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International Security 25.4 (2001) 107-146

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Let Us Now Praise Great Men
Bringing the Statesman Back In

Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack

In January 1762, Prussia hovered on the brink of disaster. Despite the masterful generalship of Frederick the Great, the combined forces of France, Austria, and Russia had gradually worn down the Prussian army in six years of constant warfare. Austrian armies had marched deep into Saxony and Silesia, and the Russians had even sacked Berlin. Frederick's defeat appeared imminent, and the enemy coalition intended to partition Prussia to reduce it to the status of a middle German state no more powerful than Bavaria or Saxony. And then a miracle occurred. The Prusso-phobic Czarina Elizabeth unexpectedly died, only to be succeeded by her son Peter, who idolized the soldier-king. Immediately Peter made peace with Frederick and ordered home the Russian armies. This reversal paralyzed the French and Austrians and allowed Frederick to rally his forces. Although Peter was soon ousted by his wife, Catherine, the allied armies never regained their advantage. In the end, Frederick held them off and kept Prussia intact. 1

Frederick's triumph in the Seven Years' War was essential to Prussia's eventual unification of Germany and all that followed from it. Conceiving of European history today without this victory is impossible. It is equally impossible to conceive of Prussian victory in 1763 without the death of Elizabeth and Peter's adoration of Frederick. In the words of Christopher Duffy, "It is curious to reflect that if one lady had lived for a very few weeks longer, historians would by now have analyzed in most convincing detail the reasons for a collapse as 'inevitable' as that which overtook the Sweden of Charles XII." 2 In short, had it not been for the idiosyncrasies of one man and one woman, European history would look very, very different. [End Page 107]

The story of Prussia's reprieve is, admittedly, an extreme example of the role that individuals play in international relations, but such influence is by no means exceptional--far from it. How can we explain twentieth-century history without reference to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, or Mao Zedong? Nor would any policymaker in any capital try to explain the world today without recourse to the personal goals and beliefs of Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin, Jiang Zemin, and Saddam Hussein, among others. Indeed the policymaking community in Washington takes it as an article of faith that who is the prime minister of Great Britain, the chancellor of Germany, or the king of Saudi Arabia has real repercussions for the United States and the rest of the world. As Henry Kissinger remarked, "As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces. But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make." 3

For these reasons, the tendency of scholars to ignore the role of personalities in international relations is particularly troubling. Most political scientists, when pressed, will admit to the importance of personal idiosyncrasies and human error in determining the course of international relations. Most will further concede that because they do not attempt to explain the roles of either human error or personality in international relations, they cannot explain all of the variance in the affairs of nations.

However, political scientists most frequently have argued that they must set aside both fortuna and virtú, and instead focus only on impersonal forces as the causes of international events. Their reasons for doing so fall under three rubrics. First, many political scientists contend that individuals ultimately do not matter, or at least they count for little in the major events that shape international politics. Instead they argue that the roar of the anarchic system, domestic politics, and institutional dynamics drown out the small voices of individual leaders. Second, other political scientists posit that although individuals may matter from time to time, their influence does not lend itself to the generalizations...