Foreign policy analysis (FPA) is a subfield of the IR theory. As with IR, FPA is about understanding the input and output of state behaviour with the ambition of finding explanations or even making predictions of how states will act on the international scene, taking in aspects of underlying motives that have/could influence the behaviour of states. (Smith, Hadfield and Dunne, 2016:4-5). FPA is about policy making and unit behaviour involved in interstate relations. According to a definition given by Christoper Hill, foreign policy is “the sum of official external relations conducted by an independent actor (usually a state) in international relations”. (Hill 2003:3 see Smith, Hadfield and Dunne, 2016:3). FPA is in this way about the analysis of the behaviour and practice of relationship between various actors in the international system, with a great focus on the process and the actors’ motivations. It is about scrutiny of the process, the structure of decision making, the environment and context which foreign policy is formulated within, and with a focus on the actors’ motivations and behaviour. (Alden and Aran, 2017:3).

Despite decades of globalisation and increasing interdependence, the state-unit is even more central than ever due to the ever-increasing range of policy-making which has made the practice of statecraft more complicated, with more actors involved. FPA considers that there are more actors, other than the state, that are involved in policy making and decision making of states, giving way for an understanding that the behaviour of international and domestic actors have effect on the foreign policies. However, even though states find themselves in a context in which their actions are deeply affected by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other interests on the political agenda, the state is still the central foreign policy actor in the theory of FPA. Nevertheless, special attention is required to look at the role of individuals and groups in terms of winners and losers of foreign policy decisions. (Smith, Hadfield and Dunne, 2016:3, 6).

The development of the first generation of FPA-theory with work from 1954 to 1973 was built up around three paradigmatic works. Firstly, the work of Richard Snyder in the 1950s, with emphasis on the process of decision making as central, which inspired researchers to look below the nation-state level of analysis of the actors involved. Secondly, the work of James Rosenau who in the 1960s developed an actor-specific theory that would lead to the development of generalisable propositions at the level of middle range-theory. Thirdly, the work of Harold and Margaret Sprout in the 1950s that put focus on the psychological aspects of foreign policy and the psycho-milieu of individuals and groups making foreign policy decisions, i.e. the international and operational context as it is perceived and interpreted by these decision makers. (Hudson, 2016:13-17). The work of the Sprouts posed an explicit challenge to the dominance of the realist assumptions in the field of IR at that time, and switched focus from the outcomes of foreign policy decision making to the process and to investigate the role of individual decision makers and their influence on foreign policy decision making. In this way the Sprouts introduced a behaviouristic approach into the field of FPA. (Alden and Aran, 2017:6).

The second generation of FPA, with work from 1974 to 1993 put focus on small-group decision making, which refers to the process and structure of foreign policy making by groups and how group thinking makes influence. Focus was also on the organisational process and on bureaucratic politics, as well as on comparative foreign policy. This second generation of FPA also gave increased attention to psychological influences on foreign policy decision making, which put considerations on the mind of the decision makers and the individual characteristics that could affect how decision are made. Another area that was put in focus was the societal milieu and context affecting the decision making such as national characteristics, geography, economics culture, history, etc. as well as the type of regime the state belongs to. (Hudson, 2016:18-19). An effect of the globalising world was the establishment of a pluralist approach on foreign policy. The pluralists see an increased linkage between a variety of state actors, sub-state actors, and non-state actors, which are all influencing the foreign policy decision making process. The pluralist approach sees the transnational context as a mixed-actor setting, where the state and non-state actors either coexist or compete. This pluralist context of multifaceted interdependency reduces the extent of state action in foreign policy making, to that of management of a variety of forces, both within the domestic domain, and outside the domain of the state. (Alden and Aran, 2017:9). The ending of the Cold War gave a further commitment to look below the nation-state level of analysis to actor specific information and to utilise theory and findings from across the spectrum of social science in the course of finding multi causal explanations for analysis. (Hudson, 2016:30).

In this way, FPA moves around in the boundaries between the internal and the external spheres of the state. Examining the internal and international environments, collecting information on active actors and groups situated both on the inside and outside of the state boundaries. FPA is about how both domestic and international politics affect the foreign policies, how interests of both domestic and international groupings make influence. (Carlsnaes, 2016:113). The ambition in FPA is to find answers to what foreign policy decision makers are thinking and doing. To find such answers FPA must consist of analysis of the purposive behaviour. Furthermore, the context and dynamic process of decision making on foreign policies on behalf of the state need to be examined. It is the process as a whole that needs to be scrutinised and analysed. (Carlsnaes, 2016:116).

States in FPA are not to be considered as unitary actors as in the traditional view of realism. Instead states shall be seen as consisting of institutional structures, with individual decision makers who act on behalf of the state. FPA is in this way explicitly actor-specific, with specific individual decision makers. The appropriate approach to examine what roles individual actors and structures play is to use the framework of level of analysis. This is done by analysing the causal effects on decision-making process of actors and structures at one level at a time, at the individual level, the state level, and the international level, as well as at group decision making level which include cultural and national identity factors. Through this we get actors dominating the lower levels of analysis such as the individual- and group decision level while structure has more influence at the more general and abstract levels such as the state-, international-, and cultural levels. (Carlsnaes, 2016:117).

Depending on using a structural perspective or a actor-based perspective there are different approaches to use. From a structural perspective we have the various strands of realism. The realist approach gives a structural orientation due to its central core in the notion of state power with the state as the main player. The capability of the state in the realist view is determined by material factors. In the view of neoliberal institutionalism, the state is a main player in the international system and is acting in an egoistic value-maximizing way, in an international system that is fundamentally anarchic. The neoliberal institutionalists see the institutions as a decisive factor for successful behaviour of states and its international politics. At the structural perspective we also have the social constructivist approach with its fundamental assumption that reality is socially constructed, i.e. how we perceive the world and ourselves as well as how we behave are constructions formed by social rules and inter-subjected meanings that affect our knowledge. The social constructionism consists of a normative and ideational strand, taking impact from the social structures emerging from the purposive behaviour of actors in specific communities. The constructionists’ opinions about suitable state behaviour have great influence on the nature and functioning of world politics. (Carlsnaes, 2016:119-121).

From an actor-based perspective we have the cognitive and psychological approach, which does not really see the individuals as rational beings. The assumption is instead that individuals are to a considerable degree driven by their underlying beliefs and by the way they process information and that individuals are acting on cognitive traits. The beliefs and motivations as well as the character of the leaders affects the outcome of the foreign policies according to this approach. Another approach on the actor-based perspective is the bureaucratic politics approach, which assumes that decision making primarily is about bureaucratic infighting, making it a necessity to examine the interaction of individuals in the organisational setting in terms of their liability as decision makers. New liberalism is another approach on the actor-based perspective. New liberalism stands for a bottom-up view of the political system. In their view, individuals are defining their interest independently of politics and pursue their interests through political exchange and collective action. In this approach, the state preferences represent the interest of a specific subset of society and are defined by state officials who act according to these interests in world politics. The emphasis lies on the role of societal actors in the formation of the foreign policies of states which gives the FPA a broad socio-political context. Finally, we have the approach of the interpretive actor perspective, which sees actors as reflexive units in an inter-subjective world of meaning. Individual action shall be interpreted in terms of social rules and collective meaning. Focus is on the thinking and the actions of individual decision makers by reconstruction of their reasons. The outcome of foreign policy behaviour of states is determined by how the individual decision makers sense and evaluate situations. (Carlsnaes, 2016:122-124).

A theory that have had great impact in IR theory is Rational choice theory. Rational choice theory uses the basic laws of choices to assess the process and outcome of foreign policy decision making. By this view, it is the maximisation of utility by actors that is the ultimate aim. This implies that on foreign policy decision making, the state must first identify and rank their aims for foreign policy, they then assess the means available to them and select the alternative that will fulfil their aims at the smallest expense. (Alden and Aran, 2017:20). The assumption in rational choice theory is that decision makers on foreign policy are logical, perceptive and open to new information as well as rational and consistent in their response to logical arguments, that decision makers are open to arguments and evidence. Rational decision makers shall weigh the evidence and rightfully evaluate the likely consequences of different options and choose the option that promises to give the best result. (Stein, 2016:132). Central in the rational choice theory is also game theory, which is a structured approach that rely on mathematically derived interpretations of decision making. Game theory consist of different forms of game settings which give different rules of strategies and outcomes depending on what the stakes are. The assumption is that there is a risk/return trade-off assessment during international crises which is linked to power together with information asymmetries. In this way game theory gives an understanding of foreign policy decision making during international crises. (Alden and Aran, 2017:21-22).

Theories of rational choice in foreign policy consider the initial preferences as well as the expectations as given and exogenous. This makes models of rational choice potent because they can predict the approach that decision makers should choose, given their preferences and expectations. (Stein, 2016:132). However, the human mind plays tricks and people are not always rational in their choices, instead they tend to deviate from the rational choice model’s assumptions on human behaviour. Cognitive psychology has shown that there is difference between what is expected from the point of rational choice and what judgement people frequently tend to use. One thing is that human have a preference for simplicity. They need simple rules when processing information and are unfavourable to uncertainty, instead they want stability. Above all, humans tend to fundamentally misunderstand the quintessence of probability, which makes humans instinctively poor estimators. (Carlsnaes, 2016:133). Cognitive biases can cause errors in ascription which can perplex policy making. People tend to overstate the probability that other’s actions are the effect of their own preceding behaviour. Due to this they tend to overemphasise the extent to which they are the objective for those actions. People in general are also not neutral about risk. For people loss is more painful than comparable gain is pleasant. People are also in general preferring a direct smaller gain than taking a chance on a larger reward further on in time. According to these biases we see an impact of loss aversion which has considerable affect on foreign policy decision making. Decision makers tend to be unwilling to take on risks when things are going well and are relatively positive to take on risks when things are going bad. They are also more likely to take on risks to protect what they already have than take on risks in order to increase their gains. The same is valid when it comes to reverse losses, that they are more willing to take on risks to recapture what they once had than they would risk for possible new gains. All these biases, the need for simplicity and consistency, the difficulty of probabilistic thinking and the bias to loss aversion are deviations from rational choice models of information processing, estimation, and choice. (Carlsnaes, 2016:137-139). Foreign policy decision makers can never be entirely rational in applying the rationalists’ postulations of maximisation of utility in any of their decisions. Foreign policy decision makers take decisions on the basis of their psychological context, relying on perceptions. At best they could be said to operate within the framework of the information accessible to them and that they make their decisions within those restricted premises, under influence of their prejudices and pre-existing beliefs. (Alden and Aran, 2017:24-25). Due to these pervasive deviations we should be careful to treat rational choices models as empirically valid in FPA. (Carlsnaes, 2016:139).

The bureaucratic politics model (BPM) is a model developed by Graham Allison in his work on the Cuban missile crisis in the beginning of the 1960s. With this model, Allison and his followers explain how foreign policy is influenced by the conglomerate of large bureaucratic organisations and political actors. Bureaucratic organisations influence the foreign decision makers in two profound ways. They provide the information and the alternatives for the decision makers to choose from, and they lay the grounds for the situations in which policy makers take decisions. In this way bureaucracies acquire influence over foreign policy within the power-sharing conflation consisting of state and government, in which the large organisations and political actors have individual interests. The focus of BPM lies on the political process internal to each state. Hence, matters on foreign policy behaviour are only important according to their influence on domestic struggles within the national decision-making process. Because of this, foreign policy is seen as an inadvertent result of the bargaining process between the main actors. (Alden and Aran, 2017:46-47). A criticism against the BPM is that its view is obscuring the power of the government of the states, which implies that the bureaucracies have taken over the foreign policy-making scene. If so, this would be a democratic problem as there would be no elected officials that could be held responsible towards the electorate. Instead it would be unaccounted-for bureaucracies that would be responsible for the foreign policy actions of governments. (Alden and Aran, 2017:48).

One thing that the different approaches of FPA has in common is a conviction that foreign policy is formed and legitimised by the state apparatus, even if it derives from within the domestic sphere. Domestic actors are actively involved in the foreign policy debate through various means, in effort to influence the foreign policy decision makers. This produces a domestic competition over the foreign policy-making which is an area of interest for FPA. (Alden and Aran, 2017:64). The domestic structure approach makes one of the most significant sources of foreign policy. The political system is by all means channelled by the domestic structure such as the political institutions, the characters of society, and the institutional arrangements connecting the state and society to the societal demands. The state structure constitutes the central site of foreign policy decision making. Within the constitutional context of the state, domestic institutions and interest groups coexist and compete over influence. The rules of political participation affect the politics and behaviour of political parties regarding international concerns. (Alden and Aran, 2017:67).

Nevertheless, the state owns a level of autonomy from the society it rules and its external actors. In the international system there are at least three different state ideal types that make a diversity among states. These are: the institutional state, the quasi-state, and the clustered state. In the institutional state, the state is identified as a separate actor with an institutional understanding of the state’s justification and autonomy, making the foreign policy more than just the sum of its individual or bureaucratic parts. (Alden and Aran, 2017:88, 91). The quasi-states may have equal legal sovereignty, but they lack the institutions providing territorial statehood and are lacking functioning coercive political institutions. The access to conventional foreign policy tools is therefore highly limited or even denied. Due to this they lack domestic structure which affects the FPA to switch from a focus on the formal domestic structures to instead examining how the informal domestic arrangements affect the foreign policies. (Alden and Aran, 2017:92, 94). The clustered states are states that have deliberately pooled some of their sovereignty and the use of political force into common international politically integrated institutions. This makes it easier for social relations to operate across national borders, resulting in linking politics among the clustered states. Clustered states are usually inclined to utilise foreign policy tools multilaterally. These three state ideal types make different implications for FPA as they differ on the degree to which they possess material statehood. I.e. they differ on the institutions that constitutes the states and on the extent to which they have authority over binding decision making and political force. Due to this they also differ on what different foreign policy tools they have available. (Alden and Aran, 2017:94-96, 102).

The globalisation theory implies in some way that states are pooling their sovereignty and authority. Decision making and bureaucratic politics are to some extent embedded within global political framework. On one hand we have the hyperglobalist thesis that sees the emergence of a single global market, constructing new forms of social organisations that eventually will supplant the traditional nation-state as the primary unit of world society. (Alden and Aran, 2017:108-109). On the other hand, we have the global sceptic thesis that basically rejects the view of a new era of globalisation, arguing that the late nineteenth-century world was more globalised than the late twentieth century was. According to the global sceptics the hyperglobalist description of globalisation is a myth designed to promote institutionalisation of the neo-liberal economic project. The global sceptics reject this hyperglobalism. Instead they see the globalisation as a deepened phase in the internationalisation of the world’s powerful states. By this view the states could still be endured as discrete national units with clearly defined and exclusive borders of violence. (Alden and Aran, 2017:110).




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Smith, S., Hadfield, A. and Dunne, T. (Ed.). (2016). Foreign policy. Oxford: Oxford university press.

Stein, J. G. (2016). Rational, psychological, and neurological models. In Smith, S., Hadfield, A. and Dunne, T. (Ed.). Foreign policy. Oxford: Oxford university press, pp. 13-34