In Foreign Policy, Don't Underestimate the Young Guns

Age came up in the 2008 presidential election in the form of fears John McCain would die while in office. President Barack Obama benefited from these fears, not because of his status as one of the youngest presidents ever elected, but rather because his opponent was seen as too old. I think this is an oversight, and that youth may become a more desirable quality in a presidential candidate, especially when American foreign policy requires anticipating hostile countries by understanding their leaders.

The foreign policy environment is changing, and many of the countries and leaders most opposed to U.S. interests will be led by comparatively young dictators. For example, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is 54, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is 45, and Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev is 45. Heck, Osama bin Laden was 44 on 9/11.

There are even more extreme examples when one considers the succession drama that is likely to play out in some of the U.S.'s most persistent rivals. Former Cuban President Fidel Castro passed power to his brother Raul, but at an advanced age near 80, he may not be in power much longer either. A much younger challenger will likely emerge there. In North Korea, Kim Jong-Il is preparing for his succession by positioning his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un, to take over. Jong-Un is in his 20s.

With younger world leaders, there is an advantage to having a comparatively young leader ourselves, because making foreign policy judgments about what renegade leaders will do involves allocentric reasoning. Allocentric reasoning is the opposite of egocentric reasoning — it involves thinking from the other person's perspective rather than one's own, which is easier when one's own psychology matches that of the other person's.

Of course, the importance of allocentric reasoning is hard to quantify, so consider the Cuban Missile Crisis. According to scholarship, Nikita Khrushchev thought he could get away with such a provocative act because of Kennedy's youth, which Khrushchev equated with weakness. But this assessment was wrong. Kennedy boldly challenged the Soviets' actions in Cuba, resulting in an extremely dangerous international situation.

If it's right to say that Khrushchev would have been more farsighted about Kennedy's action if he were  younger at the time, then it's right to think that Obama could avoid similar miscalculations by being close in age to our country's antagonists. For that reason, Obama may be less likely to judge Assad to be a pushover during a critical moment of negotiation.

Obama, 50, is just about the age of both Ahmadinejad and Assad, and in terms of dealing with a young gun like the Kims, he's about as young of a president as the American people will tolerate. Obama will be able to more easily anticipate the actions of such leaders, important given their tendency toward brinksmanship and unpredictability.

What about 2012? The short answer is that Obama is well suited for our foreign policy challenges. He is relatively young by presidential standards, and he has successes like bin Laden's killing that lower the risk that other country's leaders will underestimate him. He is young enough to understand the comparatively young leaders of our most troublesome competitors, but successful enough not to be dangerously underestimated by older leaders in China and Saudi Arabia. The Republican candidates on the other hand are generally about ten years older, with the exceptions being Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman, with the latter having substantial foreign policy experience. This may be a small advantage.

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