The Right Stuff in Foreign Policy

CAMBRIDGE – Some critics complain that US President Barack Obama campaigned on inspirational rhetoric and an ambition to “bend the arc of history,” but then turned out to be a transactional and pragmatic leader once in office. In this respect, however, Obama is hardly unique.

Many leaders change their objectives and style over the course of their careers. One of the great transformational leaders in history, Otto von Bismarck, became largely incremental and status quo-oriented after achieving the unification of Germany under Prussian direction. Likewise, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s foreign-policy objectives and style were modest and incremental in his first presidential term, but became transformational in 1938 when he decided that Adolf Hitler represented an existential threat.

Transactional leadership is more effective in stable and predictable environments, whereas an inspirational style is more likely to appear in periods of rapid and discontinuous social and political change. The transformational objectives and inspirational style of a leader like Mahatma Gandhi in India or Nelson Mandela in South Africa can significantly influence outcomes in fluid political contexts, particularly in developing countries with weakly structured institutional constraints.

By contrast, American foreign-policy formation is highly constrained by institutions like Congress, the courts, and the constitution. Thus, we would expect less opportunity for transformational leadership.