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Visiting professor talks leaders, conflict in Ohio State Mershon Center event

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A postcard posted on PostSecret’s website Aug. 31 appeared to confess a murder.  Credit: Courtesy of PostSecret

A postcard posted on PostSecret’s website Aug. 31 appeared to confess a murder.
Credit: Courtesy of PostSecret

Researchers could be able to predict the future behavior of international leaders based off their life experiences, according to a university professor who spoke at Ohio State.

Michael Horowitz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a lecture Wednesday titled “Presidents, Kings, Dictators and Wars: Leader Risk and International Politics” at the OSU Mershon Center for International Security Studies.

Horowitz argued against a common theory among other political scientists that democratically elected leaders don’t make a difference, saying despite socialization and political constraints, leaders matter in international politics.

“The bottom line is that leaders actually make differences,” Horowitz said.

The underlying topic of discussion was how certain events throughout a leader’s life might contribute to their likelihood to engage in military invasion and conflict.

Horowitz said experiences like childhood, education, military experience and adult life play a large role into a leader’s political policy. Both nature and nurture should be taken into account when trying to understand how candidates might function in office, he said.

“The life experience shapes their world view,” Horowitz said. He said he believes these instances can be translated into policy outcome, and has attempted to produce a risk score for particular leaders throughout the world and history.

“Modeling international conflict on the basis of leader attributes can actually tell you some pretty interesting things. It can actually predict pretty well who some of those dangerous leaders in the world are,” Horowitz said.

Through a slideshow presentation, Horowitz offered evidence showing how historical figures like former Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin, former Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, former Germany chancellor and dictator Adolf Hitler and former Iraq President Saddam Hussein’s lives before coming into political power might have played into their propensity for conflict.

An assessment of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a young leader of an autocratic nation with military experience but no combat experience, showed how “someone like Assad should be the dangerous guy that he is … likely to start and escalate conflicts,” Horowitz said.

A majority of the world leaders taken into account were men, but his methods of research and prediction were used to assess women in politics as well. Because there is such a small sample, though, it became hard to foresee any similar patterns of military invasion or conflict in women leaders.

As female figureheads begin to become more commonplace throughout the world, Horowitz said he believes they will fall in line with their male counterparts’ tendencies.

In a Q&A session after the one-hour lecture, Horowitz addressed questions from the audience about his research and extrapolating his findings onto other leaders and conflict throughout history.

“Leader attributes represent a potentially really powerful way to capture the importance of leaders’ international politics,” Horowitz said.

Horowitz’s first book, “The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics,” received the Edgar S. Furniss Book Award from the Mershon Center in 2010. The award is given to “an author whose first book makes an exceptional contribution to the study of national and international security,” according the Mershon website.

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