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Does personality matter in foreign relations? The curious case of Vladimir Putin

By Punsara Amarasinghe

The effects of personality on decision making processes before crucial issues have always been tough to quantify. Yet the subtle level of it influence continues to effect on the realm of politics and by all means it cannot be confined to a mere rhetorical quibble as the annals of modern political histories have always been the best witnesses in signifying the relevance of specific personality orders of world leaders. For the sake of personality , as in the case of realist theories in international relations, personality variable can be eliminated much of a time, especially when dealing with more routine bureaucratic  decisions. When analyzing the influence of personality upon foreign policy, it is important to emphasize that the differing political environments surrounding leaders will naturally create highly variable boundaries within which they have the freedom to operate. It is a given that a dictator in an authoritarian regime has much greater, unconditional, unaccountable power to create policies suiting his personal interests, than the leader of a democracy.

Analyzing the personality of Russian president Vladimir Putin and his most intrinsic features unfolds many paths to fathom his political stances in maintaining Russian foreign policy. Western Pundits and Kremlinologists who contribute columns to Washington Posts or New York times have often painted grim colours in Putin as a man who is determined himself to rule Russia perpetually reminding country’s notorious history of the despotic Tsars. But the steps taken by president Putin since the day he stepped into Kremlin in the dawn on new millennium in 1999 as Russia’s leader and the trajectories that have culled those policies in Russia’s foreign policy in the post-Soviet space have palpably shown that Putin’s desires are driven by individual goals, which remained obscure in his political psyche beyond analysis of any Western armchair critic.

For instance his image perceived by the West during Putin’s initial hobnobbing with Washington was rather an innocent one as many Russian experts tended to portray him as a young leader who would continue to adore West in liberalizing ruins of Soviet Union. After the meeting between Putin and then the US president George W Bush at Slovenia summit in 2001, Bush remarked on Putin’s eyes by saying “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy – I was able to get a sense of his soul.” This was the perception of the West towards Putin in his halcyon period as an amateur leader in Kremlin. However , his personality gradually became much indomitable and the manifested audacity in situations like crushing Chechenian separatist movement and uplifting Russia’s image helped Putin to consolidate his power. The Russia’s military campaign in Georgia in 2008 was a gob smacking blow on the deceptive image Putin created among the western leaders as a meek statesman.

In understating his astute personality in decision making and foreign policy, one needs to ascertain that Putin was a man of his environment. His upbringing , the first-hand experience of the fall of mighty Soviet Union and finally the grooming he received in St. Petersburg as the deputy mayor have significantly nourished his enigmatic political acumen. The most audacious way he handled the German protestors from looting the KGB office in East German was one example that reveals his steely persona as in this particular situation he was able to tame the angry mobs. In that situation he told the crowd that armed men were waiting inside the offices to shoot at unwelcome demonstrators. Indeed it was lie and it saved many of the valuable KGB files stacked in East Germany.

Though it may be prudent that many of the Western pundits those who consider Putin’s personality as relevant in Russian foreign policy seem to have forgotten the impacts of the collapse of the Soviet Union in Putin’s psyche. Since the utter humiliation he witnessed as a KGB officer in East Germany followed by the events took place in Russia which set last nail for the Communist empire of Soviet Union , Putin’s ultimate goal was nothing more than  except restoring the glory of Russia. His unconditional patriotism and deepest interest in locating Russia in the appropriate place are by all means should be observed as overarching factors in carving his most commendable personality.

The crux of the difficulties facing the conventional Kremlinogists, and to some extend many other foreign experts is that they are unable to fathom how Putin has taken Russia’s traditionalism and his belief in Russia’s historical role in shaping his personality. Many instances relating to his policy decision makings have demonstrated how fervently he flaunted himself to Russia’s historical traditions as a keen student of history. As an example in 2011 he declared his intention of returning to the presidency while commemorating the 100 death anniversary of Tsar Nicolas’s II’s progressive prime minister Pyotr Stolypin and Putin showed a special interest in comparing himself with this liberal minister.

All in all , understating Putin’s personality which is imbued with a sense of his love for Russian traditional virtues and portraying himself as a preserver of Russian pride are the indispensable factors that have clearly illuminated in his foreign policy decisions. Even though his personality is much different from Joseph Stalin who always suffered from paranoia , Putin has some similar features with Stalin in terms of maintaining his sheer narcissism. The way Kremlin tends to show how Putin spends his summer in most adventurous  manner in the wild forests of Russia when Western leaders spend their time in the sunny beaches in Mediterranean  sea is just one fine example showing how this charismatic man uses his personality in foreign relations. Although there is no empirical rationale to prove that those who study Putin’s moves in his most intriguing ways of foreign relations must look for his personality in grasping his foreign policy decisions.

Punsara Amarasinghe is a visiting fellow at Center for Global Legal Studies in University of Wisconsin Madison . He reads for his PhD in International Law at Institute of Law, Politics and Development in Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa, Italy and held one year research fellowship in the faculty of law in National Research University, Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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