Sex and the Statesman


I’m writing a new book, provisionally titled Sex and Statecraft.My research question: is there something particularly ‘male’ about modern international politics—especially in matters of war and diplomacy?

I think there is, and that we can profitably learn something about it from evolutionary psychology, especially from theories of sexual selection. Why are most international leaders men; does that produce a masculine form of international relations; and if genes and evolution are important in accounting for that distinctive ‘masculinity’, what scope is there for change —perhaps for a more ‘feminine’ international scene? Bottom line: there’s plenty, and it would be a good thing!

A vital caveat: taking an evolutionary approach is not the same as arguing that genes determine everything. Far from it. Culture (and especially cultural evolution) make a large contribution to understanding why things are as they are. Once humans evolved the capacity for culture—language, abstract ideas, imitation—the fundamental processes of natural and sexual selection became richer and more complex. Variation, as much as commonality is the norm for human societies. We live in hugely diverse groups, even though, in genetic terms, we’re actually a pretty homogenous species.

Still, there are some glaringly obvious common features across otherwise very different human societies, and across the ages. There’s one that stands out, and features heavily in my analysis. It’s not a happy story for men. Consider: men are much more violent on average than women. They are far more likely to be in prison. Crimes of passion, often motivated by sexual jealously, are almost exclusively a male preserve. The most recent mass school shooting in Santa Fe—reported to be prompted by a spurned advance—exemplifies the tendency: male violence, linked to status and sex.

What’s with all the violence? From an evolutionary perspective, it’s about protecting yourself, and your offspring from predation—from large animals, rival groups and males within your own group. Mate choice, where we choose our partners based on their ‘fitness,’ means males who can provide such security are in demand. If that martial ability confers status within the group, even better for the prospects of any offspring. For men, there’s also the question of ‘mate guarding’—policing the fidelity of female partners, given the need for confidence in paternity, especially given the considerable investment in child rearing that humans need. And lastly, for men without partners, there’s a need to use violence to compete for partners. Polygamous societies are more violent, because there’s a shortage of available women for low status men. Violence ensues– by men against other men, and by men against women. The violence is about dominance. Like other primates, we have a dominance hierarchy, and physical dominance plays a large part in it.

Is all this true? Are men violent because of their genes? Kate Manne and Jordan Peterson, two writers with otherwise very different takes on the issue, are in agreement: there’s something deeply unpleasant about modern masculinity, which at the extreme is toxic and violent.  But one big difference is in their unpicking the cause of these male tendencies. For many gender studies researchers, the way things are is largely down to culture, which means they’re more amenable to change. We can challenge toxic masculinity; we can deconstruct the patriarchy and build a new more egalitarian society. We are, in short, the makers of our own social worlds. International Relations has its own take on this, in the writings of constructivists and critical theorists, many of them interested in questions of gender.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who emphasise the biological differences between the sexes. That’s controversial territory that I’ll tackle more fully in a later post. Suffice to say, there are physical differences between male and female brains, even if there is a great deal of debate about what that means psychologically. And there are some interesting and suggestive gendered differences in behaviour and social roles that hold across cultures. There’s considerable variation within sexes, of course. Importantly, these are averagetendencies, with overlapping ranges, not discrete categories. For example, consider a link between heritability and violence — not all men are equally disposed to lashing out, or seeking physical dominance. But dominance still matters to many men, especially young men, and biology plays a large part in shaping their propensity to seek it.

Does dominance matter in international relations? I think so. Call it #handshakeology, after President Trump’s quite bizarre dominance displays on meeting rival world leaders. Watch him wrestle Justin Trudeau’s arm, or grip Emmanuel Macron, both men wise to his primitive, schoolyard tactics. There’s something going on here that ‘rational actor’ theories of statecraft can’t begin to describe. It’s there too in the President’s thin-skinned braggadocio and ‘punching back’ hard against perceived slights. There’s sometimes a sexual element to this dominance — you can ‘grab them by the pussy’ when you’re famous, Trump famously advised. There was ‘blood coming out of her  … wherever’, he noted when challenged about his sexism by a competent woman interviewer. This is misogyny as power display, revelling in humiliation of women and control over them.

It’s not just Trump, of course. The swagger of the statesman has a long history. I remember Tony Blair’s alpha male walk when meeting President Bush. I think of LBJ, towering over his Senate rivals, jabbing his finger in their chest to make a point. Johnson was once asked why America was in Vietnam. This is why, he said, exposing himself and gesturing to his genitals. Even beta chimps play the game: President Nixon was desperate not to be seen as less than macho in deliberations with aides, and took comfort from repeated viewings of the World War 2 film Patton. Classical realists would not be surprised: Raymond Aron thought that ‘amore propre’ underpins much statesmanship—a concern with face, or standing. Hans Morgenthau thought a ‘will to power’ is the essence of international affairs—borrowing from Freud to ground his analysis of international relations firmly in the ambit of psychology, and in the traits of individual statesmen.

If biology matters—and if distinctively male attributes shape international affairs—how much scope is there for change? Those cross-cultural tenets of social behaviour certainly suggest there’s something immutable in human nature.

I’m less pessimistic. For starters, there’s more to natural selection than dominance. One thing we have selected for is social skills, including empathy, cooperation, and altruism. Men display these attributes too. JFK, for example, made a conscious effort to empathise in the Cuban Missile Crisis, overcoming his initial instinct to lash out militarily. Skills like these confer prestige—it pays to be an altruist, a renowned cooperator. In fact, I think this incentive has driven the ‘self domestication’ of humans, as our societies weeded out selfish and violent characters.

So there is ample scope to construct a ‘feminised’ international relations—one wholly compatible with evolutionary psychology. In fact, ‘feminised’ is a misnomer, since men demonstrably have the capacity to break away from dominance hierarchies too, and since different societies can manifestly value different very different traits. But biological sex certainly plays a role. Consider the evidence for a ‘suffragist peace theory’ which suggests that societies with more female involvement are less warlike. Or evidence that women make better decisions when stressed, or that groups with women in make better decisions. Or that high testosterone men underperform as financial speculators.

Yet change is difficult— we can’t ignore our evolved psychological tendencies. Consider for example that people more readily imagine their leaders as men— many of us, men and women alike, have an implicit bias, shaping our preference for male leaders. I was struck by one stark illustration from the 2016 US Presidential debates. Afterwards, two actors replayed the debate. The twist? They swapped sex, so that Hillary Clinton was played by a man, and Donald Trump a woman. It’s uncomfortable viewing—manifestly Mr Clinton is the more competent leader, and Ms Trump’s bluster now seems especially ridiculous. And yet, millions of voters disagreed. It’s easier to become a leader if you’re a man, even if the job itself is about more than dominance.

Still, self-domestication, social intelligence, and culturally informed prestige hierarchies – all these create space for a different, perhaps better international politics. That’s what I want to explore. One important footnote for next time, though: Having more stateswomen won’t by itself transform international relations – historical evidence suggests that women leaders have been more bellicose than men.

Image: Donald Trump and Petro Poroshenko in the Oval Office, June 2017, via wikimedia commons.

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