Le’ Notes #43: Foreign policy analysis – an introduction

This post marks the start of my Foreign Policy Analysis mini-series.

Index of posts in this mini-series:
1. Le’Notes #44: The individual level – cognition and belief sets
2. Le’Notes #47: The group level – small group dynamics
3. Le’Notes #49: The domestic level – institutions
4. Le’Notes #50: Foreign policy and public opinion

In 2014, President Joko Widodo announced his vision of a “global maritime fulcrum”. Indonesia would be a center of activity in Asia, maximizing its geographical position between the Indian and Pacific Ocean. This vision would form the basis of Joko Widodo’s foreign policy.

By now you may be wondering, what is foreign policy? It is a phrase thrown out there by politicians and IR scholars all the time: “U.S. foreign policy in Asia”, “Japan’s foreign policy in Northeast Asia”, “China’s foreign policy”… what does it mean?

In an oversimplified way, “foreign policy” is an umbrella term for acts related to foreign affairs. The word “policy” indicates a combination of means, ways, and ends: tools and processes meant to achieve specific objectives. What are these tools and processes? Who decides these objectives? Let’s get these questions out of the way first.

When talking about foreign policy, we’re mostly concerned with the foreign policy elite, or FPE. The term is a shorthand for all government officials (and maybe some non-government too, but we’ll get to that later) that are involved in the making of foreign policy. In a narrow sense, the FPE would include the president/prime minister and their ministers/cabinet. In a wider sense, this includes many government agencies (think the CIA, military, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Trade, etc.) These actors engage in a wide range of activities which eventually end in a decision (or lack thereof) of a specific foreign policy objective. 

An example of an interaction would be like this:

Suppose the topic at hand is how to deal with China. The President perceives China in a rather positive light, arguing that China could be a beneficial trade partner. The Trade Minister along with the Foreign Minister are rather sceptical. They are afraid they won’t be able to repay Chinese loans nor to be able to protect domestic markets from the influx of cheap Chinese goods. The three parties argue with one another until they reach a compromise: trade with China, but only for certain commodities and with a light amount of protection. The President authorizes the Foreign Minister to convey the deal to China. Whether China accepts, that’s another story.

The tool here is the trade agreement. The process is domestic contestation between the three actors. The objective is less obvious, though. In striking a deal with China, what does the country seek? An increase in trade usually translates to added state revenue. In the long run, as trade relations intensify, other relations also benefit, such as people-to-people relations. Basically, by dealing with China, the state aims to maximize their gains while avoiding potential harm to their long-term interests. As Valerie Hudson puts it, foreign policy consists of “self-interest strategies chosen by the state to safeguard its national interests and to achieve goals within its international relations milieu.”

What is analysed?

The term “foreign policy analysis” now makes its appearance. But, what is being analysed specifically? Are we interested in only the outcomes of a foreign policy decision? Are we supposed to analyse whether it is “bad” or “good”? Are we supposed to understand how a specific decision came to be? These are all legitimate questions.

The object of analysis is less the outcome and more on the process. One example is Bush’s “surge” decision in 2007. The surge was the Bush administration’s decision to increase (“surge”) troop presence in Iraq with the objective of decreasing domestic instability by reconciling the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. Much ink has been spilled in decrying the surge as being a failure or glorifying it as a success (see here, here, and here).

However, in terms of foreign policy analysis, a more in-depth and productive approach would be to take the outcome as a given and focus on what led to the outcome in the first place and what explains these processes. In Feaver’s (2011) [PDF] analysis of the surge, Feaver probes both Surge proponents and Surge opponents and then President Bush as the final arbiter. In this analysis, we see the dynamics of foreign policy-making (in this case, in the form of military strategy) play out. The generals wanted one thing; his military advisers wanted another. Stuck between this debate is Bush as the final arbiter. The central question of Feaver’s analysis is: which side had more influence over Bush?

In a nutshell, FPA is more concerned with the decision makers (or “agents”) and those surrounding them, be it close friends, ministers, advisers, bureaucracies, etc. It is concerned with how these relationships, be they conciliatory or competitive, shape foreign policy.

In analysing foreign policy, there are several different approaches which are differentiated using levels-of-analysis.

The need to categorise

President Truman kept a sign on his desk bearing the words, “The buck stops here”. The sign signalled to him and other staff members that foreign policy discussions may be passed around, but eventually, he, as President, would have to make the final call and be responsible. 

As part of the foreign policy elite, Truman’s job is to execute a specific foreign policy decision. He authorised the Marshall Plan and established NATO, two of the key decisions that shaped the post-war international system. A question you may have is: “Why did Truman do all of that?” which will inevitably invite a barrage of answers.

To categorise this barrage of answers, FPA scholars agree on levels-of-analysis (LOA). The LOA allows FPA scholars to specify the nature of influences enacted on the actor. For example, a scholar maybe interested in Truman’s psychological profile and political leaning, which may explain why he decided to enact the Marshall Plan. Another scholar may be more interested in understanding the bureaucratic procedures involved. 

By isolating certain variables, scholars can interpret which variable played a larger part in the execution of a certain foreign policy decision. Another way to look at it is: LOA simplifies the complex reality of the decision-making process and allows us to focus on what actually matters. 

Put broadly, there are three major levels of analysis: the individual, the state, and system. However, this may be specified further. Here, I’ll refer to Hudson’s analytical categorisation which includes nine levels of analysis. Each merits its own post, and I’ll get to that eventually.

In sum, you now know what foreign policy is and what foreign policy analysis is about. In the following posts, I’ll cover each level of analysis as succinctly as possible.

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