Psychological Traits and Foreign Policy Attitudes of the Russian Elite

The focus was on Russian elites’ views on five issues related to international relations: defining the sphere of Russia’s national interest, the role of military power in world politics, attitude to the US, and attitude to the military intervention in Libya and the possible invasion of Syria.

What shapes a politician’s views on their country’s aims and goals in the international arena? It is commonly believed that there are objective national interests, which foreign policy officials should automatically defend by virtue of their status. High-ranking foreign ministry officials, members of related parliamentary committees, employees of other governmental organizations – in general, all those involved in foreign policy – are perceived as “calculators” of sorts that choose the best strategy on behalf of the state, proceeding from predefined interests and with due account of a number of parameters that characterize the current situation in world politics. In this model, the human factor can only be manifested as a deviation from the rational strategy in a specific case of political decision-making, leading to an incorrect evaluation of the alignment of forces, a wrong choice of partners, or an erroneous estimate of an opposing state’s intentions.

However, sociological and psychological surveys in other spheres of human endeavor demonstrate that the rational choice theory underlying this model is in need of a thorough upgrade. Both people’s preferences and their choice of strategies to achieve their aims depend on a plurality of factors, the most important of which are psychological characteristics of specific individuals. Individual psychological traits influence ideological attitudes, religious beliefs, and even preferences in choosing commodities.

Someone whose approach to international relations is based on the national interest concept and rational choice theory could object that national interests are determined by a long history of interactions between countries and incorporate the experience of many generations, thereby reducing the role of personal preferences, moral values and other “dubious” things almost to zero. In relations between states, therefore, the psychological characteristics of specific individuals – with the exception of certain extraordinary situations – can hardly be a significant factor.

This point of view certainly has the right to exist. But we need empirical evidence in order to provide a scientific answer to the question of whether or not there are objective national interests or if there is a subjective dimension to them as well, which derives from the psychology of individual politicians. But it is not easy to find this evidence. Researchers, as a rule, have no access to individuals responsible for foreign policy. It is for this reason that studies on this subject, both in Russia and elsewhere, can be counted on one hand.

But William Zimmerman’s polls of Russian elites (1993-2012) provide what we can call, without exaggeration, unique information on psychological traits and political preferences of high-ranking foreign policy figures. In particular, the 2012 poll, the last in a series of surveys, included indicators that made it possible to identify the main psychological traits of respondents under the so-called personal authoritarianism theory: ethnocentrism, values that respondents think should be inculcated in children, as well as respect for order, risk perception, mental rigidity (propensity to reject alternative views of the world), and punitiveness (the belief that mistakes should be severely punished).

This helped to verify a number of hypotheses regarding the existence of a connection between foreign policy attitudes and personal psychological traits. The focus was on Russian elites’ views on five issues related to international relations: defining the sphere of Russia’s national interest, the role of military power in world politics, attitude to the US, and attitude to the military intervention in Libya and the possible invasion of Syria. The first three topics deal with basic geopolitical views, while the latter two shed light on how Russian elites interpret the most acute problems of world politics at the moment.

As a result, it was established that there was indeed a connection between foreign policy attitudes and psychological traits. For example, supporters of conservative upbringing (that is, those prioritizing obedience over autonomy and self-development) tend to support the thesis regarding the dominance of military power in international relations and are negatively disposed toward the US. In addition, they are against the 2011 operation in Libya and a potential invasion of Syria. Mental rigidity is associated with opposition to NATO’s position on Libya and Syria and with support for a global concept of national interest. The ethnocentrists, like the “conservatives,” believe that the US represents a threat to Russia’s national security, but they don’t share the view of the primacy of military might and think that Russia’s sphere of national interests does not extend beyond its borders. Risk-averse members of the elite hold that the Russian Federation is a local power with a limited sphere of national interest; moreover, they do not regard America as a hostile nation. Punitiveness and respect for order are related to foreign policy attitudes to a lesser extent: the former affects views on the sphere of national interest, increasing the likelihood that a respondent regards Russia as a regional leader rather than a superpower. In turn, people who feel a stronger need for order than others are positively disposed toward a possible military operation in Syria.

Generally, the polling revealed some important evidence in favor of the argument that policy-makers’ views on foreign policy are shaped by their psychological traits as well. At the same time, the available evidence so far does not fit in into a single, widely accepted theory. In addition, as was mentioned earlier, this survey proceeded from the concept of personal authoritarianism. However, psychology has an alternative – and broader – personality model based on the so-called Big Five personal traits. It would be interesting to compare results obtained with the use of both theories. Regrettably, Zimmerman’s questionnaire does not include indicators that would make it possible to gauge how the Big Five influence foreign policy attitudes. Further research will be needed to verify and corroborate these conclusions.

The authors are laureates of the Valdai Club Foundation Grant Program .

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.