Miller Center

Colloquium - Wars of Choice: Leadership, Threat Perception, and Military Interventions

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The Miller Center is a nonpartisan institute that seeks to provide critical insights for the nation’s governance challenges.

Professor Elizabeth Saunders
October 10, 2008
12:30PM - 12:30PM (EDT)

Professor Elizabeth Saunders
Professor Elizabeth Saunders

Professor Elizabeth Saunders, Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University

In 2007–08, Professor Saunders was a postdoctoral fellow in National Security at the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University. Her research and teaching interests focus on international relations, and include international security, international relations theory, U.S. foreign policy, military interventions, strategy and military power, and the role of leaders and other domestic actors in international diplomacy. Her current research focuses on the impact of leadership on decisions to undertake military interventions and the choice of intervention strategies. She has also published articles on the transatlantic debate over "rogue states" in the international system, and on the political and party preferences of immigrants in Europe.

Abstract of Professor Saunders' colloquium paper:

Why do some military interventions seek to transform the domestic institutions of the states they target, while other interventions aim to resolve conflicts without significant interference in the target state's internal affairs? The choice of intervention strategy – particularly the degree to which interventions interfere in the domestic affairs of target states – is often neglected in scholarship on intervention. This paper argues that it is impossible to fully understand both when and how states intervene without exploring the crucial but often overlooked role of leaders. I develop a typology of political leaders based on whether they believe that the internal characteristics of other states are the ultimate source of threats. These different threat perceptions have profound consequences for how states conduct military interventions. Leaders who diagnose threats from other states' internal institutions are more likely to undertake "transformative" interventions, in which the intervening state is deeply involved in the building or rebuilding of domestic institutions in the target state. In contrast, leaders who see threats as arising directly from the foreign and security policies of other states are more likely to pursue "non-transformative" strategies, which aim only to resolve a given conflict with minimal involvement in domestic affairs. The paper illustrates how the theory operates by comparing the threat perceptions of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as their decision-making during the Vietnam War, using archival and historical sources. The paper is drawn from a larger project that examines how leaders shape military interventions, including the decision to intervene and the choice of intervention strategy, focusing on the threat perceptions and intervention decisions of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson.

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