Skip to main content

On Narcissism and War

November 14, 2022
John Harden


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, John Harden, an assistant professor of political science at Ripon College, answers five questions about the role individual personalities play in the trajectories of wars.

Why do some leaders end wars while others draw them out?

Research generally points to things like the balance of power, other countries joining a fight, and democratic accountability in determining why leaders exit wars. My research supports the claim that a leader’s personality can tell us a lot about why they end wars or stay in them. My research suggests that more narcissistic leaders experience longer wars. Narcissism is a personality trait reflecting the degree to which an individual has an inflated self-image that they believe must be promoted and protected through their behavior. When confronted with a war, a narcissist will have grander aims, consistently raise demands, and focus strategic decision-making on whatever makes them feel powerful, charming, and competent. This immense focus on self often leads to ineffective strategies and a failure to adjust when receiving bad news from the frontlines. President Joe Biden, who is more modest than his predecessors, exited an unpopular war. It seems he was willing to take the short-term public opinion and reputational hit for the sake of bringing troops home. This is unlike Richard Nixon who burned resources pursuing victory in Vietnam even though many of his advisors began questioning his objectives early on in his presidency.

Are wars driven more by individual leaders—like, say Vladimir Putin—or more by groups or coalitions within a country?

It’s difficult to say which plays a greater role. While my research suggests that leaders matter more, other research points to the importance of other elites like advisors, coalition members, and leadership challengers. For example, debate exists over the relative impact of President Lyndon B. Johnson and his advisors on Vietnam’s decision-making. However, even work like Saunders (2015) suggests that the leader ultimately gets their way once they persuade or co-opt elites. I wager this sort of co-opting or persuasion is easier to do in more personalist governments, that is, where one individual rules the country. I think Putin has a more important role to play in wartime decision-making than his elites because he surrounds himself with sycophants and silences those who oppose him.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.