experiences affecting leadership styles?

HOROWITZ: I think leadership style is a very important topic that deserves further investigation. Unfortunately, we do not yet have the data necessary to test that systematically. However, it is something that we are looking into moving forwards.

PROSPECT: Other than the given gaps in data and financial resources that most researchers experience while performing studies, what has been your biggest challenge as a political scientist and what advice do you have for aspiring students in overcoming these challenges?

HOROWITZ: I think one of the biggest challenges when trying to build a new dataset, as my co-author and I have done for this project, is getting the resources necessary for the endeavor. We have been very fortunate to get support from our home institutions and the National Science Foundation. That support has also allowed us to work with many undergraduate and graduate students on this project. In terms of advice, I would recommend that students interested in participating in these types of projects reach out to professors who seem like they are working on interesting things. Don’t be intimidated! If you email or stop by someone’s office to see if they need research assistance, you never know what might happen. For those interested in working on these sorts of projects on their own, it just takes hard work and not giving up if you are having trouble getting funds. There are plenty of foundations and university-based options for support, you just have to be diligent and keep trying.

Photo courtesy of Security and Defense Agenda.

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