Foreign Policy Decision Making

November 2012/First Year of College

“In the best of all possible worlds, governments pursue peaceful policies rather than aggressive ones…[in this world] we would expect policy to be made in a reasoned, calculated manner…or, more simply, the rational actor model (RAM).” (Cashman 1993, 77). Although most foreign policy analyses in world politics are based on the Rational Actor Model, RAM, quite often decision-makers deviate from the standard application of the model. While the RAM is based on cost/benefit calculations to reveal optimal choice, policies during historical and contemporary world conflicts appear less than rational. In this essay I hope to explore how the internal decisional setting affects foreign policy decision-making, examine how some deviations from the RAM contribute to our understanding of foreign policy, and outline how “cognitive choice” models explain non-rational decision-making, especially as they pertain to historical and contemporary conflicts.

During the Vietnam War, many internal decision settings affected foreign policy decision-making. Leader ideology, shifts in public opinion, and demands of organized interest groups are a few influences on foreign policy that affected such decision-making. As Berman points out in his article about Vietnam, leader ideology kept actors in the policy-making process from making rational decisions. The following excerpt is a dialogue between the Undersecretary of State George Ball and President Johnson: “But George, wouldn’t all these countries say that Uncle Sam was a paper tiger, wouldn’t we lose credibility…[are you not] basically troubled by what the world would say about our pulling out?” (Berman 1992, 40). George later hastily replies, “The worse blow would be that the mightiest power on earth is unable to defeat a handful of guerillas.” (Berman 1992, 40). Here, it can be seen that President Johnson is more concerned with his political ideology as a leader and America’s reputation as a hardliner than rational decision-making. President Johnson also seems to be concerned about his survival in office, and aims to please a democratic nation instead of acting in the best interest of the nation and foreign states. These could-be shifts in public opinion influence Johnson’s foreign policy decision-making.

Demands of organized interest groups are another area of influence on decision-making. A more contemporary example of this comes from Packer’s lecture notes on foreign policy. Packer argues, “Pro-Israel interests and evangelical Christian grounds in favor of…[a strong] pro-Israel policy…oppose selling high-performance aircraft [to friendly Arab regimes] that may threaten Israeli Security.” (Packer 2012, 2). It can be seen here that non-actors in foreign policy also influence decision-making. This unsolicited influence is tied to a democratic state, such as America, because those people who are actual actors in decision-making look to “curry favor” with voting interest groups.

The previous and following deviations from the RAM help to contribute to our understanding of foreign policy decision-making. Further deviations from the RAM include organizational process, bureaucratic politics, and incrementalism. An example of organizational process can be seen in a contingency plan that was enacted during Johnson’s presidency, “Operation Linebacker.” Phan calls this contingency plan “a plan devised for risk management to prepare for any eventuality.” (Phan 2002, 20). Operation Linebacker was a plan to halt the transportation of supplies and invasion by the southern Vietnam forces: continuous bombing by American Navy and Air-force Task Force. This can be seen as a deviation from RAM because it was used as a last resort plan and the implications of the operation were ignored, making the actors behind the policy appear “irrational.”    Just like contingency plans, Standard Operating Procedures, or SOPs, “suffer from ‘bounded rationality’ (i.e., choosing course of action without accounting for possible alternatives, probability of occurrence, costs, or benefits.” (Packer 2012, 2). An example of this can be seen in Cashman’s article on bureaucracy. Cashman recalls the conflict between America and Cuba when President Kennedy’s “Ex-Com” plan was enacted to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba. The Pentagon “called up its ‘organizational memory’ and responded with a plan to overthrow Castro left over from 1961.” (Cashman 1993, 86). Cashman remarks that there was no existing plan to destroy Cuban missiles, because no one imagined that such missiles existed. However, there was an invasion plan and the sponsors of such a plan were still in office. Thus, SOPs limit flexibility and often appear as less than rational.

Cashman points to leaders’ inability to utilize the RAM as an expected downfall of humanity and psychology. He highlights reasons such as actors being irrational themselves, misperception, human frailties, lack of information, lack of time, imperfect prognostication, contrasting goals, and a multitude of alternatives as a few flaws in the RAM. (Cashman 1993, 79-80.) In addition to these deviations, Cashman argues that organizations and individual actors with different views dominate bureaucratic politics as opposed to a single, rationally calculated government. He then goes on to say that decision-making in government involves “disparate ‘players’ who have…different perceptions and operational codes, see different sides of each issue, and have different ‘stakes’ in the outcomes.” Cashman argues his point in providing the famous phrase “where you stand depends on where you sit.” (Cashman 1993, 80.) Maybe, if government were a single, rationally calculating body, rational decision-making would be a more linear trend, involving RAM instead of SOPs.

Incrementalism is another deviation from the RAM and can be seen by many political analysts as a lazy policy. Incrementalism involves minor changes to a previously installed policy as a way to avoid major mistakes and allow for compromise. Although this policy, on the surface, can be seen as peaceful coalition, the downside of incrementalism is that it allows for indecisiveness in a state. In Understanding International Conflicts, Nye illustrates this peaceful façade with an excerpt from President Clinton’s speech in 1994: “A coalition for democracy—it’s good for America. Democracies…are more likely to be stable, less likely to wage war. They strengthen civil society…as we try to make this era [of change] our friend and not our enemy.” (Nye 2008, 48). Unfortunately for incrementalism, this policy only prolongs conflict when it doesn’t meet it head-on. An example of incrementalism can be seen in the Vietnam War. When policy makers were faced with the decision to withdraw US advisors to Vietnam, they decided on a gradual deployment buildup of troops to avoid commitment to the war. Although the prospect of ending casualties and saving money was high, policy makers feared for America’s reputation abroad and wanted to appease voters on both sides. A quotation from Packer’s notes illustrates this: “The Right was given an escalation; the Left was given occasional peace overtures; and the Center would not be asked to pay for the war.” (Packer 2012, 2).

Cognitive choice models are an alternative to the solid implications of RAM. The Prospect Theory is one example of a cognitive choice model that deviates from the “rational” RAM route, but remains consistent with a rational perspective. The prospect theory serves as the standard rational model for decision-making. In Kimminau’s thesis, Kimminau states that actors make decisions based on whether they view the outcomes as gains or losses. He illustrates the flawed design in a perfectly rational system: “If people were strictly rational, then they should value [gains and losses] in a consistent manner…but the evidence is contrary.” (Kimminau 1998, 17). This quotation illustrates that actors will go further to avoid loss than they will to incur gains. Packer also defines prospect theory in the notes. He describes leaders who are “Risk Acceptant” and “Risk Adverse.” The prospect theory plays on emotional and psychological decision-making, but often has a fall-out effect when “leaders are willing to risk possible punishment to avoid loss.” (Packer 2012, 1). In military conflicts, prospect theory is utilized when leaders are determined to avoid loss and are motivated to “risk more (civilian lives, chance of peaceful resolution, military assets, international sanction) to curb losses, than he would to gain something else.” (Packer 2012, 1).

This is not the “perfect world” that Cashman illustrates at the beginning of his article. Modern governments are not single-celled and they do not have the power to make and influence decisions without deviations from the Rational Actor Model. Many of the decisions that are made in foreign policy decision-making are not rational—and much of this irrationality is due to forces like the internal decisional setting, organizational process, bureaucratic politics, incrementalism, and cognitive choice models. However complex and intertwined contemporary decision-makers and non-acting forces seem to be, at least we can claim responsibility over the “human frailties” i.e. Humanity, that governs our world today.


  • Berman, Larry. 1992. Foreign Military Intervention. New York City, NY. Columbia University Press.
  • Cashman, Greg. 1993. What Causes War?. Lexington, KY. Lexington Books.
  • Kimminau, Jon A. 1998. “The Psychology of Coercion: Merging Airpower and Prospect Theory.” Ph.D. Thesis. School of Advanced Airpower Studies.
  • Nye, Joseph S. 2008. Understanding International Conflicts, 7th London, UK. Longman Publishing.
  • Packer, Robert B. 2012. “Rational Choice v. Cognitive Choice.”(October):1
  • Packer, Robert B. 2012. “Decision-Making Models.”(October):2
  • Phan, Trong Q. 2002. “An Analysis of Linebacker II Air Campaign.” Ph.D. Thesis. San Antonio, Texas.

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