Leadership in International Relations

Political Leadership in International Relations

Outline of Course Taught by Jack Matlock

The course analyzes the impact political leaders can have on international relations by examining case studies of specific decisions. The case studies  deal with events of international  importance over the past two and a half decades.  They will include Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, and the end of the Cold War; Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War; Helmut Kohl and the unification of Germany, George Bush (the elder) and the Gulf War; Boris Yeltsin and the collapse of the Soviet Union; Bill Clinton and the Kosovo War; Vladimir Putin’s strategy for restoring Russian power, and George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

Initially, the seminar considers styles of leadership by some American and Russian presidents. This will provide a basis for comparing the styles of the other leaders whose decisions will be analyzed. After discussing the case studies, the seminar will consider such questions as similarities and differences in the qualities of leadership in different societies, the extent to which leaders are victims of circumstance and the degree (if any) to which their decisions can change things. If leaders are attempting to change traditional policy, how do they go about it?  What works and what doesn’t?

Each member will select a topic for individual research and will be expected to discuss the topic with the group and to prepare an essay on it.  

Schedule of Readings and Discussions



Why Study Decision Making;

How the Seminar Will Be Structured 


After the members have introduced themselves and explained their interests, the instructor will describe the reasons for the course and its structure, explaining why each of the case studies was selected.

Before the close of the session members will be given the opportunity to comment on and make suggestions regarding the content of the course and to discuss possible research topics.

Assigned Reading:

Greenstein, Fred I. The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Barack Obama, pages 1-9; 145-157.

 David A. Welch. Painful Choices: A Theory of Foreign Policy Change. Princeton University Press, 2005, pages 1-29.

Jack F. Matlock. Superpower Illusions, Yale University Press, 2010, pages 3-31.

Brown, Archie and Lilia Shestova, editors.  Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin: Political Leadership in Russia’s Transition, pages 1-43.

Optional: Although the readings listed above deal with those presidents who are subject to case studies to follow, members will benefit from reading about other presidents.  Therefore, during the term, they should find time to read those portions of that are not assigned as required reading. 



 Leadership Style of American and Russian Presidents

Before looking at specific decisions and how they were made, the seminar will discuss the various elements of political leadership.  Some of them will be similar, even when the societies are radically different, as were the United States and the Soviet Union.  Some are likely to be different, depending on the traditions of the country, and also upon the objectives set by the leader.

Since our first case study will examine how Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev set their respective countries on a course that ended the Cold War, this session will discuss comments on the leadership styles of Reagan and Gorbachev.

Reading (for discussion Week 3):

Matlock, Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended. Foreword and Chapters I to VI (pages ix to 148).

Reagan, An American Life, pp. 547-611.

George Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, pp. 117-127; 159-171; 265-284; 463-486; 487-519.


Reagan’s Challenge


Ronald Reagan became President of the United States four years before Gorbachev was selected to lead the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as General Secretary.  Although Reagan was willing to deal with Gorbachev’s predecessors, he developed a policy that was designed for a successor generation of leaders who might understand that traditional Soviet policies were not serving the national interest.

This session will discuss the development of Reagan’s policies regarding the Soviet Union before Gorbachev came to power, and how they differed from those of Carter and Nixon.

Reading (for following week’s discussion):

Matlock, Reagan and Gorbachev, pages 149 to 328.

 Gorbachev, Memoirs, pp. 401-420; 439-462


Chernyaev, Anatoly.  My Six Years with Gorbachev, pp. 49-133.

Reagan, An American Life, pp. 611-723.

George Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, pp. 520-538; 561-607; 728-782; 869-900; 983-1015; 1080-1108.



 Gorbachev’s Response

When Gorbachev took office he thought that the problems the Soviet Union was facing could be solved by a bit of tinkering with the management system.  He was soon disabused of this illusion, and rapidly developed concepts he called “new thinking.”  The purpose was to relax tensions with the West so that the Soviet Union could undertake some fundamental reforms.

By 1987 he understood that the agenda Reagan had enunciated from 1984 was consistent with Soviet aspirations.  Step by step, he and Reagan began to espouse the same aims.  But this did not happen without hard bargaining.

Reading:  (for discussion the following week)

Mikhail Gorbachev, On My Country and the World, Chapter 19 (“Overcoming the Cold War”), pp. 194-207.

Matlock, Reagan and Gorbachev, pages 312-328.

Matlock, Superpower Illusions, Chapter 3.

Eduard Shevardnadze, The Future Belongs to Freedom, pp. 78-111.


 Who Won the Cold War?

Lessons of the Cold War.  The crucial decisions, and their implications.  Qualities Reagan and Gorbachev brought to the task.

Could others have done it?


Reading (for following week’s discussion): 

Welch, Painful Choices, pages 72-94.

Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, Chapters VII and VIII, pp. 173-235.

Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Realism, Reagan and Foreign Policy, Chapter 13, pp. 261-302.


Magaret Thatcher and the Falklands War

On April 2, 1982, Argentine troops invaded the Falkland Islands without warning.  (Argentina had long claimed that these islands, which it called the Malvinas, were properly part of Argentine territory, a claim that Great Britain had never recognized.) The very next day the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution demanding that Argentina withdraw its troops.

The inhabitants of the Falklands were all of British descent and were strongly opposed to Argentine sovereignty over the islands. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was faced with the choice of seeking some compromise by diplomatic means and avoiding military action, or—if diplomatic efforts could not secure the rights of the inhabitants of the Falklands, to use military force to dislodge the Argentine troops.  Many observers doubted that Britain could re-take the islands given their great distance from the British Isles and proximity to Argentina.  Others felt that, even if Britain could prevail militarily, the Falklands were not worth the blood and treasure military action would entail.

In the readings, Welch describes the circumstances under which the Argentine junta made the decision to invade the Falklands/Malvinas. Mrs. Thatcher describes her motivation and the complications she faced in her memoirs.  Lord Carrington, the British foreign minister who resigned immediately after the Argentine invasion, has also recounted his role in the months before the conflict.  Secretary of State Alexander Haig, apprehensive of losing support in Latin America, attempted to find a diplomatic solution that would avoid war, but failed. 


Reading (for following week’s discussion):

Robert L. Hutchings, American Diplomacy and the End of the Cold War, Chapter 3, pp. 90-142.

George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed, Chapter 8, pp. 182-204.

James A. Baker, III, The Politics of Diplomacy, Chapter 11, pp. 195-216.

Hans Dietrich Genscher,  Rebuilding a House Divided, pp. 332-356.

Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs, Chapter 24, pp. 516-535.


Hans Dietrich Genscher,  Rebuilding a House Divided, pp. 356-467.

Angela E. Stent, Russia and Germany Reborn, Chapters 4 and 5, pp. 74-150.

Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed, Harvard University Press, 1995.


 Helmut Kohl and the (Re)Unification of Germany

When Germany was divided in the aftermath of World War II and two separate German states were established, one backed by the Western allies and the other by the Soviet Union, most observers considered the goal of uniting the two Germanies as little more than fantasy.  Very few thought it conceivable that a united Germany could be created well before the end of the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, in 1990 it happened.  And it happened on the terms set by the West German government, which were eventually accepted by Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the USSR.  Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany at the time, was the architect of German unification. Working in close cooperation with President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III, Kohl not only re-united the German people on terms accepted by all Germany’s neighbors, but re-drew the political map of Europe.

Reading  (for discussion the following week): 

Martin Staniland, “Getting to No: The Diplomacy of the Gulf Conflict,” Case Studies 449a, 449b, and 449c published by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University.  Can be downloaded from www.guisd.org.

George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed, Chapter 13-16, pp. 302-449.

James A. Baker, III, The Politics of Diplomacy, Chapter 11, pp. 260-328.

Greenstein, Fred I. The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton, pp. 159-172.



 George H. W. Bush and the Gulf War


When Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait in August 1990, Congress and the American public seemed reluctant to go to war.  Nevertheless, over the next few months, President Bush and Secretary of State Baker had put together an international coalition and secured authority from the UN Security Council to force Iraq to leave Kuwait. 

Readings (for discussion the following week):

Matlock, Autopsy on an Empire, Chapters 20 – 24, pp. 578-677. 

Brown, Archie and Lilia Shestova, editors.  Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin: Political Leadership in Russia’s Transition, pp. 45-66.


Boris Yeltsin and the End of the Soviet Union

Many factors contributed to the break-up of the Soviet Union, but none was more important than the decision by Boris Yeltsin to conspire with the elected leaders of Ukraine and Belarus to abolish the Soviet Union.

We will examine Yeltsin’s motivations, and how he managed in the few weeks from early October to late November 1991 to change from an avowed defender of the union to its determined destroyer.

Reading (for discussion the following week):

Bill Clinton, My Life. New York: Knopf, 2004. Pages 848-860. 

Madeleine Albright, Madame Secretary: A Memoir. New York: Miramax Books, 2003.  Pages 378-418.

David Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace, pp. 420 to 480.

Strobe Talbott, The Russia Hand, pp. 298-349.

WWS Case Study 2/00, “US Diplomacy toward Kosovo, 1989-99, by Brian Katulis’’ available on the Woodrow Wilson School web page. (http://www.wws.princeton.edu/cases/)

Bardos, Gordon N. Balkan History, Madeleine’s War, and NATO’s Kosovo,” The Harriman Review, Vol 13, Nos. 1-2.

Greenstein, Fred I. The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton, pp. 173-188.

Gergen, David. Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, 313-342.



Gergen, David. Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, 249-312. 

Ivo H. Daalder and Michael E. O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly: NATO’s War to Save Kosovo.  Washington: Brookings Institution, 2000.

Ted Galen Carpenter, editor.  NATO’s Empty Victory: A Postmortem on the Balkan War.  Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2000.

David Fromkin, Kosovo Crossing: American Ideals Meet Reality on the Balkan Battlefields.  The Free Press, 1999.


Bill Clinton and the War over Kosovo

NATO’s air war against rump Yugoslavia (actually only its province Serbia) eventually forced President Slobodan Milosevic to comply with NATO’s demand to occupy Kosovo in order to protect its Albanian majority from Serbian atrocities. Subsequently, Serbs removed Milosevic by peaceful action and delivered him to the war crimes court in The Hague for trial—a trial that continues to this day.

Although the war achieved its purpose, opinion is still divided as to whether the air attack on Serbia was necessary, whether the Albanians in Kosovo could have been protected by other means with less damage, and in general whether military intervention that inflicts significant damage on innocent civilians is appropriate to solve humanitarian crises.

This session will assess President Clinton’s motives in authorizing the bombing of Yugoslavia and discuss arguments in support of the decision as well as those critical of it.

Readings: (for discussion the following week)

Kenneth M. Pollack, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.  New York: Random House, 2002. Chapters 11, 12 and Conclusions:  pages 335-434.

James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s “War Cabinet, New York: Viking, 2004. Introduction, pp. ix to xix, and Chapter 20, 21, and Conclusion, pp. 311-372.

Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004, pp. 1-51; 296-443.

Richard Perle, “The Need for UN Weapons Inspections in Iraq,” testimony to House Committee on Armed Services, September 28, 2002. Available on American Enterprise Institute webpage (www.aei.org).

Richard Perle, “Why Blix Has Got It All Wrong,” January 28, 2003. Available on American Enterprise Institute webpage (www.aei.org).

“Iraq, What Next?,” Carnegie Endowment Report, 2003. (Available on the Carnegie Endowment webpage, www.ceip.org.)

Jessica Tuchman Mathews, “The Wrong Target,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 4, 2002. (Available on the Carnegie Endowment webpage, www.ceip.org.)

Optional (but highly recommended):

Bob Woodward, State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.



President George W. Bush’s Decision to Invade Iraq

It is still too early to make a final judgment on the wisdom of the decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 since we cannot know the ultimate outcome. However, it is obvious that President Bush’s style of diplomacy and decision making differed greatly from that of his father when the latter decided to use military force to evict Iraq from Kuwait.  President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq to avoid a nuclear threat also differs from the policy of President Reagan and his predecessors in dealing with the Soviet Union since they opted for “containment” rather than the use of force.

The assigned readings are selected to remind us of the arguments used for and against the invasion of Iraq before the action actually started. Nevertheless, it seems clear in retrospect that these arguments had little effect on the actual decision; the decision to invade seems to have been made earlier. The Administration’s efforts in 1992 and early 1993 seem to have been concentrated on defending a prior decision to remove Saddam Hussein rather than weighing the pros and cons of an invasion of Iraq.

It should be instructive, with hindsight of today, to review the arguments used for and against invading Iraq in 2002 and early 2003.

Readings: (for discussion the following week)

Brown, Archie and Lilia Shestova, editors.  Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin: Political Leadership in Russia’s Transition, pp. 67-111; 143-153.

Leon Aron, “Putin’s Progress,” Amereican Enterprise Institute, March 11, 2002. Available on the AEI webpage, www.aei.org.

Leon Aron, “Making Sense of a Revolution,” American Enterprise Institute, September 23, 2002. Available on the AEI webpage, www.aei.org.

“Russia’s Wrong Direction,” Council on Foreign Relations Task Force Report, March 2006.

Trenin, Dmitri, “Russia Leaves the West,” Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2006.

Trenin, Dmitri, “Russia Redefines Itself and Its Relations with the West,” available on the Carnegie Moscow Center webpage: www.carnegie.ru.

Beehner, Lionel, “U.S.-Russian Interests on Collision Course,” Council on Foreign Relations, Backgrounder, Feb. 19, 2007. Available on Council on Foreign Relations webpage: www.cfr.org.

Beehner, Lionel, “Russia’s Energy Disputes,” Council on Foreign Relations, Backgrounder, Jan. 3, 2007. Available on Council on Foreign Relations webpage: www.cfr.org.

Vladimir Putin’s speech at Munich Conference, Feb. 10, 2007.  Available on the Kremlin website: www.kremlin.ru/eng.


Desai, Padma, Conversations on Russia: Reform from Yeltsin to Putin.  Oxford University Press, 2006.

Shevtsova, Lilia, Putin’s Russia, revised and expanded edition. Washington: Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, 2005.


Vladimir Putin’s Strategy to Restore Russian Power



In this session we study the development of Russia’s foreign and domestic policy since 2000 and discuss the implications for Russia’s future as a geopolitical player on the world stage.

Unlike most of the other case studies in this course, Vladimir Putin’s efforts to restore a significant measure of Russia’s geopolitical power is not the result of a single decision, but of a series of decisions, some contradictory.  Nevertheless, it is now apparent that Putin pursued a vigorous strategy to strengthen Russia’s geopolitical clout by the use of Russia’s vast energy resources.  Since Dmitry Medvedev replaced Putin as president and the Russian economy suffered a setback during the world financial crisis, there has been a rhetorical shift in policy toward the West and an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations.  Nevertheless, the Russian government seems determined to gain a place in the “multipolar world” which, it hopes, will replace what they saw as a “unipolar world” dominated by the United States immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union.


 Barack Obama’s Decision to Augment U.S. Forces in Afghanistan

During 2009, his first year in office, President Obama decided to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan, with the aim of beginning to reduce the number from mid-2011. We will consider the arguments presented for and against this course of action and  review the results of the decision as of the spring of 2011.


 Summing Up: Do Leaders Make a Difference?

                             Are There Lessons for Today?


What if some of the decisions studied had been different?  Would the outcome have been the same?  If not, just what did make the difference?

This session then will return to some of the questions raised in the initial meeting of the seminar. What traits of leadership worked, and which failed to achieve the objective sought? Do different societies require different leadership techniques?  How do successful leaders adjust tactics to serve strategic aims?  Can a leader be a success if he or she fails to achieve an avowed aim?


Members will consider whether the case studies contain lessons for the present, either for political leaders today, or for the citizens of democratic societies in evaluating and selecting their leaders. 

3 Responses to Leadership in International Relations

  1. Brian Runyon says:

    What sort of things do you talk about at this course?

  2. Jack says:

    I have put up an outline of the course so you can see. It is a course I have taught at Princeton, Columbia, Hamilton College and Mount Holyoke College. I change it a bit every year. For example, Week 13 (Obama and the Afghanistan decision) will be included in the spring term 2011 for the first time.

  3. admin says:

    Week 13 now deals with Obama and the “reset” with Russia.

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