Bounded rationality conceives of people engaging in politics as goal oriented but endowed with cognitive and emotional architectures that limit their abilities to pursue those goals rationally. Political institutions provide the critical link between micro- and macro-processes in political decision-making. They act to (a) compensate for those bounds on rationality; (b) make possible cooperative arrangements not possible under the assumptions of full or comprehensive rationality; and (c) fall prey to the same cognitive and emotional limits or canals that individual humans do. The cognitive limitations that hamper individuals are not only replicated at the organizational level but are in fact causal.
Brooke N. Shannon, Zachary A. McGee, and Bryan D. Jones
To understand how policy is made, one must understand not only the individuals who make the decisions, but also the role of bureaucratic politics and the goals of the institutions themselves. Graham Allison’s classic Essence of Decision created the bureaucratic politics model and was the catalyst for a rich research agenda on decision-making. Using Allison as a starting point, researchers have expanded the understanding of the role of bureaucracies in deliberation and decision-making, particularly during times of crisis. Typically, institutions fill the day-to-day “politics as usual” role of decision-making, but their actions during crisis, by definition an abnormal event, allow bureaucracies to pursue their own objectives by way of a new opportunity to exert influence and to reshape the power structure of the political landscape. The research agenda on individuals and decision-making has also made great strides since the 1970s and helps to illuminate when the bureaucratic politics model has great explanatory power and when it is less useful. The level of influence bureaucracies have is dependent upon where they sit within the system and how they are utilized by the executive branch of government. Leaders, such as the President of the United States, hold a significant amount of power, and the ways in which they hold onto power, or allocate it to other actors, which is a function of their leadership style, can either empower or disempower bureaucracies. In other words, the importance of bureaucracies connected to the executive branch of government fluctuates with an individual’s personality characteristics and leadership style. Specifically, a leader’s personal need for power, their expertise, and their personal interest in policymaking, as well as their cognitive complexity, the amount of differing information they want and are capable of cognitively processing, influence the way in which the leader will delegate decision-making. Leaders like Lyndon B. Johnson relied heavily upon expert advisers and allocated decision-making to lower-level agencies. Alternatively, some leaders (e.g., Richard Nixon) have experience, particularly in foreign policy, and believe they are their own expert adviser; thus, they are involved in nuanced decision-making and rely upon only a very small number of advisers (in Nixon’s case, just Henry Kissinger). A common normative criticism of bureaucratic politics, and group decision-making in general, is the collective cognitive conformity, commonly known as groupthink. The general assumption is that individuals within a group will seek conformity and avoid the conflict caused by raising alternatives during policy deliberation. However, bureaucratic politics mitigates groupthink by bringing in a greater number of actors with differing goals and perspectives, making deliberation more open. Again, this is significantly influenced by how the leader utilizes advisers and their respective bureaucracies. Where Kennedy was very open-minded and actively sought various perspectives during the Cuban missile crisis, George W. Bush created an insulated decision-making environment after 9/11 and leading up to the invasion of Iraq. As society continues to change, particularly with regard to reliance upon technological adaptations, such as nuclear energy, new crises will occur. These crises will require the cooperation of more bureaucracies and occasionally new bureaucracies. Through these crises, bureaucracies will compete for political influence, and the power structure of the political landscape will inevitably change and affect policy decision-making.
An improved understanding of foreign policy learning necessitates a clarification of what foreign policy learning is, who learns, and how such learning occurs. Cognitive and social psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists situated in a variety of subfields have contributed to the understanding of foreign policy learning, a multidisciplinary area of inquiry. Learning theorists seek to show how a change in an actor’s beliefs due to experience or observation can lead to changes at other units, such as organizations and within the government. This cognitive dimension is important because actors may pursue a new course of action for politically expedient reasons rather than having genuinely “learned”—a distinction referred to as “complex” vs. “simple” learning. Foreign policy learning can be internal or external. The former type of learning entails what individuals, governments, or organizations learn from their prior experience. Learning theorists who focus on the individual level of analysis borrow insights from political psychology in an effort to shed light on the personal characteristics, the belief structures, and the cognitive psychological mechanisms of political actors that can better inform policymaking. Leaders whose cognitive structures are described as relatively open and complex—like Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose learning brought about the dramatic changes that ultimately led to the demise of the Soviet Union—are more likely to alter their beliefs than their cognitively closed and simple counterparts. Yet external learning occurs as well. Policy diffusion studies show that learning can result from demonstration effects. Foreign policy learning via diffusion is not instrumental, but instead occurs through osmosis. Privatization in the former communist states, China’s Foreign Direct Investment liberalization, and the diffusion of environmental norms in the European Union are examples of learning that is contagious, not chosen. A more conscious mode of learning than diffusion is policy transfer, which entails policymakers’ transferring ideas from one country and implementing them in another. Technological innovations, unlike lessons that involve political ideology, are generally easier lessons to transfer—for example, Japan’s success in applying lessons from the West to modernize its army in the second half of the 19th century. The constraints to foreign policy learning are formidable. Decision makers are not always open to reconsidering views that challenge their beliefs. Leaders tend to resort to, and misuse, analogies that prevent learning. Even a change in a decision maker’s beliefs may not lead to foreign policy change, given the myriad political pressures, bureaucratic hurdles, and economic realities that often get in the way of implementing new ideas. Indeed, foreign policy learning and foreign policy change are not synonymous. Scholars face significant obstacles in studying foreign policy learning. There is no consensus on the definition of learning, on what constitutes learning, on how actors learn, when they learn, or on how to assess whether learning has taken place. Despite attempts to make sense of the confusion, scholars face the daunting challenge of improving understanding of how learning is shaped and funneled through the interaction of agents and the structures in which they are situated, as well as the relationship between learning and foreign policy change.
Jose Luis Mendez
The nature and evolution of the field of studies of public sector leadership can be understood by focusing on four theoretical orientations: institutional, transformational, collaborative, and contingent. The first one argues that, within a democracy, public sector executives do not exercise—or should not exercise—a strong leadership. The second one, on the contrary, stresses their “transformational” role. The third orientation favors more horizontal leading styles, while the last one argues that all the previous types of leadership could emerge depending on the specific conditions. Each of these four orientations takes a specific position toward change and has led to a considerable number of books and articles. This clearly shows that leadership is an important issue in the study of the public sector. It also shows the theoretical fragmentation present in this field and that there is not a fit-all type of leadership. Paradoxically, there is still a noticeable lack of research on some topics, such as the causes and effects of leadership. Thus, there is not a clear understanding yet of the extent to which leading within government makes a positive difference and, in case it does, of how to make it happen. Filling these voids would certainly help this field to gain greater relevance within the wider field of leadership studies as well as in the social sciences in general.
David Patrick Houghton
Crisis decision making is characterized by a profound degree of uncertainty, the centralization of power, increased communications and argumentation both within and between organizations, management and eventual resolution of the problem, and a period of lesson-drawing. Deeper understanding of different cases of crisis decision making is enhanced by using contrasting theoretical “cuts.” There are four major approaches to crisis decision making: the rational actor approach, the cognitive perspective, the bureaucratic-organizational perspective, and the domestic politics approach. Three case studies—the Cuban missile crisis, the Yom Kippur crisis, and the Iran hostage crisis—can be examined from the vantage point of each of these four theoretical perspectives, as each theory adds something valuable to our overall understanding of the nature of crisis itself.
Sabine C. Carey, Neil J. Mitchell, and Adam Scharpf
Pro-government militias are a prominent feature of civil wars. Governments in Ukraine, Russia, Syria, and Sudan recruit irregular forces in their armed struggle against insurgents. The United States collaborated with Awakening groups to counter the insurgency in Iraq, just as colonizers used local armed groups to fight rebellions in their colonies. A now quite wide and established cross-disciplinary literature on pro-government nonstate armed groups has generated a variety of research questions for scholars interested in conflict, political violence, and political stability: Does the presence of such groups indicate a new type of conflict? What are the dynamics that drive governments to align with informal armed groups and that make armed groups choose to side with the government? Given the risks entailed in surrendering a monopoly of violence, is there a turning point in a conflict when governments enlist these groups? How successful are these groups? Why do governments use these nonstate armed actors to shape foreign conflicts, whether as insurgents or counterinsurgents abroad? Are these nonstate armed actors always useful to governments or perhaps even an indicator of state failure? How do pro-government militias affect the safety and security of civilians? The enduring pattern of collaboration between governments and pro-government armed groups challenges conventional theory and the idea of an evolutionary process of the modern state consolidating the means of violence. Research on these groups and their consequences began with case studies, and these continue to yield valuable insights. More recently, survey work and cross-national quantitative research have contributed to our knowledge. This mix of methods is opening new lines of inquiry for research on insurgencies and the delivery of the core public good of effective security.
What is “threat framing”? It concerns how something or someone is perceived, labeled, and communicated as a threat to something or someone. The designation “threat,” notably, belongs to the wider family of negative concerns such as danger, risk, or hazard. Research on threat framing is not anchored in a single or specific field but rather is scattered across three separate and largely disconnected bodies of literature: framing theory, security studies, and crisis studies. It is noteworthy that whereas these literatures have contributed observations on how and under what consequences something is framed as a threat, none of them have sufficiently problematized the concept of threat. Crisis analysis considers the existence or perception of threat essential for a crisis to emerge, along with a perception of urgency and uncertainty, yet crisis studies focus on the meaning of “crisis” without problematizing the concept of threat. Likewise, security studies have spent a lot of ink defining “security,” typically understood as the “absence of threat,” but leave the notion of “threat” undefined. Further, framing theory is concerned with “problem definition” as a main or first function of framing but generally pays little or no attention to the meaning of “threat.” Moreover, cutting across these bodies of literature is the distinction between constructivist and rationalist approaches, both of which have contributed to the understanding of threat framing. Constructivist analyses have emphasized how threat framing can be embedded in a process of socialization and acculturation, making some frames appear normal and others highly contested. Rationalist approaches, on the other hand, have shown how threat framing can be a conscious strategic choice, intended to accomplish certain political effects such as the legitimization of extraordinary means, allocation of resources, or putting issues high on the political agenda. Although there are only a handful of studies explicitly combining insights across these fields, they have made some noteworthy observations. These studies have shown for example how different types of framing may fuel amity or enmity, cooperation, or conflict. These studies have also found that antagonistic threat frames are more likely to result in a securitizing or militarizing logic than do structural threat frames. Institutionalized threat frames are more likely to gain and maintain saliency, particularly if they are associated with policy monopolies. In the post-truth era, however, the link between evidence and saliency of frames is weakened, leaving room for a much more unpredictable politics of framing.