Foreign policy analysis

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"Foreign Policy Analysis" redirects here. For the journal, see International Studies Association.

Foreign policy analysis (FPA) is a branch of political science dealing with theory development and empirical study regarding the processes and outcomes of foreign policy.


Foreign policy analysis involves the study of how a state makes foreign policy. As it analyzes the decision making process, FPA involves the study of both international and domestic politics. FPA also draws upon the study of diplomacy, war, intergovernmental organisations, and economic sanctions, each of which are means by which a state may implement foreign policy. In academia, foreign policy analysis is most commonly taught within the discipline of public policy within political science or political studies, and the study of international relations. FPA can also be considered a sub-field of the study of international relations, which aims to understand the processes behind foreign policy decision making. The most prominent scholars in this field of study include Richard Snyder, James Rosenau, Alexander George, Graham Allison and Irving Janis.[1]

According to, "As a field of study, foreign policy analysis is characterized by its actor-specific focus. In the simplest terms, it is the study of the process, effects, causes, or outputs of foreign policy decision-making in either a comparative or case-specific manner. The underlying and often implicit argument theorizes that human beings, acting as a group or within a group, compose and cause change in international politics."[2]

Stages in decision making[edit]

The making of foreign policy involves a number of stages:

  • Assessment of the international and domestic political environment - Foreign policy is made and implemented within an international and domestic political context, which must be understood by a state in order to determine the best foreign policy option. For example, a state may need to respond to an international crisis.
  • Goal setting - A state has multiple foreign policy goals. A state must determine which goal is affected by the international and domestic political environment at any given time. In addition, foreign policy goals may conflict, which will require the state to prioritise.
  • Determination of policy options - A state must then determine what policy options are available to meet the goal or goals set in light of the political environment. This will involve an assessment of the state's capacity implement policy options and an assessment of the consequences of each policy option.
  • Formal decision making action - A formal foreign policy decision will be taken at some level within a government. Foreign policy decisions are usually made by the executive branch of government. Common governmental actors or institutions which make foreign policy decisions include: the head of state (such as a president) or head of government (such as a prime minister), cabinet, or minister.
  • Implementation of chosen policy option - Once a foreign policy option has been chosen, and a formal decision has been made, then the policy must be implemented. Foreign policy is most commonly implemented by specialist foreign policy arms of the state bureaucracy, such as a Ministry of Foreign Affairs or State Department. Other departments may also have a role in implementing foreign policy, such as departments for: trade, defence, and aid.

Key approaches[edit]

(as put forward by Graham T. Allison in 1969.[3] For a more comprehensive description see his Book Essence of Decision 1971/1999)

Rational actor model[edit]

The rational actor model is based on rational choice theory. The model adopts the state as the primary unit of analysis, and inter-state relations (or international relations) as the context for analysis. The state is seen as a monolithic unitary actor, capable of making rational decisions based on preference ranking and value maximisation. According to the rational actor model, a rational decision making process is used by a state. This process includes:

  • Goal setting and ranking.
  • Consideration of options.
  • Assessment of consequences.
  • Profit-maximization.

The rational actor model has been subject to criticism. The model tends to neglect a range of political variables, of which Michael Clarke includes: "political decisions, non-political decisions, bureaucratic procedures, continuations of previous policy, and sheer accident." [4] It also ignores emotions, emotional flooding, selective attention, and groupthink.

Bureaucratic Politics Model[edit]

In this model the state is not seen as a monolithic unitary actor. Instead it is a collection of different bureaucracies vying for increasing their funding and size. Things are often viewed as a zero sum game where one bureaucracy's "win" or increasing their level of funding is seen as a loss for another bureaucracy. Here decisions are made by bureaucracies competing against each other and suggesting solutions to problems that would involve using their resources so as to increase their level of importance.

Organizational Process Model[edit]

In this model different bureaucracies have different standard operating procedures. These procedures are made in order to allow day-to-day operations to be carried out. Often an order or decision will have to work around these standard procedures. It is often exceedingly difficult for a bureaucracy to do something "out of character" or contrary to their standard procedures.

Other models[edit]

  • Inter-branch politics model
  • Self-aggrandizement model- In this model one leader acts on behalf of his or her interests.
  • Political process model- In this model the decision making body is effected by many non-governmental actors such as NGOs or the media.


Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Jean A. Garrison, "Foreign Policy Analysis in 20/20: A Symposium." International Studies Review 5, 2003, pp. 155-202
  2. ^ Foreign Policy Analysis, Department of Political Science, College of Arts & Science, and the University of Missouri.
  3. ^ Graham T. Allison (1969): Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Sep., 1969), pp. 689-718
  4. ^ M. Clarke, ‘The Foreign Policy System: A Framework for Analysis’, in M. Clarke and B. White (eds) Understanding Foreign Policy: The Foreign Policy Systems Approach (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar 1989), pp. 27-59.

External links[edit]