The Appeal of Leaders and Their Foreign Policy When Death Is in the Air: a Perspective From Ontological Security Theory and Terror Management Theory
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CitationTerwilliger, Evan. 2020. The Appeal of Leaders and Their Foreign Policy When Death Is in the Air: a Perspective From Ontological Security Theory and Terror Management Theory. Master's thesis, Harvard Extension School.
AbstractPerhaps dead bodies affect opinions of International Relations more than we think – or at least in a different way than we have thought about them before. Humans may not be fully aware of the subconscious forces that the thought of death supposedly awakens within them. This lack of awareness may lead to unsavory international policy outcomes (and seemingly irrational justifications thereof). Human mortality serves as an impetus, inter alia, for violent war (Archduke Ferdinand and WWI), the use of retaliatory torture (the CIA’s so-called enhanced interrogation techniques post-9/11), reconciliation and justice-seeking initiatives (after the genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, and others), and the election of political leaders. However, does even just looking at pictures of a dead body change how we think about international policy?
The current body of IR security literature lacks an analysis of how visual images of dead bodies interact with the formation of public opinion of our own security, the U.S. President, and U.S. foreign policy. If such images stimulate our fear of death (as proposed by Terror Management Theory), then we manage that terror by changing our behavior, actions, and opinions. Our management of that terror makes us unstable. By seeking stability and rebuilding ontological security (as proposed by Ontological Security Theory), which is social and operates at the collective level (the ontological security of American society), Americans’ opinions about their security, the President, and the President’s foreign policy choices might change in relation to the events.
I test this by looking at public opinion poll data from Gallup around the dates of events involving specific politicized dead bodies in the international world and see how support of the U.S. President and support of their foreign policy changes, if at all. The prediction is that support will increase around the time that the population is reminded of their own death (via a photo, video, dead-body event), but reports of the American public feeling safer will increase or decrease at the same time, depending on certain factors.
The results demonstrate mild support for Hypothesis 1, finding that security decreased during times when the public witnessed the bodies of fellow American citizens. I found inconclusive support for Hypothesis 2, that security during times of viewing dead bodies of enemies would increase. Lastly, the data demonstrate support for half of Hypothesis 3. The data do not support a correlation with approval of the President, but do lend mild support for a correlation with approval of their foreign policy.
Combining the lenses of Terror Management Theory and Ontological Security theory helps contextualize the societal-level receptivity to images of highly politicized dead bodies – specifically how U.S. citizens’ opinions about their own security, the President, and their country’s foreign policy fluctuates. Ontological security plays a role in how society perceives and reacts to these images, which in turn might compel a country to act in certain ways that are not understood by solely thinking about material security.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37365070
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