International Relations, Modeling, National Security

Gender and National Security Decision-Making

I had been planning to write some thoughts on the role of mental models and historical experience in the decision to initiate a military campaign against Gadhaffi’s regime in Libya.  However, I had a very interesting conversation with a friend today on the role of gender in national security decision-making.  Her argument was that was that the world would be a more peaceful place if more women were in senior positions within the national security establishment.

While I don’t agree with her argument, I do take her seriously given that she has many more years of experience than I do working with senior decision-makers in the US government, foreign governments, and non-governmental organizations, including groups that are armed, violent and often opposed to our presence and polices.  Given the apparent role of women – Hilary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Gayle Smith, etc. – in persuading President Obama to commit to military action in Libya, I thought it was an interesting point to consider, or at least a timely one.

Getting beyond the immediate and obvious cases of women who have risen to positions in power and been involved in wars, such as Margret Thatcher or Golda Meir as heads of state, or Condoleezza Rice more recently as National Security Advisor, just to name a few, I began to wonder how to actually go about researching such a question and am rather pessimistic about getting a meaningful answer.  It is certainly possible to dismiss many of the historical cases for two reasons – previous female leaders that have risen to power have largely been socialized in male dominated institutions, so it could be argued that they are not representative of the ‘average’ woman who would think and act differently if raised and socialized in institutions that were not male dominated.  Second, women in senior positions nevertheless reside in, and sit atop large bureaucracies and organizations, so any decision-making is pluralistic to some degree, and therefore may not be truly reflective of their individual preferences.

I don’t believe the socialization argument because there are plenty of women who have not spent their careers in the national security establishment, who nevertheless possess strongly held beliefs that can match the most hawkish males – and the most pacifistic.  Indeed, my belief is that women likely display as much diversity as men when it comes to matters of national security, so it is difficult to make a strong claim that anything would be different if more of them were in positions of power.  The organizational argument is a more complex one to decipher, because it relies on differentiating the private preferences of decision-makers from the public positions that they adopt as a result of deliberation and organizational processes.

The problem, however, is that there is a good bit of evidence that biological, cognitive, and emotional differences do exist between genders, although some differences may be explained by socialization and individual life history.  The fact that socialization itself is an issue in brain development means that gender differences, or more precisely sex differences, are not deterministic, so simply replacing males with females, regardless of their numbers, may not lead to any major changes in policy or the discovery of new policy options that are currently never explored.  Still, if one assumes that males and females have distinctly different brains and process information and make choices differently, does it follow that their national security policies would be discernibly different?

I’m reminded of a point made long ago by Robert Jervis on political psychology.  Jervis noted that despite the accumulation of experimental evidence regarding psychology and decision-making, it was difficult to extrapolate the kinds of choices and their consequences that occurred in laboratory settings to matters of life and death, such as nuclear war.  Certainly some experiments have shown that people will violate social norms, and inflict pain on others in order to satisfy the demands of authorities, but such leader-follower dynamics do not necessarily explain the generation and selection of policy-options, or the behavior of authorities themselves.  So, a gap exists between what we can know experimentally about decision-making at the levels of national security and survival, meanwhile the historical record is potentially biased, containing cases where women in positions of power were overly socialized to think like men, making them unrepresentative of the cases we wish to consider.

It seems to me that returning to organizational behavior is likely the key to answering this question.  My belief is that regardless of how leaders think, whether male or female, the national security responsibilities and actual policy options are highly constrained and limited.  Thus, even if men and women employ alternative decision-making logic and develop distinctly different strategies, their conversion into tactics and real-world action may not result in any significant differences.  This means that certain complexity barriers may exist within the domain of policy and strategy itself, and that regardless of their logic and goals, actual strategic decisions may be limited from the bottom-up with respect to what is actually viable.  If this is the case, then leadership and who is in charge, may matter far less than is assumed.  Whether one is Paul Wolfowitz or Samantha Power may matter very little if there are only a handful of ways to protect Libyan civilians from a regime determined to punish them.

For the most part, models in international relations theory emphasize structural elements, so questions about replacing one leader with another tend to sit outside of the dimensions these models explore.  Indeed, because questions of gender are suggestive of different kinds of decision-making processes, any rational-actor model is also unlikely to capture the issues under investigation because rational actor models emphasize the discovery of an optimal choice, but not the process by which that choice is arrived at (Herbert Simon distinguished between substantive rationality vs. procedural rationality).  There are many models of organizational processes and behavior in national security, but I don’t know if they have been linked with very specific and rich questions of leadership styles and cognition.

What is clear, is that my earlier discussion on gender is fundamentally tied to issues of great concern to me – the interplay between agents and structure, and ecology.  Simply swapping out men with women in the most senior positions of the national security community is a theoretically simple thought experiment and a suitable model may simply alter the character of the agents that sit atop established, large organizations operating under considerable policy inertia.  The ecological argument is more subtle, but suggests that if higher number of women were in positions of power, the entire composition of the bureaucracies might change or alternative decision-making structures and outlets for action might emerge.  This is much harder proposition to test, and I’m struggling to imagine a simulation that could truly test these claims without being biased a priori to be overly sensitive to, or resistant to, change.

My conversion concluded by nothing that the ever increasing percentage of women in graduate and law schools will mean that we will probably live through this question and experience the answer in the coming decades.  My sense is that greater diversity in senior positions likely enriches the group, but the relevant diversity may not always be gender based.  Given my own professional experiences working with and for women in the area of national security, I haven’t been able to detect any major differences between them and their male counterparts when it comes to working with abstract notions of security and strategy.


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