All Politics is Local, and Sometimes Personal: The impact of the individual in international relations

One of the central challenges of writing an international relations blog is that there is a strong sense of trying to keep things focused on the international system and events taking place outside the borders of the United States. It is easy to leave the American Politics to that other Know Now blog.

But there are times when American politics is international relations. This is one of those times.

One of the challenges of understanding international relations is that it is incredibly complicated. There are lots of moving parts. Many actors with curious acronyms, foreign place names, and the oddly (to the eyes of most citizens of nation-states) anarchic world of the international system. To understand this complexity, we rely on theory to simplify the world. We build theoretical models to tell us what is most important as a focus for our attention. Ideally these models help us to explain the world we live in and then predict what may happen in the future.

There are many differences across theories of international relations, but an enduring tension is the role that individuals may play in determining the events of the international system. When discussing the system-level theories there are powerful forces at work, interacting in complex webs of power relations, international market forces, the movement of populations, even the occasional natural disaster. It is hard to see the role of individuals in this high-level view. At other times, we look at the specific leaders of nations and examine psychological and institutional factors that influence their behavior. There are lots of other approaches, but all must deal with this problem of the individual and their role.

Rarely has such a discussion seemed more appropriate than with the Trump presidency. Whether you love him or hate him, Donald Trump has raised interesting questions about the role of the individual in international relations.

Political leaders always have more impact than average citizens on a daily basis. They have an institutional role that makes this so. Leading a nation-state makes it easier to have an impact. Average citizens can play a powerful role in unusual times, but more often they play small, incremental roles. These roles are important, but they rarely make headlines. Political leaders get to make headlines.

But how much to they actually do? Donald Trump is the leader of a republic. He was elected to lead the nation, but with his power checked by legislative and judicial branches. These domestic institutions constrain him and what he can do. He is also constrained by political survival. If he wants to stay in office, he has to maintain a winning coalition to do so. These are significant constraints on his actions.

In China and Russia, a narrow political elite rules each country. In Russia there are elections, although not ones that are very free or fair. But the fig-leaf of representative government exists. In China even suggesting competitive elections is generally followed by punishments by the state. In these countries, leaders face fewer limits on their power, but they are still constrained by the other nation-states and how these nations are seen.

So, how much power do these leaders have, really? Realist thinkers would argue that they have very little, that states act in the interest of power maximization and a given leader matters little. Liberal institutionalists will argue that the institutional constraints limit the power of leaders, but that leaders own preferences do matter. And the arguments could go on and on.

In practice, the complicated world is not explainable by any one theory. Donald Trump is heavily constrained by institutions, but he has the power to set an international agenda that comes from being the leader of the largest economy and strongest military in the world. He has limited power, but his quirks matter because of the nation he leads. When Donald Trump argues that dismantling the post-war international order is a good thing, people will pay attention. Leaders of the global South have been calling for that for years, to much less attention. That Chinese President Xi Jinping is now the only leader of a major power state arguing for an open global trade system represents a fundamental shift in the international agenda.

It is early days in a Trump administration and his decisions have largely been symbolic in international terms. It remains to be seen whether the problems of his first three weeks are just on-the-job training (which is normal) or if they represent a real break with the system that has maintained world peace for the last seventy years. Regardless of which is the answer, the “individuals matter” theorists are smiling, at least for today.



  1. How does the democratic nature of American institutions shape the potential for any individual president to impact the international system? With such a complex web of relationships, is any president doing more than making minor course adjustments to the direction of policy?
  2. Most theorists argue that the short-term can see lots of volatility, but that things tend to fall into a long-term pattern. According to this view, a combination of domestic political factors and reactions from the international system will restrain any leader’s actions. Given the power of the United States and the rhetorical approach of President Trump, is he likely to be moderated by these factors? What evidence would lead you that conclusion? Are there other examples in democratic countries that could inform your answer?
  3. In the study of international relations (as in most areas of academic study) there is a split between academics and policy practitioners. For those who deal with the practice of international relations (workers in NGO’s, IGO’s, government bureaus, etc.) is it possible to ignore who leads powerful nations? Can practitioners just grit their teeth and ride out the election cycles? Or do practitioners have to adjust to whoever is in charge, even if it means shifting gears every few years?