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Culture, Personality, Gender and War

Oct. 12, 2021 | Lindsay Morgan interviews Robert Trager

What makes some countries more or less prone to war (or peace)? What leadership traits are war prone—and what cultural traits are? In the latest Talking Policy episode, Lindsay Morgan interviews Robert Trager, an associate professor in the political science department at UCLA and affiliated researcher with IGCC. The author of the forthcoming book, The Suffragist Peace with Joslyn Barnhart, and a researcher on IGCC’s Great Powers project, Robert talks about the importance of women voters in maintaining peace, weighs in on whether the U.S. is more or less war prone than other countries, and discusses Americans’ key blind spots. (The edited transcript is available below the audio.)


news_robert-trager.jpegI think we often assume that decisions to go to war are made by well-informed groups of people after long periods of careful deliberation. In your recent work, you look at individual leaders—their experiences, personalities, beliefs. What role do individual leaders play in steering countries towards or away from war?

Even when there are really well-informed groups of people, and they think really hard, the biases of individuals and the pathologies of groups come into play.

But the question about individuals is a perennial one, and it’s hard to get at a clear answer. You might find a correlation between, say, older leaders and war. But it may not be that older leaders are more likely to go to war. Maybe it’s that, when things look uncertain, the voting public feels they can trust an older person more than a younger one. If you think about Winston Churchill—he wasn't in office, but then England went to war and it's pretty clear that people thought he was the best person to lead them through the war. At the end of the war, they vote in a much younger person.

The point is: it's really hard to figure out what the effect of an individual is because you don't know if the driving factor is the individual or the circumstances that brought them there. And on age, it turns out that the younger leaders in our sample are twice as likely to engage in some form of international conflict compared to the older leaders. It's actually a really big effect.

Many have assumed that former President Donald Trump was (and maybe still is) more prone to violence and to instigating international conflict. Conversely, I think the general assumption is that President Biden is much less inclined towards international conflict. Do you think those assumptions are true?

That's a really interesting question. We've looked at a few different factors that lead individuals to be more or less aggressive as leaders internationally. One of the things we look at is age. President Biden is a little bit older than President Trump, but not much, right? So, the age factor is probably not that important.

We also find that right-wing parties are more war prone than parties on the left. When you look at polling data in the United States, Republicans are much more hawkish than Democrats. On the other hand, when a leader is in office, there are things that constrain them. In other research, we show that if there's a Republican in office who decides to go to war, the Republican has to do more to prove the worth of the conflict to the American people than a Democrat who does the same thing. But a democratic president has the opposite problem. People are suspicious of a Democratic president in office who stays out of a conflict. So, the parties have these opposite branding problems, and the result is that they're not as different once they get into office as you might expect them to be.

A paper you published in 2019 lists some traits that might make leaders more or less likely to engage in conflict. This includes things like: how much risk they tolerate, how ambitious they are, how delusional they are, if they had a troubled childhood, if they served in the military, their perception of danger posed by the other country. Do some traits matter more than others?

They surely do. But it's really hard to figure out what is really driving things.

How do leaders form beliefs about what to expect in the international system? And in an age of relentless social media, to what extent is that influencing how these beliefs are formed?

That's the million-dollar question: what are the effects of social media, how do foreign actors intervene and shape perceptions, and where's the line between messaging and propaganda?

I guess I take a longer-term view. People have never had tons of information when they make decisions about who to vote for or what policies they think are right. They don't go out and seek tons of information. They don't know that much. But they do know what newspapers to turn to that reflect their view of the world. Studies have shown that when you educate people in the specifics of an issue and then ask them: “What do you think now that you know so much more than you used to know?”—their views don't change. Even when they have more information, they don't change their beliefs all that much.

Now, in the world of social media, the information environment is changing. People are getting information about politics in a different way. And I think that because it's so new, they don't yet know how to weigh it. If they see a post on Facebook, they aren’t sure how that compares to an editorial from the New York Times. Right now people are at sea in terms of trying to construct a reality.

I did an interview recently with Matt Kroenig, an IGCC alum who teaches at Georgetown. He said that Russia and China, especially China, pose threats to a broad range of U.S. and that what we need to do is to change the mind of China's leaders. Can leaders' minds be changed?

It's very hard to change anybody's mind. You wouldn't want to place a big bet on your ability to do so. Now, I think Matthew Kroenig probably has in mind the ways that we can structure incentives to change minds. And I do think that people respond to incentives. But I'm not sure that counts as changing minds.

If you're the United States, you may be able to deter China from behaving aggressively towards Taiwan for a time. But that doesn't mean that China is giving up on Taiwan. That doesn’t mean its mind has changed. If what we're asking is: can China be convinced that full reunification with Taiwan is not important to China? I have very strong doubts about that.

Right—deeply held values aren’t particularly amenable to change. That’s true for individuals and it’s true for countries.

That reminds me of a good friend of mine who was a classic Oxford history don, who used to say: “where there is death, there is hope.” Sometimes, that's what it takes for change.

Whether countries go to war also depends on the public mood. Democracies are often thought to go to war less than non-democracies, but you have argued that democratic institutions themselves don't ensure peace—who votes in democracies matters. Whose vote matters?

Everyone's vote matters. But if we want peace, it's not just about the institutions of democracy, it's about the culture of the place, and who's voting. This work I and others have been doing suggests that a really, really big deal, when we talk about the democratic peace, is the enfranchisement of women. When half of the world's population suddenly started to have a say in political life about 100 years ago, that made a really, really big difference.

Around the time when there were democratic revolutions in the United States and France, and subsequent democratizing revolutions through the 19th century, you get intellectuals like Kant and Montesquieu talking about the potential of a democratic peace. That is the great hope. And then you get the 19th century. And in the 19th century, guess what democracies are not? They're not peaceful.

Not only are they not peaceful, when you look at these conflicts—the Crimean War, colonial conflicts, Spanish-American War—it looks like these male voting publics are not just acquiescing to war, they're actually pushing their leaders into these conflicts. 

Democracies seem to get more peaceful when women are brought into the electorate. It's not that all women are pacifists. All women are different, just like all men are different. But there are on average differences between men and women in terms of their support for the use of force internationally. It's probably the most consistent gender difference that we find in polling. And it is true across time and place.

So, when you look at the U.S. and other countries, can you literally do a before and after and see that there’s less violence when women get the vote?

Well, it's less violent in some places and between some countries. But it's not all a rosy story. There's a book by a British historian called Guilty Women, which follows on a famous book called Guilty Men about the Chamberlain peace policy of appeasement of Hitler. The argument of Guilty Women is probably right: women in Britain had a lot to do with enabling Chamberlain's peace policy. You can go back to the very earliest polls and see in Britain that there was a big gap in support for Chamberlain between men and women.

And this leads to a question. Can a country that isn’t a suffrage democracy take advantage of a peace-inclined suffrage democracy? That arguably is what happened with Chamberlain's policy. So, in order to get peace more broadly, it's not enough to have a smattering of suffrage democracies. You really need suffrage democracies on both sides of any potential conflict to see a real reduction in the amount of conflict.

Why do women voters reduce the likelihood of war? Are women just better people?

It’s a fascinating question, and this is a contentious area. We don't know, is the main thing I want to say. I think the fact that this difference is so prevalent means that we should take seriously the idea that there is some element of nature difference that might be involved. Those are fighting words to some, but I don't think they should be fighting words. Maybe there's a different baseline in terms of acceptability of violence. That doesn't mean that you couldn't have cultural factors that override that baseline.

You mentioned that culture can also shape whether countries go to war. Is U.S. culture more war prone than others?

It's funny you asked that because I had always thought that the answer was yes. American culture is obviously very attached to firearms and is militaristic. Not that those don't exist in many other cultures, too. But I tend to think of American culture as tending towards militarism.

But in some of these experiments, we found the opposite. For example, in one study, we asked people in a bunch of countries about an international negotiation. They were dividing up shares of a resource with a rival. And we asked them: would you be happy if your country got 10%, 20%, 30%, 40%, 50%, 90%, 100%? Would you be happy about that? And we found these really striking cultural differences, and gender differences too. In the United States, people wanted a 50/50 outcome. They had a strong norm of fairness. They were really unhappy with getting 40 or 60 percent. Getting 50 was better even than getting 100 percent on average.

In other places, in Egypt, for instance, they don't feel that way. Getting 100 percent is way better than getting 50 percent. We did problem experiments to try to account for this. And we found that there appear to be some groups of individuals, both in the United States and in Egypt, who don't like to compromise, and they tend to have a more traditional mindset if you will. So there seem to be similar sorts of folks, at least to a degree, in both places. It's just that the proportion of those folks in the overall population seem to be a bit different.

You've also written about blind spots in the United States where we assume that the rest of the world thinks or acts like we do. What do you think are our biggest blind spots right now? 

The one that has probably persisted the longest is: Americans think that America is perceived in the world as a force for good. In many places, that isn't true. A decade or so ago there was a poll done in Morocco. The poll asked: do you think the United States is going to invade Morocco? I used to like to ask my students: what percentage of Moroccans do you think thought that the United States was going to invade? I would get answers like 2 or 1 percent. The true answer was something like 70 percent.

And the students would say: why would they have this crazy idea? Well, there's a reason why they had that crazy idea. And the reason was that at the time there was a lot of press coverage about so-called foreign Islamist fighters who had left their country and gone to fight in Iraq and other places against Americans. Many of these foreign fighters were coming from Morocco. And the Moroccan people, thought: the United States invades places where there are Islamists, so they're probably going to invade our country.

Thank God we didn't invade Morocco. But it just shows the gulf between perception of America around the world and the way Americans see themselves.