The White House Oval Ofﬁce, 2010.
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Making Foreign Policy
Models of Decision Making
The foreign policy process is a process of decision making. States take actions because
people in governments—decision makers—choose those actions.1Decision making is
a steering process in which adjustments are made as a result of feedback from the out-
side world. Decisions are carried out by actions taken to change the world, and then
information from the world is monitored to evaluate the effects of these actions.
These evaluations—along with information about other, independent changes in the
environment—go into the next round of decisions (see Figure 4.1).
A common starting point for studying the decision-making process is the
rational model.2In this model, decision makers set goals, evaluate their relative
importance, calculate the costs and benefits of each possible course of action, then
choose the one with the highest benefits and lowest costs (see Figure 4.2).
The choice may be complicated by uncertainty about the costs and benefits of
various actions. In such cases, decision makers must attach probabilities to each possible
outcome of an action. For example, will pressuring a rival state to give ground in peace
talks work or backﬁre? Some decision makers are relatively accepting of risk, whereas
others are averse to risk. These factors affect the importance that decision makers place
on various alternative outcomes that could result from an action.
Of course, one may believe decision makers are rational, but not accept the realist
assumption that states may be treated as unitary actors. Governments are made up of in-
dividuals, who may rationally pursue their goals. Yet, the goals of different individuals
involved in making a decision may diverge, as may the goals of different state agencies.
For example, the U.S. secretary of state may have a different goal than the secretary of
Making Foreign Policy
■Models of Decision
2The rational model, along with the organizational process and bureaucratic politics models discussed later,
derives from Graham Allison; see Allison, Graham T., and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining
the Cuban Missile Crisis. 2nd ed. Longman, 1999. Bernstein, Barton J. Understanding Decisionmaking, U.S.
Foreign Policy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. International Security 25 (1), 2000: 134–64.
1Stein, Janice Gross. Psychological Explanations of International Conﬂict. In Carlsnaes, Walter, Thomas
Risse, and Beth A. Simmons, eds. Handbook of International Relations. Sage, 2002, pp. 292–308. Snyder,
Richard C., H. W. Bruck, and Burton Sapin. Foreign Policy Decision Making (Revisited). Palgrave, 2002.
FIGURE 4.1 Decision Making as Steering
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FIGURE 4.2 Rational Model of Decision Making
Clarify Your Goals in the situation
Order Them by importance
List the Alternatives for achieving your goals
Investigate the Consequences of each alternative
Choose the alternative that best achieves your goals
defense, just as the Central Intelligence Agency may view a situation differently than the
National Security Council does. The rational model of decision making is somewhat com-
plicated by uncertainty and the multiple goals of decision makers. Thus, the rational
model may imply that decision making is simpler than is actually the case.
An alternative to the rational model of decision making is the organizational process
model. In this model, foreign policy decision makers generally skip the labor-intensive
process of identifying goals and alternative actions, relying instead for most decisions on
standardized responses or standard operating procedures. For example, the U.S. State
Department every day receives more than a thousand reports or inquiries from its
embassies around the world and sends out more than a thousand instructions or responses
to those embassies. Most of those cables are never seen by the top decision makers
(the secretary of state or the president); instead, they are handled by low-level decision
makers who apply general principles—or who simply try to make the least controver-
sial, most standardized decision. These low-level decisions may not even reﬂect the high-
level policies adopted by top leaders, but rather have a life of their own. The organizational
process model implies that much of foreign policy results from “management by
Another alternative to the rational model is the government bargaining (or
bureaucratic politics)model, in which foreign policy decisions result from the bargaining
process among various government agencies with somewhat divergent interests in the
outcome.4In 1992, the Japanese government had to decide whether to allow sushi from
California to be imported—a weakening of Japan’s traditional ban on importing rice (to
maintain self-sufﬁciency in its staple food). The Japanese Agriculture Ministry, with an
interest in the well-being of Japanese farmers, opposed the imports. The Foreign Ministry,
with an interest in smooth relations with the United States, wanted to allow the imports.
The final decision to allow imported sushi resulted from the tug-of-war between the
128 Chapter 4 Foreign Policy
4Welch, David A. The Organizational Process and Bureaucratic Politics Paradigms: Retrospect and Prospect.
International Security 17 (2), 1992: 112–46. Christiansen, Eben J., and Steven B. Redd. Bureaucrats Versus the
Ballot Box in Foreign Policy Decision Making: An Experimental Analysis of the Bureaucratic Politics Model
and Poliheuristic Theory. Journal of Conﬂict Resolution 48 (1), 2004: 69–90.
3Avant, Deborah D. Political Institutions and Military Change: Lessons from Peripheral Wars. Cornell, 1995.
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The foreign policy process is a process of decision making. States take actions because people in governments decision makers choose those actions. 1 decision making is a steering process in which adjustments are made as a result of feedback from the out- side world. Decisions are carried out by actions taken to change the world, and then information from the world is monitored to evaluate the effects of these actions. These evaluations along with information about other, independent changes in the environment go into the next round of decisions (see figure 4. 1). The choice may be complicated by uncertainty about the costs and benefits of various actions. In such cases, decision makers must attach probabilities to each possible outcome of an action. Some decision makers are relatively accepting of risk, whereas others are averse to risk. These factors affect the importance that decision makers place on various alternative outcomes that could result from an action.