Making Foreign Policy (Models of Decision Making)
The foreign policy process is a process of decision making.
Decision making is a steering process in which adjustments are made as a result of feedback
from the outside 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.
A common starting point for studying the decision-making process is the rational model.
FIGURE 4.1 Decisions Making as Steering READ!!!
An alternative to the rational model of decision making is the organizational process model.
Foreign policy decision makers generally skip the labour-intensive process of identifying goals
and alternative actions, relying instead for most decisions on standardized responses or standard
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 muddling through.”
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.
Individual Decision Makers
Every international event is the result, intended or unintended, of decisions made by individuals.
IR does not just happen.
Similarly, the decisions of individual citizens, although they may not seem important when taken
one by one, create the great forces of world history.
individual decision making revolves around the question of rationality.
Individual rationality is not equivalent to state rationality: states might filter individuals’
irrational decisions so as to arrive at rational choices, or states might distort individually rational
decisions and end up with irrational state choices. But realists tend to assume that both states and
individuals are rational and that the goals or interests of states correlate with those of leaders.
The most simplified rational-actor models assume that interests are the same from one actor to
another. If this were so, individuals could be substituted for each other in various roles without
changing history very much. This assumption is at best a great oversimplification; individual decisions reflect the values and
beliefs of the decision maker.
Individual decision makers not only have differing values and beliefs, but also have unique
personalities—their personal experiences, intellectual capabilities, and personal styles of making
Beyond individual idiosyncrasies in goals or decision-making processes, individual decision
making diverges from the rational model in at least three systematic ways. First, decision makers
suffer from misperceptions and selective perceptions
when they compile information on the likely consequences of their choices.
Information screens are subconscious filters through which people put the information coming
in about the world around them.
Misperceptions can affect the implementation of policy by low-level officials as well as its
formulation by high-level officials.
Second, the rationality of individual cost-benefit calculations is undermined by emotions that
decision makers feel while thinking about the consequences of their actions—an effect referred
to as affective bias.
the decision making process is bound to be influenced by strong feelings held about the person or
state toward which a decision is directed.
Third, cognitive biases are systematic distortions of rational calculations based not on emotional
feelings but simply on the limitations of the human brain in making choices. The most important
of these distortions seems to be the attempt to produce cognitive balance—or to reduce cognitive
One implication of cognitive balance is that decision makers place greater value on goals that
they have put much effort into achieving—the justification of effort. This is especially true in a
democracy, in which politicians must face their citizens’ judgment at the polls and so do not
want to admit failures.
Decision makers also achieve cognitive balance through wishful thinking—an overestimate of
the probability of a desired outcome.
A variation of wishful thinking is to assume that an event with a low probability of occurring
will not occur. This could be a dangerous way to think about catastrophic events such as
accidental nuclear war or a terrorist attack. Cognitive balance often leads decision makers to
maintain a hardened image of an enemy and to interpret all of the enemy’s actions in a negative
light. A mirror image refers to two sides in a conflict maintaining very similar enemy images of each
A decision maker may also experience psychological projection of his or her own feelings onto
Another form of cognitive bias, related to cognitive balance, is the use of historical analogies to
structure one’s thinking about a decision.
useful or quite misleading, depending on whether the analogy is appropriate.
In particular, decision makers often assume that a solution that worked in the past will work
again—without fully examining how similar the situations really are.
All of these psychological processes—misperception, affective biases, and cognitive biases—
interfere with the rational assessment of costs and benefits in making a decision.11 Two specific
modifications to the rational model of decision making have been proposed to accommodate
First, the model of bounded rationality takes into account the costs of seeking and processing
information. Nobody thinks about every single possible course of action when making a
decision. Instead of optimizing, or picking the very best option, people usually work on the
problem until they come up with a “good enough” option that meets some minimal criteria; this
is called satisficing, or finding a satisfactory solution.
Second, prospect theory provides an alternative explanation of decisions made under risk or
decision makers go through two phases.
In the editing phase, they frame the options available and the probabilities of various outcomes
associated with each option.
Then, in the evaluation phase, they assess the options and choose one. Prospect theory holds that
evaluations take place by comparison with a reference point, which is often the status quo but
might be some past or expected situation.
Individual decision making thus follows an imperfect and partial kind of rationality at best.
The rational model is only a simplification at best and must be supplemented by an
understanding of individual psychological processes that affect decision making.
Groupthink refers to the tendency for groups to reach decisions without accurately assessing
their consequences, because individual members tend to go along with ideas they think the others
support. Unlike individuals, groups tend to be overly optimistic about the chances of success and are thus
more willing to take risks.
Also, because the group diffuses responsibility from individuals, nobody feels accountable for
The U.S. war in Iraq may also provide cautionary examples to future generations about the risks
misperception, wishful thinking, and groupthink in managing a major foreign policy initiative.
The structure of a decision-making process—the rules for who is involved in making the
decision, how voting is conducted, and so forth—can affect the outcome, especially when no
single alternative appeals to a majority of participants.
techniques for manipulating decision-making processes to favor outcomes they prefer. A
common technique is to control a group’s formal decision rules.
Probably most important is the ability to control the agenda and thereby structure the terms of