In Conversation with Joshua D. Kertzer

Interview by Michelle Nicholasen

Image of Joshua KertzerAssistant Professor of Government Joshua D. Kertzer studies what might be called the gray matter of international security—what lies behind the decisions of leaders, and the foreign policy attitudes of the public. His work takes place at the intersection of psychology and international relations, and it endeavors to go beyond obvious motivations to reveal the human dispositions that direct political behavior.
Kertzer has won numerous awards for his published works, which always ask intriguing questions like: How do leaders assess resolve in disputes? What are the moral values of “hawks” and “doves” in foreign policy? What leads the public to label an attack as terrorism? Who has greater influence on public opinion, political elites or peers? What might account for shifts in the public’s foreign policy “moods”? To better understand why leaders go to war, or why people have different stances on international security issues, his work uses quantitative and experimental methods to study the interplay of deep-seated traits and situational stakes.
His research, including his 2016 book,
Resolve in International Politics, has received high acclaim, numerous awards, and even a few mentions on late night television.
As co-chair of the new Weatherhead Research Cluster on Diplomacy, Interstate Crises, and Nuclear Instability—along with Alastair Iain Johnston and Stephen Peter Rosen—Kertzer is spearheading an initiative to generate pathbreaking scholarship on new dimensions affecting international security.
Centerpiece spoke to him about what’s behind his passion for the field of political psychology and about goals for the new research cluster.

CENTERPIECE: What inspired your early interest in political psychology?

KERTZER: As an undergrad I took a class in American foreign policy and became really interested in what's called “strategic culture”: the idea that decisions in foreign policy aren’t purely driven by the material world—that there is some sort of belief system, symbols, cultures, or operational codes that dictate how leaders and states interpret information and make sense of the world around them. I realized I was interested in the parts of international relations that take place in between people's ears. So that was my gateway drug. 

CENTERPIECE: Did your background contribute to these interests?

KERTZER: Coming from Canada, where we are so heavily affected by American foreign policy, I always felt like an outsider, interested in how insiders think about things. I also went to college when the Iraq War loomed very large in so many ways, so I was fascinated by how leaders decide when to go to war. That's also what made me interested in public opinion, because we saw these very stark divisions in the public at that time. Now I teach American foreign policy to undergraduates, some of whom were only two years old when the war began, and who think of it as ancient history. For them, not only was invading Iraq an obvious mistake, but they’ve never known a time when anyone thought it wasn’t. Yet this certainly wasn’t the case at the time.

CENTERPIECE: You have done a great deal of experimental, opinion-based research both on the general public and some selected leaders. What connections can you draw from the two different groups?

KERTZER: For a long time, people subscribed to these so-called “great men” theories of leaders in international relations, who were supposed to be systematically different than the citizens they governed. Partially, though, these conclusions were a function of methodological choices: if you're studying leaders with memoirs or biographies, and you are studying ordinary citizens in the mass public with surveys, it makes it hard to directly compare the two. So one of the interesting opportunities for us is being able to use the same tools to study both groups.

CENTERPIECE: What are some of your findings?

KERTZER: We’ve found that differences that we see among ordinary citizens also manifest themselves among leaders too. So for example, colleagues and I have been fielding experiments on members of the Knesset in Israel. We’re interested in how democratic leaders make decisions about war and peace. These are leaders for whom conflicts are highly salient issues right now. One of the things we're finding is that in many ways these high-level cabinet ministers and officials think about foreign policy decisions surprisingly similarly to “convenience samples” of members of the mass public in the United States. 

For example, one of the things we’ve found is that there's a large amount of variation of how leaders interpret what IR scholars call “costly signals,” like public threats or troop mobilizations. We can't attribute this variation to their experiences as elites, but rather, to the same psychological orientations we know explain variation in public opinion about foreign policy. 

So, in that sense, our work has been undermining the arguments about elite exceptionalism. If elites are these automatons who think like computers, then there's no room for psychology there. But if elite decision makers are human beings just like us, then it's worth understanding in what domains this is the case. 

CENTERPIECE: What was the rationale behind creating a research cluster on international security issues such as diplomacy, interstate crises, and nuclear instability?

KERTZER: When the Cold War ended, there was a sense that international security didn't matter anymore. We were at the end of history, and were told we should all be studying trade and integration and economic cooperation. These things are all crucially important to study. But if the past couple years have taught us anything, it's that great power competition hasn't gone away. It’s back with a vengeance. 

We see the new research cluster as an opportunity to better understand three of the most crucial dynamics of the next decade. The first is about is the psychology of diplomacy, understanding how leaders make decisions in an era where it seems that leaders are increasingly important. The second is about cybersecurity, and what the rapid diffusion of information means for the escalation of international crises. The third involves nuclear weapons in an era of multipolarity. Much of the history of the nuclear revolution is inextricably tied to bipolarity, where international order is dominated by two great powers. We’re not in a bipolar world anymore—whether we’re fully multipolar or not depends on who you talk to and how you measure polarity—but the extent to which this development changes things is the third ingredient in that mix. 

Quotation from Joshua Kertzer

CENTERPIECE: Do you have a current research project that links to the cluster?

KERTZER: One of the things that a graduate student in the Department of Government, Harry Oppenheimer, and I are working on involves public opinion in response to cyberattacks. Does the public respond to cyber events like they respond to kinetic events? Often in American politics we talk about what's called “the rally around the flag effect”—the idea that when outsiders attack, the public rallies behind political institutions like the president, increases support for the president's foreign policy, and so on. One of the interesting things with cyber is we don't really see that, necessarily. If anything, the argument that you'll see made in the media during debates about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election (but also recent elections in Western and Eastern Europe), is that Russia is taking advantage of democracies’ weaknesses, turning the American system against itself. Rather than these attacks causing the polity to rally and cohere, it's causing it to fragment and divide. We’re interested in understanding whether empirically this is the case and why.

CENTERPIECE: You spearheaded a new conference on international security recently. What was the outcome?

KERTZER: We held a “new faces in international security” conference last fall where we brought in PhD students who were near completion of their dissertations and were about to go out on the academic job market. We paired them with faculty discussants to provide feedback on their research. After we circulated our call for papers, we received about 435 applications from around the world for only ten or twelve spots. It showed us the extent to which there's a critical mass of people doing work in international security. There’s such a diversity of scholarship within international security right now—the subject means a lot of different things to different people, which I think is for the better. We’d like to try to make the conference a recurring event, potentially collaborating with other schools. 

CENTERPIECE: On a lighter note, can you tell us something about yourself that might not be widely known in academic circles?

Book cover of Resolve in International PoliticsKERTZER: One of my advisers in graduate school told us that all good dissertation topics are autobiographical, in the sense that you're going to be intrinsically drawn into certain topics over others because of something about you. My dissertation, which then became a book, Resolve in International Politics, was about resolve: why some actors display considerable persistence in war while others want to cut and run, a question I investigated both at the leader level and the public level. In the project, I was interested in connecting work on the psychology of willpower and self-control from social psychology and behavioral economics, to see if they could tell us something about dynamics in international politics at all. When I was younger, I used to run track and field, but I wasn’t particularly good. Everyone else was stronger and faster, but I always tried really hard. So maybe my interest in whether resolve can overcome a lack of capabilities was spurred on by all of the races I’ve lost. 

CENTERPIECE: Do you think it’s true? Can resolve overcome limitations?

KERTZER: I think a lot of what we do as scholars requires resolve. Research is about sitting at your desk and banging your head against the wall until the world starts to make sense. As I tell my grad students, grit and perseverance matter an awful lot.