A Cognitive-Psychodynamic Perspective to Understanding Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's Worldview

By Laucella, Melchiore J. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2004 | Go to article overview

A Cognitive-Psychodynamic Perspective to Understanding Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's Worldview


Laucella, Melchiore J., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The systematic study of images in political psychology, as it arose in the early 1960s, portrays U.S. foreign policy decision makers and diplomats as cold warriors, operating with a limited set of cognitive-driven impressions built around the stereotype of the enemy. Unfortunately, traditional categories found within these studies are limited in their utility, because they largely ignore the role of "personality" and the subtleties of motivation. To explain better the decision maker's images of the international system, this article examines Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's worldview during his tenure in office from 1977 to 1980 through the use of what I call a "cognitive-psychodynamic perspective." (1) I argue, therefore, that the boundaries of traditional image categories can be expanded and more suitable ones formulated by accounting for key motivational and personality forces that are involved in the way individuals actively construct their world.

Image theories, such as the image of the enemy, are heavily ingrained within the social cognition literature that view the perceiver relying on cognitive processes to form impressions. The cognitive-psychodynamic perspective, however, sees the social thinker relying on an interplay between categorical processing, based largely upon emotionally significant experience and data-driven processes involving analytical problem solving to form images. The focus here is on the motives, needs, and values embedded in the individual's personality and motivational system that drive impression formation (see, e.g., Epstein 1991, 1999; Horowitz 1972; Giner-Sorolla 1999). This perspective is grounded in the truly complementary nature of social cognition and personality theories. Current theory and research in social cognition now increasingly portrays the perceiver using different cognitive strategies based upon one's motivational situation and personality that determines the formation of images (see, e.g., Fiske and Taylor 1991; Brewer 1988; Brewer and Harasty Feinstein 1999; Fiske and Neuberg 1990; Fiske, Lin, and Neuberg 1999). To gain further insight into the dynamics of the perceiver's personality, psychoanalytic self psychology theory is also utilized here to unveil the underlying goals, ambitions, values, and ideals that help to shape the individual's worldview.

Clearly, the most prominent political image, the enemy stereotype, has exerted a powerful influence in the making of contemporary U.S. foreign policy. Still, there have been foreign policy officials, such as Cyrus Vance, who let go of the traditional stereotypes and acquired new images of the world. As such, I illustrate how a cognitive-psychodynamic perspective more accurately and authoritatively explains Vance's worldview. By employing a textual analysis of emergent themes from behavioral data, his worldview or perceptions of international politics can be understood in a three-fold cluster of related images: the complex-interdependent, the optimistic-detente, and the empathic. The primary attributes that make up his complex-interdependent image constitute his perceptions of an uncertain but increasingly interdependent and rapidly changing world composed of many indigenous elements, driven by social, political, and economic forces. Concerning his optimistic-detente image, instead of perceiving the international system simply in East-West terms, Vance saw the USSR as only one of a multitude of issues facing the United States, as he strove to construct a more cooperative relationship between the two nations. Finally, his empathic image included recognizing nationalism in the developing world as a strong independent force. Vance's purpose was to address the root cause of regional conflict.

I subsequently explain how image acquisition, formation, and development are strongly influenced by important sources, especially the perceiver's significant life experiences that manifest in the dynamics of personality and social cognition. …

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