Puzzling Decisions and Cults of Personality: An Expansion Upon Political Realism

Lailee Golesorkhi, Dec 14, 2023

In times of conflict, it is commonplace for the actions of leaders to be attributed to strategic, calculated, and power-centric aims. In line with traditional “realist” thought, which places the institution of the state and its desire for power and hegemony at the forefront of international relations, many intuitively assume that every military campaign, policy, executive order, and comment to the press is part of a rational and straightforward crusade for power [1].


While realism is, in many ways, a compelling framework through which international relations can be broadly conceptualized, this paradigm falls flat with its ascription of the actions of political leaders—irrespective of how ambiguous, misguided, or seemingly foolish they are—to a coherent and ubiquitous desire to maximize security and augment state power. Realists do not completely reject the notion that domestic politics and leaders influence foreign policy, but hold that international pressures and the actions of other states ultimately shape decisions in a far more meaningful capacity [2]. Thus, often omitted from realist explanations of state actions are the life experiences and personalities of leaders, which, when dissected, provide highly valuable insight as to why even the most reckless leaders act the way they do. The point is not that leaders do not prioritize power, but that narrowing in on the characteristics of leaders can fill in the gaps when realism’s state-centric framework fails to explain why states act irrationally and compromise their own security.


Two contemporary conflicts through which this model can be best understood are Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the recent inflammation in tensions between Israel and Hamas, for both Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu have consistently behaved in ways that bring into question the notion that power and security are invariable at the forefront of leaders’ agendas.



Albeit anachronistic and condemnable, chalking up Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to a mere desire to increase Russian power not only fails to consider a plethora of historical circumstances that prove otherwise, but is ignorant of the role of Putin’s character traits and psychology.


Putin worked for the KGB for most of his life. Although it is self-evident that this occupation instilled a fervent sense of nationalism in him, what is perhaps less intuitive is that it additionally forced him to witness many watershed historical events firsthand, sowing the seeds for what would become anti-democracy and anti-West rhetoric [3]. For instance, Putin was stationed in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell, where he witnessed the Peaceful Revolution and the establishment of a democracy in a region previously under socialist control. While scholars can only speculate, it is highly improbable that watching the collapse of East Germany's communist government at the hands of masses of revolting citizens had no effect on his decision to send troops to quell the pro-democracy uprising on Kyiv’s Maidan Square in 2014, for example. But perhaps most formative to Putin’s ideology was the fall of the Soviet Union. Dubbed “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the century” and a “genuine tragedy” for the Russian people by Putin himself, little explanation is needed as to how this collapse fueled his paranoia and desire to interfere in the affairs of his neighbors [4].


The dominant understanding of Putin’s 2022 invasion is two-fold. First, Putin acted with aggression in response to the encroachment of NATO into Russia’s backyard, and second, he intended to ultimately expand Russian hegemony [5]. However, if the invasion was simply a response to NATO expansion, why was there no violence when Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia—all of which are proximate to Russia—were admitted to the organization in 2004 [6]? Why did mere discussions regarding the possible admission of Ukraine prompt an invasion in 2022? Why would Putin push Ukraine toward NATO with an invasion in which Ukraine has become completely dependent on their aid if he sought to prevent the state from affiliating with the West? The point is not that Putin’s psychology provides a clear and linear explanation for each of his decisions (no framework is this comprehensive). Rather, it is that an analysis of the traits and whims of leaders explains why they behave in contradictory ways and why, in this case, Putin’s actions tend to run counter to his supposed overriding desire to augment Russian power. 


Gerard Toal, Professor of Government and International Affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, rejects both the “dominant liberal understanding” and “realist counterstory” in instead purporting that several domestic factors dictate the actions of states [7]. While a reading of the entirety of Toal’s novel is recommended to understand the impact of state-produced drama, geopolitical culture, and the East vs. West positioning that characterizes much of foreign relations, perhaps the most relevant and complementary factor with respect to this discussion is the notion of affective geopolitics. 


Toal explains that while geopolitics has been historically associated with calculated, deliberate modes of thinking, such a view completely discards the emotions (or “affect”) that play a vital role in decision-making. The horrific nature of 9/11 galvanized both presidential and public support for exceptionally proactive and intrusive policies which likely would not have received support had the attack not been so tragic, just as it is very possible that a sense of nostalgia for the supremacy of the USSR and cultural ties to Ukraine motivates Putin. 


Russia has deep cultural, economic, and political bonds with Ukraine, stronger than those between Russia and other former Soviet states [8]. Millions of ethnic Russians live in Ukraine and vice versa, each group has historically been represented in the other’s government, and ethnocultural links further bolster the connection between the states. Completely devoid of the realist perspective are these domestic and cultural dimensions. We need not speculate as to the impact of these linkages on Putin’s psyche, as he wrote an article in 2021 entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in which he delineated the ethnic, linguistic, and religious ties between the groups and from which the following excerpt comes [9].


Our spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources, they have been hardened by common trials, achievements and victories. Our kinship has been transmitted from generation to generation. It is in the hearts and the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in the blood ties that unite millions of our families. Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.


Realists posit that Russia would find it most advantageous to augment its power by invading its neighbors in a broad sense but do not highlight the geopolitical significance of Ukraine specifically and, by extension, can not thoroughly explain Putin’s actions through their hegemonic framework. In line with this point, perhaps the most famous scholar in the realist camp, John Mearsheimer, answers one of the questions from above by holding that the aforementioned 2004 multi-member NATO admission was not a threat to Russia because the states involved did not share a border with the country [10]. Putin says otherwise; Ukraine is uniquely important for reasons that extend mere geography. The divergence between the realist and psychological approaches is, in sum, a divergence between third-party speculation and an analysis of the direct justifications and perspectives of leaders themselves. Choose which seems to be the more illustrative as you see fit. 



Next is Netanyahu. Given the recent escalation in violence between Israel and Hamas, an analysis of Netanyahu’s traits and psychology can provide significant insight into the complexities of Israeli foreign policy and explain some of the non-sequiturs that have puzzled citizens and officials alike.


As is the case with the overwhelming majority of Israeli citizens, Netanyahu served in the Israeli Defense Forces [11]. His family members emphasized Zionism as both a realization of the Jewish legacy as well as a means of providing protection to exiled Jews. Irrespective of its moral or political implications, exposure to such nationalist and Zionist ideology throughout his youth explains why he and millions of Israelis feel so strongly about their right to the land.


Whereas realists may posit that Netanyahu is largely motivated by a desire to promote Israel’s hegemony and power, his recent judicial overhaul, approval of thousands of new settlement homes in the West Bank, and failure to accept and effectively utilize intelligence prior to the October 7th Hamas offensive have all redounded to the disadvantage of Israel, weakening the state’s defense capabilities dramatically [12]. Realism posits that these were calculated decisions geared toward the accumulation of power, but an analysis of the direct outcomes of these actions and Netanyahu’s decision-making patterns unveils a decision-making pattern grounded in ideological and nationalistic motives. 


Particularly striking were the intelligence failures prior to the October 7th attack. An Egyptian intelligence official informed the Associated Press that Cairo had “repeatedly warned the Israelis ‘something big’ was being planned from Gaza”, but no preemptive defensive action was taken [13]. The theory that this warning was explicitly and intentionally ignored by Netanyahu despite its urgency seems plausible, especially when one considers the unprecedented scale of the attack and Mossad’s usual proficiency. 


Because the realist view posits that states prioritize their own self-interest and security as members of what is ultimately a power-centric international community, it has no response to decisions such as this one, or decisions that run counter to national security, destabilize domestic politics, and hamper the accumulation of power. Zionism in and of itself can be explained by realism, to be sure, but the counterintuitive means by which Netanyahu has sought to achieve Zionist goals cannot. Israel wants the land in order to create a foundation for their dominance in the region, but why has Netanyahu ignored intelligence crucial to the maintenance of this hegemony? Domestic factors and individual decisions are important, and yet the implication of realism is that their impact is minimal and leaders are simply operating within a predetermined security framework. Again, assessing leaders’ psychology does not explicitly reveal the exact logic of leaders, nor does it tell us why Netanyahu ignored the warnings, for instance, but doing so demonstrates the fact that personal beliefs and ideology often impact decision-making to a greater degree than rational strategy.


It must be noted that the point of this argument has not been to rationalize, justify, or explain the actions taken by Putin and Netanyahu. Rather, the goal is to illustrate the limitations of a solely realist perspective and convey the necessity of framing discussion about international relations in a way which is considerate of leaders’ character. As has been shown with these two case studies, the fact that leaders consistently lay the groundwork for what eventually become highly counterintuitive and unproductive decisions is indicative of the impact of personal desires and thought processes that are disparate from those traditionally associated with hegemony. In order to understand geopolitics and properly interpret state actions, we must avoid falling back on sweeping generalizations.


Most leaders are not geniuses, highly educated experts on game theory, or military strategy aficionados with nuanced understandings of how each decision will advantage their respective countries. It is important to remember that in the big picture, Putin and Netanyahu act in ways they believe to be rational in order to achieve their respective aims, and their irrational decisions result from an unpredictable amalgamation of their whims, opinions, fears, educational experiences, families, careers, and the politics of the countries in which they were reared. Put simply, we must not overestimate the capacities and aims of leaders; there is not always a logical explanation.



[1] Korab-Karpowicz, W. Julian. “Political Realism in International Relations.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, October 9, 2023. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/realism-intl-relations/.

[2] Zakaria, Fareed. Review of Realism and Domestic Politics: A Review Essay, by Jack Snyder. International Security 17, no. 1 (1992): 177–98. https://doi.org/10.2307/2539162.

[3] “Vladimir Putin.” History, September 25, 2023. https://www.history.com/topics/european-history/vladimir-putin-video.

[4] Molchanov, Mikhail A. “Borders of Identity: Ukraine’s Political and Cultural Significance for Russia.” Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne Des Slavistes 38, no. 1/2 (1996): 177–93. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40869778.

[5] Masters, Jonathan. “Ukraine: Conflict at the Crossroads of Europe and Russia.” Council on Foreign Relations, February 14, 2023. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/ukraine-conflict-crossroads-europe-and-russia#chapter-title-0-5.

[6] Myers, Steven L. “As NATO Finally Arrives on Its Border, Russia Grumbles.” The New York Times, April 3, 2004. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/03/world/as-nato-finally-arrives-on-its-border-russia-grumbles.html.

[7] Toal, Gerard. Near abroad: Putin, the west, and the contest over Ukraine and Caucasus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

[8] Molchanov, Mikhail A. “Borders of Identity: Ukraine’s Political and Cultural Significance for Russia.” Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne Des Slavistes 38, no. 1/2 (1996): 177–93. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40869778.

[9] Putin, Vladimir. “Article by Vladimir Putin ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.’” President of Russia, July 12, 2021. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181.

[10] Mearsheimer, John J. “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault.” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 5 (September/October 2014): 1–12. https://www.mearsheimer.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Why-the-Ukraine-Crisis-Is.pdf.

[11] Kim, Shaul. “The Psychological Profile of Benjamin Netanyahu Using Behavior Analysis.” Research Gate, January 2001. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235330077_The_psychological_profile_of_Benjamin_Netanyahu_using_behavior_analysis.

[12] Birnbaum, Ben. “‘Netanyahu Got All the Warnings,’ Says Former Head of Israeli Military Intelligence.” Politico, October 24, 2023. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2023/10/24/amos-yaldin-israeli-military-intelligence-netanyahu-qa-00123099.

[13] “Egypt Warned Israel Days before Hamas Struck, US Committee Chairman Says.” BBC News, October 12, 2023. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-67082047.