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Work on foreign policy is ubiquitous because its central focus is essential to the study of international relations (IR) more generally: understanding how decision makers perceive threats, constraints, and opportunities in their external and internal environments, and how these perceptions guide actions toward other governments and nongovernmental actors. The subfield of foreign policy is a prominent research area in the study of IR. The Foreign Policy organized section of the American Political Science Association has one of the largest memberships of the association’s thirty-seven sections; the subfield supports a dedicated journal, Foreign Policy Analysis; and the academic publishing house Palgrave Macmillan hosts the book series titled Advances in Foreign Policy Analysis. Foreign policy research can be found across the major paradigms of IR, including realism, liberalism, and constructivism. Foreign policy scholars have published work covering all the regions of the globe in studies that are both historically grounded and focused on the contemporary. Seminal studies investigate foreign policy making of the great powers, especially U.S. and Soviet decision making during the cold war era and at the end of the cold war. Other studies compare and contrast the foreign policies of different states on similar issues and focus on the foreign policies of middle powers and small states. Scholars of foreign policy have also addressed the dominant debates in the field of IR, including the extent to which decision makers are influenced by domestic or international factors or a combination of the two, the behavior of democracies versus authoritarian states, and whether rational choice or sociological frameworks are more useful in the study of political behavior. While the decision-making approach to foreign policy has dominated the subfield, new developments in the study of foreign policy include the analysis of how state decisions are influenced not only by individual policy makers but also by larger factors, such as cultural trends and religion. In addition, recent work has moved beyond the dependent variable of foreign policy to focus on foreign policy change and on the impact of foreign policy on domestic politics (the second image reversed).

Paradigmatic Approaches To Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy EssayIt is typically argued that realist IR theory does not provide a theory of foreign policy. To be sure, realist theories primarily focus on broad trends and patterns in interstate interactions and make predictions regarding aggregate state behavior. Kenneth N. Waltz, one of the most prominent contemporary political realists, has famously noted in Theory of International Politics (1979) that his theory of international politics “does not tell us why state X made a certain move last Tuesday” (p. 121). Notwithstanding Waltz’s claim that structural-level theories cannot account for state foreign policy, most realist theorists have applied their approaches to account for foreign policy outcomes, and they often participate actively in foreign policy debates.

Realists generally make three interrelated claims regarding foreign policy. First, realists assert that foreign policies are largely driven by external constraints and opportunities, namely, the state’s position in the international system and the system’s distribution of material capabilities. While realists acknowledge that domestic politics, normative discourse, and ideas and ideologies can affect a state’s foreign policy decision making, they suggest that most of the time foreign policy is a function of material factors such as international anarchy and the states’ capacity for fighting wars. Since international structural conditions are constants and generate both fear and lack of trust, foreign policy choices tend to be limited and are reflective of the national interest and the need to survive. Indeed, even contemporary neoclassical realists, who attempt to bring domestic-level variables and decision makers’ perceptions back into the study of foreign policy outcomes, nevertheless begin their analyses with the external pressures and incentives that states face: unit-level variables intervene between structural constraints and foreign policy choice.

Second, realists claim that if states face similar structural constraints and opportunities, then their foreign policies will be remarkably similar as well. Differences in state regime types and identities, as well as new leadership and decision-making styles, are largely irrelevant to the analysis. Last, realists argue not that domestic politics and individual-level variables never matter for foreign policy decision making but rather that states that continually base foreign policies on such factors will inevitably suffer from poor foreign policy performance. That is, realists focus less on the foreign policy–making process, which may or may not be influenced by nonstructural factors, and more on the consequences of foreign policy outcomes. Past and recent realist studies have, for example, criticized U.S. foreign policy for being inconsistent with national strategic interests due to the influence of ideology and domestic political interest groups.

Whereas realists view foreign policy choices as driven by a state’s position in the international system, liberal IR theorists maintain that variation in state-societal factors influences foreign policy, even for states that face similar structural constraints and opportunities. Focusing on the domestic sources of foreign policy, scholars have examined a wide range of variables including institutional fragmentation and cohesion, public opinion, and the role of the media.

In recent years, the proposition that democratic states’ foreign policies are more pacific—whether only in relation to other democracies or in general—than are those of autocracies has become a cottage industry within both the subfield of foreign policy and the broader field of IR. Discussions of foreign policy decision-making processes and outcomes, particularly crises among democracies that resulted in near-wars, dominate the debate about the notion of democratic peace. For proponents, it is crucial that foreign policy match the predictions made by democratic peace theory; democratic peace theorists are interested in showing not only that in the aggregate democracies act differently abroad but also that democratically elected decision makers act and think in ways consistent with the theory. For opponents, the analysis of foreign policy crises and war and peace decisions suggests that power differentials and material capabilities matter more for the decisions of both democratically elected and authoritarian leaders.

Foreign policy researchers have also used case studies of foreign policy to challenge the democratic peace theory’s truncated version of domestic politics in general and democratic politics in particular. Criticism has been leveled at the democratic peace theory’s perspective on the second image, which tends to emphasize regime type (democracy vs. nondemocracy) at the expense of other domestic-level variables that also vary among democracies (e.g., civil-military relations, executive- legislative balances of power, and leadership styles). Here, foreign policy analysis has suggested that democratic states frequently endorse different foreign policy positions as a result of differing national roles and leadership orientations; that for democratically elected leaders threat perception is often based less on the regime type of opposing states, as democratic peace proponents claim, and more on the personalities and international rule-following propensities of foreign counterparts; and that domestic pathologies of democratic decision making, such as the executive’s ability to manipulate information and the agenda, can lead to detrimental foreign policy outcomes.

While realist and liberal IR theorists engage the study of foreign policy, constructivist IR theory is perhaps the most closely associated with foreign policy analysis due to its emphasis on how threats and national interests are defined and framed and the ways in which external reality is shaped by agents, including foreign policy decision makers. Constructivists have examined how international and domestic norms influence the type of response that foreign policy makers will opt for when faced with an international crisis and how international events and developments are constructed as threats and problems for national security. The central argument here is that nonmaterial factors, including norms, culture, ideology, and identity, can shape decision makers’ opinions regarding appropriate and inappropriate foreign policy options as well as assessments of the likely consequences of different foreign policy actions.

The Decision-Making Approach

Central to the study of foreign policy is the notion that human beings misperceive information and that organizations skew decision making away from rational choice. An understanding of political psychology and bureaucratic politics is thus at the core of the foreign policy subfield. As Stephen G. Walker and Mark Schafer (2006) note, “research programs in foreign policy have always maintained that who decides matters” (p. 3). The focus of inquiry is the process of decision making, including the framing of problems, the prioritization of goals, and the assessing of options.

Foreign policy researchers have developed approaches that apply to individual decision makers, foreign policy makers working in small-group forums, and foreign policy decisions and implementation by large organizations. What unites these approaches is the key assumption that beliefs, attitudes, formative experiences, memories, and values shape the ways in which foreign policy makers approach and cope with the world around them.

One of the most influential research programs on the psychological dimensions of decision making is the analysis of operational codes. Scholars have teased out how foreign policy choice is influenced by the beliefs of leaders regarding the likelihood of international conflict; leaders’ propensities for believing in worst-case scenarios and their tendency to reason by analogy; and a leader’s estimation that he or she can change the world. Another prominent research area has developed around prospect theory. Applied to foreign policy, prospect theory claims that foreign policy makers will expend more risks to avoid perceived losses to national security than they will to realize gains in state power or resources. Recently, the approach has been persuasively used to investigate great power foreign policy and war and peace decision making.

New Trends In The Study Of Foreign Policy

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, IR scholars have increasingly challenged the secularized nature of IR theory and have endorsed new theoretical approaches that explicitly include the religious dimensions of social and political life. Recent work on foreign policy has picked up on this theme. For example, in the context of the United States, scholars have considered how U.S. foreign policy has reflected the ebbs and flows in the political fortunes of various Christian religious dominations and how the foreign policy decision to go to war in Iraq in March 2003 was influenced by President George W. Bush’s religious beliefs and the religiously based views of other prominent neoconservatives in the Bush administration. Outside of the U.S. context, new work investigates how religious opposition groups have influenced Israel’s capacity to pursue peace making as a foreign policy option and whether religious viewpoints dominate the foreign policies of states in the Muslim world. Non-Western states may fuse religion and the state in ways that are markedly different from the liberal secular model. Accordingly, foreign policy researchers should continue to investigate whether and how religiously motivated actors and religiously based institutions influence foreign policy decision making and outcomes in polities characterized by religion in the public sphere.

In addition to focusing on culture and religion, foreign policy analysts must further investigate the nature of foreign policy change. While a number of studies of foreign policy change have been recently published, more work needs to be done. In light of the major shift in U.S. foreign policy sparked by the September 11 attacks—changes that continue to have short- and long-term consequences for both the United States and IR—scholars of foreign policy need to continue to develop cross-national models that tell us how domestic and international variables contribute to large-scale foreign policy change. We need to better understand the conditions that give rise to changes in national security and economic strategies and the circumstances under which decision makers learn and are then able to alter established foreign policy platforms: do the same domestic and international variables that influence the initial choice among a set of foreign policy options also influence the decision to alter foreign policy course? Does it matter if foreign policy change is abrupt or not?

Last, while the study of domestic-level influences on foreign policy has a long pedigree, scholars of foreign policy have recently begun to study the reverse causal arrow by considering the impact of foreign policies on domestic politics, including state-societal relations and state-building and institutional development. Driven as much by theoretical interests as by bipartisan U.S. support for democracy promotion abroad, particularly since the end of the cold war, foreign policy analysts have investigated the success of U.S. policies to support democracy in different global regions and how regime change can best be achieved. Outside of the U.S. context, scholars have considered how the European Union’s foreign policies have influenced domestic political reforms and church-state relations in those states seeking European Union membership, as in the case of Turkey. Recent work in the subfield has also investigated the impact of regional security conditions on the propensity for states to democratize. A key finding in this growing literature is that foreign policies that support peaceful means of regional conflict resolution can influence not only the likelihood of war but also domestic institutional development, civil-military relations, and bargaining outcomes among domestic political actors. Future work in the subfield should continue to explore how different foreign policy choices, such as decisions to pursue external balancing (e.g., alliances) versus internal balancing (e.g., nuclear weapons programs), influence domestic political outcomes over time.

Future work on foreign policy must continue to advance in these areas while also encouraging the application of theories and perspectives to multiple states across regions and historical time. Typically, work on foreign policy focuses on just one country. The subfield boasts many seminal and new studies of the foreign policy decision-making process and foreign policy outcomes in countries as diverse as Israel, China, Japan, Cuba, and many more. A comparative study, however, permits multiple tests of theoretical propositions and enables findings to cumulate across states with disparate histories, regime types, and identities. Several new studies aim to compare and contrast the foreign policies of different states. Yet compared with single-country analyses, studies of comparative foreign policy are few and far between. More work remains to be done on how foreign policy is both similar and different across a diverse range of international actors. This will be facilitated by regional and country-specific experts’ collaborating with foreign policy and IR theorists, as well as students of comparative politics, to develop models that apply outside of the U.S. context and that are meaningful and robust for the changing and volatile nature of contemporary IR.


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