When Leaders Learn and When They Don’t: Mikhail Gorbachev and Kim Il Sung at the End of the Cold War
Reviewer: Adrien Jahier (University of Toulouse)
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‘Leaders matter very little in the discourse of conventional international relations theory’ (p. 3). In seeking to redress this scholarly neglect, Akan Malici, proposes a psychological theory of foreign policy decision-making where international politics is conceived of as strategic interactions between actors. ‘How and why do leaders matter as agents of change and continuity in the international system?’ (p. 131) is, therefore, the overarching question of this book.
The author commences by introducing his theoretical framework premised on rendering visible the beliefs and learning patterns of leaders. In doing so he applies a scheme previously outlined by Alexander George, i.e. a code analysis through a set of five philosophical and five instrumental questions. These questions include: ‘What is the “essential” nature of political life?’ or ‘Is the political future predictable?’ (p.33). To answer these questions, the Malici applies the Verbs in Context System (VICS) methodology with the software called Profiler + as a tool of content analysis. This, with the view to revealing the leaders’ operational code belief through the examination of their public statements, results in pointing out beliefs about self and others in the political universe in terms of cooperative and conflictual attributions. Thus, it is possible to statistically compare operational codes for the same leader throughout history or even between politicians from either one state or different states.
Malici’s ultimate theoretical goal is to incorporate the results of the operational code analysis into an appropriate game model. He chooses Bram’s Theory of Moves which describes the payoffs in a single game but allows players to make successive calculations of moves to different positions within it. This new tool enables researchers to analyse the evolution of key beliefs in a leader’s operational code, and their consequences on a state’s foreign policy. The main interest is therefore, to become aware of his potential cognitive strategic and experiential learning.
Did Gorbachev and Kim Il Sung engage in any experiential learning processes? The empirical chapters are geared towards answering these questions within the new theory outlined above.
The first leader analysed is Mikhail Gorbachev. When the new General Secretary of the Communist Party took office in 1985, his intentions were obviously reformist but not transformative. After one year as Head of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s operational code outlines the continuity and not the change of any policy in comparison with his predecessors. However, after 1986 and the Geneva Summit, he begun to follow an ‘irrational policy’ toward the United States. As the predictions of Bram’s Theory of Moves show, the Soviet Union was in danger of being dominated and the Soviet strategy would have been to adopt a ‘conflictual’ posture. But Gorbachev decided to take a more cooperative approach. It was the beginning of his experiential learning which gave him the title of an ‘uncommitted thinker and motivated learner’ (Chapter 3).
From 1987 on, his experiential learning deepened as his operational code shows: more generally, he saw the political universe in significantly more cooperative terms. Despite the Reagan Administration‘s opposition, Gorbachev was motivated to transform the US’s unfavourable perception of the USSR, which therefore would affect the nature of Soviet-American relations. For these reasons, he became a ‘committed teacher and reformer’ (Chapter 4).
Regarding Kim Il Sung and the period under consideration i.e. 1980-1994, two major stages can be discerned. At the beginning, Kim Il Sung remained above all a ‘Revolutionary Cold Warrior’ (Chapter 5). Indeed, from 1980 and 1986, his beliefs about the nature of the political universe and the best means of achieving his goals in that universe were really hostile and conflictual. One could infer that he did not engage in any experiential learning. However, the years 1987-1990 mark a turning point since the North Korean leader had to face increasing economic and political isolation. From this period, he engaged in an experiential learning which went against what is commonly admitted by specialists of North Korea. Indeed, his operational code over the period points out a decreasing level of confidence in the utility of punishment tactics and in controlling international events. Nevertheless, he remained a conflictual leader.
Beyond the academic contribution of this book, the author does not hesitate to advocate a new American foreign policy towards North Korea. As Gorbachev’s case shows, the sincere willingness of a leader to enter into a more peaceful area in the diplomatic history should inspire the American leadership.
After having read this book, some criticisms naturally surfaces: isolating the individual as being a specific variable may raise some questions. Firstly, is it really an individual level? Can the analyst isolate leaders from their context and merely compare them as variables? Malici does not provide a solid theoretical background to defend such criticism: the political scientist starts by affirming the importance of the psychological factor in international affairs without dwelling on the academic reasons which led to such a strong affirmation.
The lack of explanations of the real reasons involved in the process of experiential and cognitive experience of both political leaders is a perfect illustration of this weakness. For instance, why did Gorbachev change his position toward the United States? Malici gives some elements of answer by mentioning the influence of some policy-oriented research centres but without any further details. The reader would have appreciated those explanations. However, going into detail about a political process model where some non-governmental organisations would have had an influence on Gorbachev's decision-making would have probably imposed a less individualist approach. Such an approach would have called into question the basic premise of the book which is the important role played by leaders in world politics. A compromise could have been deployed to replicate Malici's methodology – to analyse the behaviour of some foreign policy advisors belonging to those organisations and influencing the Soviet leader in order to go beyond Mikhail Gorbachev and Kim Il Sung’s strict focus and test its truthfulness to other case-studies.
The contribution of the book is not as innovative as the author purports. What Malici proposes is a typical rational choice/game theory exercise exploiting Alexander George whose scholarly work has been extensively recycled. Yet, rational choice theory is surely the dominant framework used in foreign policy analyses with all the commonly admitted criticisms that it implies. First of all, what is exactly rationality? Then, does a political leader make one’s decision base on pure rationale? Are reactions rational vis-à-vis accidents of history? Unfortunately, such questions are not mentioned in the book.
Despite some criticisms, Malici has written a highly intelligent book based on the rigorous use of mathematical and linguistic tools. His strategic approach based on leaders’ preferences and beliefs brightly participates in the academic discourse initiated by Axelrod's Structure of Decision and Jervis’s Perception and Misperception in International Politics about the importance of psychological mechanisms of a leader in foreign-policy making. The more interesting contribution lies probably in the use of this software, Profiler +, which may inspire other analysts interested in providing meaning to public statements that a policy-maker can perform on the political stage through a comparative approach.