The six dominant theories of foreign policy decision making

A dynamic foreign policy process? Copyright Greenberg Art

A dynamic foreign policy process? Copyright Greenberg Art

There are six main theories of foreign policy decision making (FPDM)

1. Rational actor model:

The decision making process rests exclusively on a cost-benefit analysis where the decision maker is expected to make the best decision, having analysed all the possible alternatives. The expected utility theory approach plays an important role in rational choice theory – preferences are ranked “according to the degree of satisfaction of achieving these goals and objectives,” but within recognised constraints.

The three assumptions of rational choice theory in FPDM:

  • Actors are assumed to employ actions that serve the purpose of specified goals (purposive actions), and not by habit or social expectations.

  • The decision makers (actors) are consistent in their preferences of alternatives (transitivity is assumed –> if a>b and b>c, then a>c)

  • Utility maximisation is at hand.

Thin versus thick rationality. Thin rationality (the strategic pursuit of stable and ordered preferences, can be anything -> broadly applicable). Thick rationality (preferences dependent on the specific goals of the DM).

Further concepts in the rational choice theory:

  • Opportunity cost: the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen

  • The Prisoner’s Dilemma: two prisoners are in jail and being interrogated. The prisoners each face two choices –> to cooperate with the other prisoner or to defect. Defection would mean that you admit your crime without the other knowing, but you will be released (huge gain) if the other prisoner does not defect. However, if the other prisoner also defects, both will be much worse off than when they would have cooperated. The Nash equilibrium would be for both to defect, since the prisoner 1 does not know what 2 will do, the choice of defection is better than cooperation.

2. Bounded-rationality/cybernetic model (Herbert Simon):

A rational choice model based on the assumption that decision makers have limited information-processing capabilities, and will such not analyse all the possible alternatives, but instead pick an alternative that is acceptable (satisficing principle > the decision satisfies the minimal level of utility needed for the decision to be made). Furthermore, the assumption is that decision makers make cognitive shortcuts -> psychological limitations are recognised.

Cybernetic decision-making model: the approach “suggests that decision makers lack the fundamental cognitive skills needed to carry out the rational model during complex problem-solving situations.” The DMer filters out external information and is only focused on a narrow range of information.


  • A limitation: Complex and possibly counterintuitive decision processes are not taken into account, only simple decisions are considered –> uncertainty is ignored.

3. Bureaucracy politics (Graham Allison):

How can different bureaucratic layers create political competition. Bureaucratic institutions compete and negotiate internally before they present a policy alternative to a leader, but at the same time try to protect the interests of bureaucratic politics. Each organisation “protects it’s own turf by controlling policy in their area of expertise.” “When an issues comes along that straddles more than one agency, personality and agency clout become deciding factors.” Agencies pursue their own interest and aim at persuading the decision maker to implement their policy proposal.

4. Organisational politics (Allison):

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are used in within organisations for making decisions. Incrementalism in DM: SOPs are applied; minor fine-tuning changes are made to past decisions. “Incrementalism leads to decisional inertia because the same alternatives are accepted over and over,” which could get out of hand if not uncontrolled and monitored. They tend to provide temporary solutions rather than solve problems.

[Allison argues for using the rational choice, bureaucratic and organisational politics models side-by-side]

5. Prospect theory (Kahneman,Tversky,Levy):

People are risk-averse when gains are at stake, while people accept taking risks when losses are at hand. So, people cherish what they possess, and are weary of a potential loss, known as the endowment effect.

  • Editing phase: A problem, with associated losses and gains, is presented. “Framing effects occur in this phase because prospect theory asserts that the way the decision information is presented can affect the choice.” Many psychological experiments have been presented which support this behaviour. The losses in utility one ‘experiences’ after a particular level, are far less than the first, initial losses. Vice versa for gains.

  • Evaluation phase: a choice is made, and the change that occurs from the initial level is the point of reference.

6. Poliheuristic theory (Mintz):

The poliheuristic decision making process takes place in two stages.

In the first stage, the decision maker omits any alternative of which one of the factors is below minimum level of acceptance -> according to the noncompensatory principle of political loss. This is the cognitive phase, where decisions are not individually scrutinised, but are roughly looked at and the ones which have a problem factor in them are omitted – on a satisficing basis. Domestic politics is crucial is that it encaptulates the political survival of a government.

The second stage is the where the decision maker analyses the remaining couple of alternatives and makes a cost-benefit analysis – maximising benefits and minimising risks.

Assumptions in poliheuristic theory:

  • FPDMers focus on a narrow set of policy alternatives

  • Leaders use a two-staged process when making decisions

  • Domestics politics is essential in DMing. Retribution would be critical in domestic politics

  • “Decision making in foreign affairs involves multiple heuristics, is noncompensatory with respect to key dimensions and involves framing and counterframing efforts”

  • Most foreign policy decisions are interactive and sequential.


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