Issue-Image Tradeoffs and the Politics of Foreign Policy: How Leaders Use Foreign Policy Positions to Shape their Personal Images

Jeffrey A. Friedman


This article explains how leaders can use foreign policy issues to shape their personal images. It argues, in particular, that presidents and presidential candidates can use hawkish foreign policies to craft valuable impressions of leadership strength. This dynamic can give leaders incentives to take foreign policy positions that are more hawkish than what voters actually want. The article documents the causal foundations of this argument with a preregistered survey experiment; it presents archival evidence demonstrating that presidential candidates use unpopular foreign policies to convey attractive personal traits; and it uses observational data to show how those tradeoffs have shaped three decades of presidential voting. The article’s theory and evidence indicate that democratic responsiveness in foreign policy is not as simple as “doing what voters want.” Leaders often need to choose between satisfying voters’ policy preferences and crafting personal images that voters find appealing. Aligning foreign policy with voters’ preferences is thus easier said than done, and it is not always the best way for leaders to maximize their public standing.

Published in

World Politics, 2023, forthcoming