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Article

Discussion of some representative work from the scholars of foreign policy provides a review of the literature that can guide researchers in examining the separate yet interrelated stages of the decision-making process and that can demonstrate the importance of sequences in the process of foreign policymaking.

Article

There are lots of ways that emotions have been studied in psychology and various ways that their use has been examined in the context of foreign policy. Perhaps one of the most useful ways to examine the influence of emotion on foreign policy is through the lens of risk and threat assessment. Some approaches to emotion tend to categorize emotions as valence-based, in terms of broad-based positivity or negativity. Certainly, elements of this kind of approach can be useful, particularly in terms of thinking about the ways in which political conservatives appear to have a negativity bias. However, an investigation of discrete emotions allows a more sophisticated and nuanced exploration of the effect of emotion on risk analysis and threat assessment, in particular the effect of fear, anger, and disgust on decision-making under conditions of risky threat. Genetic, as well as environmental, circumstances can influence individual variance in the experience and expression of such emotions, and any comprehensive approach to understanding the influence of emotion on decision-making should take all these factors into account.

Article

Akan Malici

Syria is in tatters. A brutal dictator, vicious terrorist groups, and a raging civil war have led to the death of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions. Given the ongoing Syrian conflict, President Barack Obama’s rather restrained foreign policy toward the Bashar al-Assad regime has been described as “feckless,” “flawed,” and “clueless.” In August 2012, however, President Obama issued a strong warning when he famously said the “red line” for the United States in terms of stepping up a military offensive would be if “we started seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Beginning in 2013, the Damascus regime did utilize chemical weapons against the Syrian people, perhaps most shockingly in August in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. Yet President Obama ultimately held back from intervening militarily, and his decision has since received strong and persistent criticism. After retiring from his post as secretary of defense, Robert Gates judged the president’s decision a “serious mistake.” It allowed the tragedy to continue and American credibility to be hurt. The president himself, however, disagreed. About the decision not to act militarily he said later: “I’m very proud of this moment.” He was convinced that the United States could not successfully affect the situation and that he had kept the country out of another quagmire. It is indeed the case that good decisions can avoid wars or win them while bad decisions can start wars or lose them, and these consequences are just one reason why the study of foreign policy mistakes is so important. Yet it can, of course, not be the case that an evaluation of foreign policy decisions is rendered to the subjective eyes of the beholder. Instead, what is needed is an objective framework by which to identify and analyze foreign policy mistakes. Foreign policy mistakes are procedural errors concerning the diagnostic or the prescriptive level of the foreign policy decision-making task. They can be mistakes of omission or commission and can occur in regard to a threat or to an opportunity. Of special importance is the question how foreign policy mistakes can be avoided. This question can be answered through a decision-making framework defined by (a) the level of information a leader can have about a foreign policy challenge and (b) the potential consequences of a decision. Because many, if not most, challenges with respect to questions of international security are “ill-defined,” the myopic strategy of disjointed incrementalism is ideal. It avoids mistakes by making reversible (disjointed) and relatively small (incremental) moves away from the status quo. In the case of Syria, President Obama followed a strategy of disjointed incrementalism. He could not rely on much certain or reliable information regarding the situation and correctly understood that a military engagement could have potentially very adverse consequences in terms of casualties and a general escalation of the situation. Contrary to often repeated judgments that his decision not to engage militarily was a mistake, it is the case that he indeed avoided a mistake.

Article

The cognitive and emotional mechanics of the human brain have profound effects on when and what people and political leaders learn, and this can have significant effects on their causal beliefs, preferences, and policies. The existence of the availability heuristic and its biasing effects on political judgment is one of the most robust findings from decades of research in cognitive psychology. The core mechanism involves people being more likely to learn from the phenomena that are most easily recalled by memory, which tend to be dramatic and vivid events, rather than other, often more normatively probative sources. Most applications of this insight to foreign policy decision-making also tend to assume that an actor’s personal experiences will impact what tends to be more or less easily recalled and thus better predict who learns which lesson from which event. This heuristic enables leaders to deal with the vast amount of extant information but also can cause systematic biases in causal inference. Documenting the availability heuristic and its effects on political decision-making requires (usually archival) data on leaders beliefs’ over long periods of time, from their formative political lessons through decisions and nondecisions when in power, in order to reliably clarify which lessons were in fact learned, when and why a leader learned which lesson from what data point, why that data point happened to be cognitively available, and whether these lessons influenced policy. Ideally, studies should also assess these leaders’ associates where possible to determine whether they learned similar lessons from the same events. Studies can also apply statistical analysis to larger populations of leaders who are likely to have found different events cognitively available. This article focusses on decisions in the realm of foreign policy and international security, although availability certainly plays a role in other domains as well. Decades of scholarship have now shown the relevance of the availability heuristic in U.S., Soviet, Indian, Chinese, and Pakistani grand strategy and foreign policy, approaches to nuclear weapons, and extant alliances and threat perceptions. But much work remains to be done in these cases and elsewhere, as well as in other fields like international political economy and comparative politics.

Article

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.

Article

Diversionary explanations are a key FPA approach to understanding how domestic politics shape foreign policy and, in particular, the resort to force and risk of war, arguing that increasingly vulnerable leaders manipulate foreign policy in order to enhance their domestic political position. This literature has emerged in major ways since Levy’s early critique in which he noted wide disparity between the lack of theoretical rigor and empirical findings in political science research and the richness of qualitative research by historians offering compelling cases of diversionary wars such as the First World War. Nearly three decades later, however, this situation has significantly changed. A vibrant political science literature has emerged that provides significant empirical evidence based on, first, longitudinal studies of mostly the U.S. case and the presidential use of force since World War II (WWII); and, second, cross-national studies that capture variance in the diversionary resort to force across regime types (and subtypes) and different international contexts. In contrast, historical literature on the origins of World War I (WWI) has come to view the German case as more complex and has placed it into comparative perspective with the other four great powers. Historical research suggests that leaders in all five powers faced rising domestic opposition in the prewar decades; that they subsequently adopted new (yet varied) political strategies for containing opposition; and, at the brink of war, that diversionary and other political motivations played out in indirect and different ways. This article reviews these literatures and suggests that there has been some convergence of themes in the research of political scientists and historians. Consistent with FPA approaches, these literatures point to complex patterns of domestic oppositions across different institutional arenas, contingencies affecting the willingness and ability of leaders to resort to diversionary force, the role of agency stemming from leader beliefs about political stability and the consequences of risking war, and the importance of decision making dynamics in the ultimate resort to war.

Article

Mark Schafer and Gary Smith

How do the beliefs of leaders affect foreign policy decision-making processes and outcomes? This question has been central to the study of foreign policy decision making (FPDM), yet it receives scant attention in the broader international relations literature. Although many controversies and debates surround the issue of specifically how political leaders’ beliefs affect foreign policy decisions and outcomes, there is one key assumption in this literature that is universally accepted: leaders matter. Individual leaders, their unique beliefs, and their distinctive cognitive limitations affect both the quality of the decision-making process and the direction of the foreign policy outcomes. The beliefs and images leaders hold act as powerful frames and limitations to incoming information. Despite the rich history of the field, scholars who study beliefs still have much more work to do to expand the generalizability of the qualitative findings in the literature. Scholars need more data, deriving from more sources, for more leaders, so that they can generate larger and more comprehensive datasets. Indeed, there is a great opportunity to expand this field of research and to paint a clearer picture of the decision-making process.

Article

The “sunk costs fallacy” is a popular import into political science from organizational psychology and behavioral economics. The fallacy is classically defined as a situation in which decision-makers escalate commitment to an apparently failing project in order to “recoup” the costs they have already sunk into it. The phenomenon is often framed as a good example of how real decision-making departs from the assumption of forward-looking rationality which underpins traditional approaches to understanding politics. Researchers have proposed a number of different psychological drivers for the fallacy, such as cognitive dissonance reduction, and there is experimental and observational evidence that it accurately characterizes decision-making in certain contexts. However, there is significant skepticism about the fallacy in many social sciences, with critics arguing that there are better forward-looking rational explanations for decisions apparently driven by a desire to recoup sunk costs – among them reputational concerns, option values and agency problems. Critics have also noted that in practical situations sunk costs are informative both about decision makers’ intrinsic valuation for the issue and the prospects for success, making it hard to discern a separate role for sunk costs empirically. To address these concerns, empirical researchers have employed a number of strategies, especially leveraging natural experiments in certain non-political decision making contexts such as sports or business, in order to isolate the effects of sunk costs per se from other considerations. In doing so, they have found mixed support for the fallacy. Research has also shown that the prevalence of the sunk costs fallacy may be moderated by a number of factors, including the locus of decision-making, framing, and national context. These provide the basis for suggestions for future research.

Article

Binnur Ozkececi-Taner

Countries differ in size, socioeconomic development, and political regime. They also vary in their political institutionalization and societal structures, military and economic capabilities, and strategic cultures. In addition, public opinion, national role conceptions, decision making rules and belief systems, and personality traits of political leaders vary from one state to another. These differences directly affect both foreign policymaking process and foreign policy decisions. Whereas the extant literature on foreign policy analysis (FPA) lacks a grand theory as to how domestic factors influence foreign policy and under what conditions these factors become more important, a large body of work shows that a state’s foreign policy relies heavily on unit-level characteristics, and it is not completely shaped by systemic-structural constraints and opportunities based on distribution of power and military capabilities.

Article

Thomas Dolan

Increasingly, scholars are recognizing the influences of emotion on foreign policy decision-making processes. Not merely feelings, emotions are sets of sentimental, physiological, and cognitive processes that typically arise in response to situational stimuli. They play a central role in psychological and social processes that shape foreign policy decision-making and behavior. In recent years, three important areas of research on emotion in foreign policy have developed: one examining the effects of emotion on how foreign policy decision makers understand and think-through problems, another focused on the role of emotion in diplomacy, and a third that investigates how mass emotion develops and shapes the context in which foreign policy decisions are made. These literatures have benefitted greatly from developments in the study of emotion by psychologists, neuroscientists, and others. Effectively using emotion to study foreign policy, however, requires some understanding of how these scholars approach the study of emotion and other affective phenomena. In addition to surveying the literatures in foreign policy analysis that use emotion, then, this article also addresses definitional issues and the different theories of emotion common among psychologists and neuroscientists. Some of the challenges scholars of emotion in foreign policy face: the interplay of the psychological and the social in modelling collective emotions, the issues involved in observing emotions in the foreign policy context, the theoretical challenge of emotion regulation, and the challenge of winning broader acceptance of the importance of emotion in foreign policy by the broader scholarly community.

Article

Like all decision making, foreign policy decision making (FPDM) requires transferring meaning from one representation to another. Since the end of the Cold War, students of FPDM have focused increasingly on historical analogies and, to a lesser extent, conceptual metaphors to explain how this transference works. Drawing on converging evidence from the cognitive sciences, as well as careful case studies of foreign policymaking, they’ve shown analogy and metaphor to be much more than “cheap talk.” Instead, metaphor and analogy are intrinsic to policymakers’ cognition. This article traces the development of this growing literature. So far, FPDM has treated analogy and metaphor separately. It has also paid far more attention to the former than the latter. By contrast, the article argues that analogy and metaphor are not only similar, they are equally essential to cognition. It defines and compares metaphor and analogy, analyzes their socio-cognitive functions in decision making, and charts the evolution of analogy and metaphor research in FPDM. It also suggests the utility of a constructivist-cognitive synthesis for future work in this area.

Article

Foreign policy decision making has been and remains at the core of foreign policy analysis and its enduring contribution to international relations. The adoption of rationalist approaches to foreign policy decision making, predicated on an actor-specific analysis, paved the way for scholarship that sought to unpack the sources of foreign policy through a graduated assessment of differing levels of analysis. The diversity of inputs into the foreign policy process and, as depicted through a rationalist decision-making lens, the centrality of a search for utility and the impulse toward compensation in “trade-offs” between predisposed preferences, plays a critical role in enriching our understanding of how that process operates. FPA scholars have devoted much of their work to pointing out the many flaws in rationalist depictions of the decision-making process, built on a set of unsustainable assumptions and with limited recognition of distortions underlined in studies drawn from literature on psychology, cognition, and the study of organizations. At the same time, proponents of rational choice have sought to recalibrate the rational approach to decision making to account for these critiques and, in so doing, build a more robust explanatory model of foreign policy.

Article

Ravi Bhavnani and David Sylvan

On several occasions in the past 70 years, simulation as a research program in FPA rose, then fell. We begin by defining what we mean by simulations before reviewing the two main streams of simulation work in FPA: human-based and computer-based, with this latter itself comprising two streams. We conclude with a speculative discussion of what happened to simulation in FPA and what the future may hold.

Article

Key theories of foreign policymaking include: the rational actor model, prospect theory, poliheuristic theory, cybernetic theory, bureaucratic politics, and organizational politics; and, at the group level, groupthink, polythink, and con-div. These theories are based on unique decision rules, including maximizing, satisficing, elimination by aspect, lexicographic, etc. A new, two-group model of foreign policy decision-making includes a decision design group and a decision approval group.

Article

Cognitive theory encompasses mental activities such as the observation of different stimuli in an environment; the memorization and recall of information; pattern recognition and problem representation; and complex activities like social judgments, analytic reasoning, and learning. Cognitive psychology also highlights the constraints that prevent individuals from acting as utility-maximizing, fully rational decision-makers. These constraints lead people to rely on a regularly occurring set of cognitive mechanisms to simplify the decision-making process. Scholars of foreign policy have drawn from several prominent areas of cognitive psychology to inform their research. One such area looks at the beliefs and belief systems that are the building blocks for most judgments. Researchers have also examined how actors use cognitive biases and heuristics to cope with uncertainty, which is abundant in foreign policy settings. An important set of cognitive mechanisms examined in Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) relates to judgments about policy risks and costs. Factors that facilitate and inhibit learning are crucial for understanding the conditions under which such judgments may improve over time. No cognitive process operates in a vacuum; instead these processes are moderated by an individual’s group context and emotions. There are several challenges in applying cognitive theory to FPA. Such theories are biased toward populations that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. They are usually first tested using controlled experiments that measure group-level differences; whereas FPA scholars are often interested in the cognitive processes of individual leaders operating in chaotic environments. Individual-level psychological mechanisms may augment or offset one another, as well as interact with variables at the governmental, societal, and international levels of analysis in unpredictable ways. In light of these challenges, FPA scholars who employ cognitive psychology may wish to conceive of their enterprise as a historical science rather than a predictive one.

Article

Policymakers regularly face decisions pertaining to the making of international law and compliance with international law. International relations scholars have attempted to explain the broad patterns of state behavior that emerge from such decisions by approaching international lawmaking and international legal compliance from the perspectives of state power, interests, and identity. These explanations reflect the growing interdisciplinary connections between the study of international law and the study of international relations. Although there have been fewer interdisciplinary connections between the study of international law and models of foreign policy decision-making, closer examination of each of the main international relations approaches to international lawmaking and international legal compliance suggests corresponding models of foreign policy decision-making. Further work remains to develop these connections and to incorporate transnational actors and processes into the analysis of foreign policy decision-making. Such work has both scholarly and practical relevance, insofar as foreign policy decision-making takes place in an increasingly legalized international environment even as the existing, post–World War II international order faces increasing challenges from nonliberal states.

Article

Henry Kissinger once remarked, “As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces. But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make.” It is common sense that a state’s foreign policy cannot be explained without reference to the beliefs of such leaders as Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, or Kim Jong Un, to name a few. It is, therefore, ironic that leaders have mattered little for much of the international relations discipline’s history. Structural approaches with foci on the distribution of power, international institutions and domestic politics have been dominant. To be sure, scholarship on belief systems has been present since the 1950s. Early key concepts included the decision maker’s “definition of the situation,” the “ecological environment,” and the “attitudinal prism.” This scholarship laid an important foundation; however, at the time, it did not generate competitive research programs. Agent-centered approaches remained secondary and beliefs were seen as residual variables. They were also seen as “unobservable”—difficult to assess and operationalize. Indeed, rigorous methods that would enable the scientific study of belief systems have long been absent. Over time such challenges were addressed successfully, and these efforts were catalyzed by scholarly advances and also by real-world developments. In the real world, it was mainly the end of the Cold War that illustrated the insufficiency of structural theories. Under Mikhail Gorbachev the Soviet Union took a fundamentally new course, and it gave up power. The dominant structural theories did neither predict the ensuing events nor could they explain them. They were “caught flat-footed,” as one scholar wrote. What really mattered, it seemed, was what these theories did not pay much attention to: namely decision makers’ belief-systems. Of particular relevance are decision makers’ operational code beliefs. Along with the general literature on belief systems, the operational code research program began in the 1950s. It gained still more prominence with the work of Alexander George and Ole Holsti in the 1960s and 1970s. A decision maker’s operational code is constituted by his answers to questions such as: What is the essential nature of political life? Is the political universe essentially one of harmony or conflict? What is the fundamental character of one’s political opponents? What is the best approach for selecting goals for political action? The most significant advances in the operational code research program were then made in the 1980s and beyond by Stephen Walker and his students. The progress occurred on the theoretical, methodological, and empirical plane, and through their work the research program has become, (and continues to be) a mainstay in contemporary international relations scholarship.

Article

Jeffrey S. Lantis and Ryan Beasley

Comparative foreign policy analysis (CFP) is a vibrant and dynamic subfield of international relations. It examines foreign policy decision making processes related to momentous events as well as patterns in day-to-day foreign interactions of nearly 200 different states (along with thousands of international and nongovernmental organizations). Scholars explore the causes of these behaviors as well as their implications by constructing, testing, and refining theories of foreign policy decision making in comparative perspective. In turn, CFP also offers valuable lessons to government leaders. This article surveys the evolution of CFP as a subfield over time, with special attention to its contributions to academic understanding and policymaking. It begins with a review of the characteristics and contributions of CFP, followed by acknowledgment of early works that helped establish this area of study. The next section of the article reviews major thematic focuses of CFP, including theories of international pressures and factors that may drive state foreign policy as well as strong foundations in studies of domestic politics. Key internal actors and conditions that can influence state foreign policies include individual leaders, institutions and legislatures, bureaucratic organizations and government agencies, and public opinion and nongovernmental organizations. Following this survey of actors and contemporary theories of their role in foreign policy decision-making, the article develops two illustrations of new directions in CFP studies focused on political party factions and role theory in comparative perspective.

Article

Finn Laursen and Sophie Vanhoonacker

The Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union (EU), was signed in Maastricht on February 7, 1992, and it entered into force on November 1, 1993, after being ratified by the then 12 member states of the European Communities. The Intergovernmental Conferences (IGCs) on Political Union (PU) and Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) where the member states negotiated the amendments to the founding treaties took place against the turbulent geopolitical background of the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), German unification, and the end of the Cold War. The new treaty amended the Treaty Establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) and established the European Community (EC) as the first pillar of the Union. It also amended the Treaty Establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the Treaty Establishing the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC). It further added two pillars of intergovernmental cooperation, namely Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) in a second pillar and Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) cooperation in a third pillar. Overall, the Maastricht Treaty constituted one of the most important treaty changes in the history of European integration. It included provisions on the creation of an Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), including a single European currency. It tried to increase the democratic legitimacy and efficiency of the decision-making process through empowerment of the European Parliament (EP) and the extension of Qualified Majority Voting (QMV). Next to introducing the principle of subsidiarity and the concept of European citizenship, it further developed existing policies such as social policy and added new ones including education, culture, public health, consumer protection, trans-European networks, industrial policy, and development cooperation.