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Decision-Making in Foreign Policy

By Edited Jan 27, 2014 0 0

On a rather recurrent basis, foreign policy initiatives are discussed in a way that evokes a sense of intangible ambiguity—as if the agents that make decisions are an entirely separate entity from the rest of human society. For if decision-makers were not drastically affected by the very societal influences that are confronted and subsequently dissected by all peoples on a daily basis, then surely the actor’s policies would have a high degree of consistency—thus creating predictable, rational generalizability that the discipline of international relations direly yearns for in an era no longer characterized by relatively static bipolarity. Of course, this is hardly the case; every decision is coupled with primary and secondary ramifications that are taken into consideration and, perhaps most importantly, one has to bear in mind that mistake-prone, easily-coerced humans make every decision that must then be carried out by other imperfect people. Accordingly, it is vital that foreign policy analysts substantially focus upon decision-making and the motives of the decision-makers; failing to account for the many influences that weigh in on every decision ensures a limited effectiveness of predicting future events, and quite arguably eliminates any hope for generalizability in its entirety. Take the recent developments in Syria for instance: the pitying, Rousseauan, Western bystander may find the vetoes of the UN Resolution by Russia and China to be unfathomable; yet, when one considers the economic and ideological interdependencies coupled with a disheveled opposition that lacks an identity remotely comparable to other oppositions that encapsulated the Arab Spring, analysts can begin to understand how decision-makers are influenced and why taking internal and external influences into consideration is necessary. The developments in Syria that have essentially handcuffed the West (beyond the usual sanctions that hinder both sides) only exhibit a small sample of the many factors that determine whether decision-makers enact policy, do nothing, or take the middle ground in precautionary and reactionary situations. As a result, decision-makers constantly take into account all considerations of every decision—ranging from the general welfare of one’s citizens to the partisan impact of their respective decision. Ultimately, foreign policy analysis greatly focuses upon decision-making because understanding why decisions are made is the fundamental piece to the puzzle in regards to predicting patterns and foreseeing beneficial solutions; therefore, until a state is on utopian economic and military terms with all other parties, the decision to do absolutely nothing, or to revert to an outdated state of isolationism during a time in which no state is economically or naturally self-sufficient, is never a feasible option.

            In order to fully comprehend why there is a need to focus upon decision-making, one must consider all of the factors and restraints that surround policy-making. One such factor is the political structure of national government. As progressive President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “... If you ever sit here, you will learn that you cannot, just by shouting from the housetops, get what you want all the time” (Lash 1976: 124). President Barack Obama came to a similar realization when Congress did not allow him to close Guantanamo after he promised to do so during his charismatic campaign—revealing the power of a system of checks and balances. During the euro crisis, economically-sound Germany was pressured to bailout floundering Greece due to the obligation of being a ‘euro-member’. As evidenced, the constraints of the domestic and foreign political context, “…may often lead to outcomes that, although rational in some sense, are quite different from those produced by economic rationality reflecting instead ‘rationality without optimization’” (Diesing 1962: 2-3 & Simon 1990: 8). However, there are also contrasting political structures that give more power to fewer people. While the recent actions of Mubarak, Gadhafi, and al-Assad, and examples such as the diamond trade in Sierra Leone and state-sponsored terrorism in Lebanese-based Hezbollah that fund crony capitalism and create national security concerns—validating aspects of the ‘new wars’ thesis—top the list amongst undemocratic regimes, Blair’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 despite poor intelligence and little public approval serves as an example of the leeway given to the party leader in a parliamentary system as well. Even in democratic United States, unethical blunders and incidents such as the Gulf of Tonkin and the numerous war crimes committed in Afghanistan and Iraq reveal that supposed constraints can be circumvented in shady ways. By taking how political structure (and its loopholes) factor into decision-making, analysts crucially increase their chances of predicting when agents are constrained by structural ties, when agents may circumvent structure, and when decisions may be replicated as a blueprint of generalizability.

            In addition to the effects of political structure, social influences also play a key role in uncovering the cognitive subjectivity and overall humanizing characteristics of all decision-makers. As Richard Snyder notes, “… [the decision-maker] enters the government from the larger social system in which he also retains membership. He comes to decision-making as a ‘culture bearer’” (Snyder 1962: 7-8). Along these lines, Alexander Wendt differentiates ‘brute facts’ and ‘social facts’: for example, gravity is an indisputable ‘brute fact’ whereas sovereignty—a fundamental tenant of a successful international system—is socially-constructed and leads to disputes when violated as a manufactured factual conception (Wendt 1992: 399). Acknowledging that ‘facts’ are often times socially and subjectively influenced in the field of international relations is very important if one desires impartial analysis. As a brief example, one may wonder why U.S.-Iranian relations are currently so hostile when it would appear that laissez-faire trading between the two states would be mutually beneficial. Whereas an American may cite the hostage crisis of 1979 or Ahmadinejad’s insistence to eliminate Israel as reasons why sanctions and warnings are not strong enough initiatives to confront Iranian nuclear developments, an Iranian may cite the overhaul of their democratically-elected regime during the 1953 Iranian coup d’état or the United States’ unconditional support of Israel, even when Israel blatantly defies international humanitarian regulations, as examples that signify the United States has and always will mingle in Iranian affairs. Hence, as Valerie Hudson notes in emphasizing that ‘facts’ are culturally influenced, “…a tradition of raw empiricism in political science has contributed both to despair and to unsound methodological assumptions” (Hudson 2002: 7). Albeit difficult, analysts must attempt to view potential policy from an objective viewpoint; otherwise, analysts will fall into the same trap of subjectivity that generally breeds undesirable misconception and confrontation that encumbers analysts and decision-makers alike.

            So it is established that political structure and subjectivity affect any decision-maker’s rationale, but it is very difficult for analysts to discern patterns if agents solely act individualistically and often times have the ability to ignore systemic structures. However, there are some general patterns of decision-makers. For instance, in a series of conducted experiments, evidence suggests that decision-makers consider domestic political factors prior to anything else when making foreign policy decisions (Mintz 1993: 15-29). According to an assistant in the Kennedy administration, the first question was always, “…will it fly on the Hill?” regarding foreign policy proposals (Farnham 2004: 448). Additionally, while Samuel Huntington describes how modern states have, “…become unable to define their national interests, and as a result sub-national commercial interests and transnational and non-national ethnic interests have come to dominate foreign policy,” and this is certainly reflected by international missteps ranging from Kosovo and Rwanda to Afghanistan and Iraq that helped squander the potential for a relatively peaceful and successful post-Cold War era, decisions are also generally based upon the perception of how high the ‘stakes and threat’ are (Nye 1999: 22). In support of the aforementioned claim, President George H.W. Bush, notably promoting involvement in Panama, the Gulf War, and Somalia during his tenure, is quoted as saying, "…using military force makes sense as a policy where the stakes warrant, where and when force can be effective…where its application can be limited in scope and time, and where the potential benefits justify the potential costs and sacrifice" (Bush 1994: 203). The premise that President Bush is indirectly alluding to is that the preferred situation in which to intervene for humanitarian causes is when the stakes, defined as the, “salience of the values at issue,” and threat, defined as the, “risk of loss on those issues,” are both low (Astorino-Courtois 2000: 489). To put stakes and threat into context, H.W. Bush’s intervention in Somalia would be classified as a ‘low-stakes-low-threat’ decision because intervention was, “relatively ‘cheap and easy’ and worth it,” whereas Operation Desert Storm in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait would be classified as ‘high-stakes-high threat’ because the importance of U.S. interests was designated as weighty and the risk of casualties and monetary expenditure was clearly significant as well (Haas 1994: 69-70). All in all, domestic political factors coupled with stake and threat assessment are the predominant considerations that decision-makers take into account when choosing to intervene, militarily, economically, or ideologically, on a given issue. Since decision-making dictates the international order, analysts need not forget to consider all domestic and foreign factors.

For the sake of answering the ultimate question as to when ‘doing nothing’ is best, rightful stake and threat diagnosis is to be assumed (in other words, if the diagnosis is wrong due to fallacious intelligence or subjectivity, then the question cannot be adequately assessed). Additionally, it is to be assumed that the decision-maker is at least attempting to do what is in the best interest of its citizens. Bearing these pretenses in mind, any ‘low-threat’ initiative is one in which ‘doing nothing’ would make little sense; for even in the worst-case scenario, a decision-maker is trying to help their fellow man—without having to risk significant money or man-power—and, although perhaps marginally impactful like Operation Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia arguably was, the decision-maker and the national interest may merely have to ‘go back to the drawing board’ (Astorino-Courtois 2000: 490). While ‘low-threat’ predicaments can certainly be classified differently in the eyes of the given beholder, for argument’s sake, ‘doing nothing’ in a rightfully-diagnosed ‘low-threat’ situation is simply irrational because one cannot ‘lose’. In the case of ‘high-threat’ scenarios, the decision to intervene is impacted by many different factors. For instance, from an American perspective in which bloated military spending has facilitated the crippling of the education, healthcare, and social security opportunities for thousands of Americans over the course of the past decade, a decision-maker should probably err on the side of putting money and man-power into fixing domestic programs rather than impeding domestic revitalization and starting wars. In contrast, if public opinion perceives a threat or cause as imminent to national security or worthy of humanitarian aid and citizens are willing to go to a funded battle or invest in foreign aid, then the decision-maker should rightfully protect its and/or other citizens. Some neoconservative hawks or world policemen may construe such sentiments as justifying joint-strikes with Israel or overextending unavailable aid to struggling areas, but again this reveals the power of the perception of the decision-makers. Ultimately though, the underlying point is that, during an age of increasing interdependence, ‘doing nothing’ is never best. Understandably, any state or coalition of states should not and cannot police the world because it undermines the legitimacy of sovereignty and is not economically feasible, and time and again overextension proves to be poorly executed and damaging for everyone involved. However, isolationism is economic suicide and blatant indifference to the suffering of fellow man (when one has the resources to help) is unjustifiable. Obviously deficits and domestic problems make it difficult to garner support for foreign policy initiatives but, at the very least, international organizations provide forums for discussion and negotiation that must be utilized. Rather than launching preemptive military or humanitarian initiatives that have no exit-strategy, the empowerment of international bodies such as the WTO, UN, and IMF reduces the need for overzealous national defense budgets by pooling investment in international budgets for enhanced trade and humanitarian policies. Therefore, as an example, the U.S. would not have to be held solely responsible for allowing genocide to continue in Rwanda during the mid-1990’s because international resources would have helped counterbalance the lack of direct U.S. national interest in the cathartic cause. Cases that involve uncooperative, resource-rich states certainly raise questions regarding the effectiveness of international law, but initiating alienating sanctions only ensures collective economic hindrances and reaffirms the ironic rules of the current nationally state-centric international system: namely how only certain states can have nuclear capabilities, receive foreign aid, or strike neighbors without international retribution due to having powerful allies. Nevertheless, ‘doing nothing’ in response to a situation that is imperfect is never justifiable because, at the bare minimum, representatives can negotiate proposals that can potentially improve relationships between multiple actors.

            In conclusion, decision-making in foreign policy is a complex phenomenon that is affected by many factors and yields many different results. Consequently, analysts must adapt to the seemingly unpredictable nature of decision-making by accounting for all influences that cross pathways with a humanized decision-maker. At the forefront are factors such as subjectivity, political structure, domestic considerations, and foreign obligations, stakes, and threats surrounding any particular international issue. In the end, ‘doing nothing’ to confront an issue would symbolize the antithesis of what a decision-maker is supposed to do: make decisions that are in the national interest. And since no state’s national interests are eternally satiated, negotiation is always an option when economic or military commitments are counterintuitive or simply not available during economic downturns. Foreign policy analysis focuses so much upon decision-making because their decisions mold the world that we live in and, since no rational actor will choose to ‘do nothing,’ analysts’ ability to foresee events and propose rewarding policy is vital to the reputability of the discipline.

 

Astorino-Courtois, Allison. (2000). “The Effects of Stakes and Threat on Foreign Policy Decision-Making”, Political Psychology. Vol. 21. 489-510.

Bush, George H.W. Address to the U.S. Military Academy. West Point, New York, 5 January 1993, as excerpted in Haass, R. (1994, p. 203).

Diesing, P. (1962). Reason in Society. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Farnham, Barbara. (2004). “Impact of the Political Context on Foreign Policy Decision-Making”, Political Psychology. Vol. 25. 441-463.

Haass, Richard. (1994). Intervention: The use of American military force in the post-Cold War world. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Hudson, Valerie. (2002). “Foreign Policy Decision-Making: A Touchstone for International Relations Theory in the Twenty-First Century”, Foreign Policy Decision-Making (Revisited). 1-20.

Lash, J. P. (1976). Roosevelt and Churchill, 1939-1941: The Partnership that Saved the West. New York: Norton.

Mintz, Alex. (1993). “The Decision to Attack Iraq: A Non-compensatory Theory of Decision-making”, Journal of Conflict Resolution. 37. 595-618.

Nye, Joseph. (1999) "Redefining the National Interest", Foreign Affairs. Vol. 78.

Simon, H. A. (1990). “Invariants of Human Behavior”, Annual Review of Psychology. Vol. 41. 1-19.

Snyder, Richard C., H. W. Bruck, and Burton Sapin, eds. (1962) Foreign Policy Decision-Making: An Approach to the Study of International Politics. New York: Free Press of Glencoe. 

Wendt, Alexander. (1992) “Anarchy Is What States Make of It”, International Organization. Vol. 46. 391–425.

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