Do Individuals Matter in International Relations?

Do individuals matter in international relations? What a loaded question, right? Immediately, one is compelled to say yes, of course they do. What about the standard list of international bad guys and good guys? Saddam, Khomeini, and Hitler or Truman, Churchill, and Bush (ok, I’ll that last one for you to decide). However, there is a true argument hidden in this question. To extract it we must first qualify the question and then look at some examples.

20121026-131920.jpg George W. Bush issuing his final ultimatum to Saddam Hussain on March 17, 2003. Did Bush matter in international relations? (

Who are the individuals we are talking about here? I think this can be broken into two categories: Individuals (with an upper-case I) and individuals (with a lower-case i). The group of Individuals is comprised of those Great and/or Strong men of history. This is the all-star roster from your high school history and political science classes. In contrast, the term individuals refers to you, the reader, and I or more broadly the general public. (Unless, of course, this blog reaches a world leader. In that case, please place yourself in the Individuals category)

To explore this question, and to keep with the blog’s theme, we will look at two examples from the Middle East. A discussion of Saddam Hussain and the Egyptian protestors from the January, 2011 uprisings in Egypt will show that big and little individuals do matter in international relations, but the extent to which they matter is impossible to measure.

It seems like a given to claim that Saddam Hussain mattered in international relations. Saddam became the president of Iraq in 1979, just months after Iran’s revolution began. His litany of international relations credentials includes a devastating war with Iran, an invasion of Kuwait, and multiple confrontations with the US which ultimately led to his death. Would these events have occurred without Saddam? We will never know for sure, but there is some evidence for this point. The main foreign policy objective for the new Islamic Republic of Iran was to export their revolution throughout the region. This was focused on countries with large Shiite populations and would probably have led to a confrontation with any leader in Iraq. Similarly, the idea that Kuwait was a province of Iraq that was illegally removed by western powers was not originally Saddam’s. Talk of annexing Kuwait had been present in sections of the Iraqi government since the borders were drawn in the early 20th century.

20121026-132441.jpg Saddam Hussain inspecting an Iraqi position during the Iran-Iraq war. (

The events of 1980, 1990, and 2003 are certainly linked and it would be difficult to imagine them occurring as they did without Saddam Hussain as president. His despising attitude toward the Islamic Republic and personal distrust of any Iraq commanders who appeared too successful led to a bloody war that was drawn out, centrally planned, and closely controlled by Saddam alone. I would argue that without the crushing debt from the much drawn out Iran-Iraq war, Iraq would have had little reason to invade Kuwait. Certainly, with no invasion of Kuwait western militaries would not have clashed with Iraq in 1991. This however does not negate the production of chemical weapons or the brutal treatment of Iraqi Kurds and Shiites. Certainly an Iraq without Saddam may have still drawn the attention of international coalitions and foreign powers. I think it is clear that Saddam Hussain mattered in international relations but to what extent is impossible to derive as any other historical account is mere speculation.

The case of Egyptian protestors is very clear but historically much shorter. The revolution in Egypt began on January 25, 2011 when thousands of Egyptians protested against the government of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Three days later, the number of protestors grew to hundreds of thousands. When Mubarak finally stepped down on February 11, some say over 2 million people
took part in protests. What is truly significant is that this was not 2 million Individuals but 2 million individuals. Regular Egyptians, lawyers, taxi drivers, students, men, women, Muslims, and Christians.

20121026-133139.jpg Egyptian protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, January 25, 2011. (

The impact of these individuals on international relations was felt almost immediately. The U.S. had supported Mubarak for years and was suddenly forced to review and change its foreign policy toward Egypt and the region. The eventual election of Mohamed Morsi, who is connected to and supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, created further vibrations to international relations. Some questioned if Egypt would honor its treaty with Israel. Many with in the U.S. foreign policy apparatus began to questions further foreign aid to a country led my am Islamist president. The rise of Morsi also led to a new era of regional international relations. Earlier this year Morsi made the first trip of an Egyptian president to Iran in over three decades.

Do individuals matter in international relations? Yes, of course they do. Saddam Hussain’s rule in Iraq had a great impact on international relations. His wars with Iran, Kuwait, and western coalitions had implications between states and multinational institutions such as the UN, NATO, and GCC. In Egypt, an uprising of millions led to the downfall of a dictator and the rise of an Islamist. This had an almost immediate impact on international relations with the US and other states in the region. These examples show that both strong men and ordinary individuals matter in international relations and can alter the course of history.

2 thoughts on “Do Individuals Matter in International Relations?

  1. Nicely written. You could also argue that individuals matter little in the grand scheme of things. The same result would occur with small differences not matter who was in power. Sure these things might have occurred earlier or later and how they play out would be a bit different depending on the individual. These are all based on national security and national interest. For example, If Saddam did not exist, the Iran Iraq would would still have occurred. It might be a couple of year later. Tensions between Iran and Iraq would still be there, the Iranians would still have called for revolution in Iraq ect.. Its like saying the the US would have gone to war with Japan no matter who was in power or the US would have gone to war with Afghanistan in 2001 even if Bush did not exist. To be fair, you make a good point. Individuals do shape events. BUT, there is no fine line between what decisions are made base on the individual and what decisions are made based on national security and national interest.

  2. Even if the protestors are “individuals” and not Individuals are they still a good example to this questions? There isnt anything individual in a group of 2 million. This question is really asking, Can one man really make a diffrence. The answer with these protestors is no! If one of these estimated 2 million protestors chose instead not to protest, would that have made a diffrence? I answer no, I question your use of the protestors as individuals ( as an example) who answer this question.

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