Date of Award

Spring 2020

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Political Science

First Advisor

Tobias Heinrich


This dissertation examines the role that an individual leader’s background (e.g. what they did before gaining power) plays in public evaluations of their performance managing international conflicts. I propose a novel theory arguing domestic audience members (e.g. the citizens of a leader’s state paying attention to international conflicts) heuristically analyze the competence of a leader by examining their professional and educational background. Once audience members determine whether a leader is competent, they use these judgments to inform whether a given leader deserves blame or credit for the outcome of a given conflict. I find support for this theory by fielding a survey experiment designed to capture performance evaluations of leaders who fight conflicts resulting in different outcomes. Next, I develop a theoretical argument explaining why these backgrounds matter for the way leaders behave. I argue that leaders with stronger educational backgrounds (e.g. those with college/graduate degrees) should possess more cosmopolitan world views and critical thinking skills reducing the casualties their states suffer. Additionally, I argue that the leaders with combat experience should also be casualty averse reducing the battle deaths their states experience when engaged in armed conflict. Using cross-national analysis, I find mixed support for my hypotheses but identify important and consistent patterns that merit further empirical investigation. Finally, I investigate the way individuals assign culpability after surprise attacks to explore the conditions that make political leaders more likely to receive blame for surprise attacks. An initial study reveals that the level of certainty and agreement among the intelligence community revealed after the attack matters for how individuals hold politicians accountable.