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Foreign Policy Belief Systems and Operational Code Analysis  

Akan Malici

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.