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date: 07 October 2022

Operational Codes in Foreign Policy: A Deconstructionlocked

Operational Codes in Foreign Policy: A Deconstructionlocked

  • Michael HaasMichael HaasDepartment of Political Science, University of Hawai'I


Codes of conduct exist in many areas of life, including cultural, ethical, legal, medical, and scientific. Those pertaining to politics and especially the conduct of foreign policy are crucial for understanding how decision-makers can be effective in dealing with problems involving opposite numbers who subscribe to different codes. Accordingly, the concept of “operational code” has been developed in the study of international politics to refer to a set of lenses that filter how decision-makers perceive, process, and react to situations involving other countries. Although some operational code researchers enlighten puzzles in past history and construct theories, others hope to use the research to advise policy-makers on how to avoid blunders in future decision-making.

The present historiographic essay begins by tracing the foundations of operational code research in the late 1940s. Because some foreign policy leaders appear to adhere more strictly to an operational code than others, a major puzzle is how to determine the essential components of an operational code. Various efforts are contrasted, with a standardization of definitional parameters two decades later. Efforts to develop operational code methodology have developed over time with successes in quantification that are best validated by qualitative analysis. The codes of decision-makers are micro-codes compared to the partisan ideologies (meso-codes) that bring them to office and the political cultures (macro-codes) in which they operate in various countries around the world. What began as a cognitive psychological exercise became transformed into a form of social psychological analysis of decision-makers. A current view is that the upbringing of leaders shapes their goal seeking, whereas occupying the role as leader of a country in the context of world politics also shapes their operational codes. As a result, operational code research has become involved in the continuing quest to determine which major paradigm of social science best provides a coherent explanation for how leaders guide their decision-making.


  • Foreign Policy
  • International Relations Theory

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