Le’ Notes #44: Foreign policy analysis – the individual level

This is the second post in the Foreign Policy Analysis miniseries which discusses the role of cognition and belief sets in influencing foreign policy decisions.

Remember President Truman and his “The buck stops here” sign? The function of the sign was to remind him that he was the one who would make the final call on a policy decision. Not his Vice President. Though Barkley could chip in his two cents, by virtue of structural authority, Barkley did not have any power to execute a policy decision.

Margaret Hermann and Joe Hagan (1998) [paywall] wrote:

We grade Bill Clinton’s performance abroad; argue about why Benjamin Netanyahu is or is not stalling the Middle East peace process; debate Mohammed Khatami’s intentions regarding Iranian relations with the United States; and ponder what will happen in South Africa or Russia when Nelson Mandela or Boris Yeltsin leaves office.

What Hermann and Hagan observed was the importance of a state leader as an important decision unit in foreign policy analysis. They are the ones who perceive the international system and domestic political landscape, interpret signals and conditions, and then act upon they believe to be the best course of action. So the question now is, how do we analyse these individuals and understand their way of thinking?

The individual: cognition and belief sets

We need to refer to Hudson’s categorization, which The first two levels in Hudson’s categorization are cognitive processes and leader personality and orientation. At these levels, the individual is probed exhaustively to find links between their personal quirks and upbringing, or management style, or family influences and choice of foreign policy. Analyses at this level often employ tools and methods from psychology and anthropology, and require a great deal of in-depth research on the life and social contexts of individuals. 

Cognitive processes refer to the way someone interprets their surroundings. There are two main schools of thought here. The first school assumes that people are rational beings: the rationalist school. In making decisions, humans opt to maximize utility among a set of available options. Rationalists are optimists; they believe humans will always pick the best option out of the worst through a cold-headed, calculated approach. For example, if war is the best option for the survival of the state, leaders should opt for war.

While rationalists assume we seek to maximize utility (or happiness), a behavioral approach to cognition accepts that we don’t always think rationally. Humans are inherently lazy; thinking too much drains our resources. So, we seek to minimize thinking by relying on heuristics, a fancy term for “mental shortcut” (look up an extensive list here). Relying on heuristics is not inherently bad; we do it all the time. But, dependence on heuristics often lead humans towards biased decisions.

These heuristics are nurtured and reinforced over time through experience. One example of a heuristic, among others, is the historical analogy. In Analogies at War, Khong Yuen Foong argues that when deciding on what to do in the Vietnam War, U.S. policymakers drew from previous historical experiences in South Korea, Munich, and Dien Bien Phu. According to Khong, these historical experiences served to “justify policies but also to perform specific cognitive and information-processing tasks essential to political decision-making”. In other words, the use of historical analogies serves to “simplify” reality by drawing on previous experiences. Policymakers assume, “Oh, it’s going to be just like that time when we intervened in South Korea,” and then act based on this assumption. It turns out, Vietnam is nothing like South Korea. The moral of the story is, using historical analogies is good, but it’s folly to be overly dependent on them. 

A leader’s personality is a simplified, abstract collection of traits which provide an approximate description of how the leader orients themselves in a social setting. The term “aggressive leader” may conjure images of a leader who is all gung-ho and ready to mobilize the army at the slightest hint of a threat, whereas a “conciliatory leader” may evoke images of Neville Chamberlain appeasing Hitler. 

Another way of phrasing it is by using the term “belief set”. The idea is, if we understand how a leader thinks about the world, we would be able to predict their preferred policy option. A belief set is an abstract notion that denotes a leader’s cognitive processes. Marcus Mietzner, for example, describes Jokowi as a “pragmatic technocrat” or a “technocratic populist” [PDF]. The term provides us with a hint of how Mietzner understands Jokowi’s policy tendencies. In this case, Jokowi is a technocrat because he prefers economic development to boost his political credentials. 

Technically speaking, a belief set comprises of images, which are representations of reality held by the leader. While there are many images out there, an important one in FPA is the enemy image, or how leaders “construct” the enemy.

Speaking after the events of 9/11, Bush described Osama bin Laden as a “…an evil man that we’re dealing with, and I wouldn’t put it past him to develop evil weapons to try to harm civilization as we know it”. Bush was attempting to “construct” the image of an enemy by portraying Bin Laden as a chaotic evil person. 

Another approach in understanding how leaders construct images is through Nathan Leites’ classic work on operational codes. Leites provides a guide on how the Soviet Politburo understands the world. The idea is, if we understand what makes the Politburo tick, we could anticipate Soviet foreign policy. 

As an exercise, let’s try to deconstruct Trump’s belief set and personality, something that has already been attempted by comedians, academics, and journalists alike. In general, Trump can be described as a person who thinks largely in binary terms; he believes he’s in office to “protect” American interests from a constructed “enemy”, which in his understanding includes immigrants and terrorists. He also views everything as a zero-sum game; if another country wins, then America loses. With this information, we can understand why Trump seeks to renegotiate the Iran Deal (formally JCPOA), dragged the U.S. into a trade war with China, and pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. These three foreign policy decisions involved interactions with constructed “enemies” of the U.S. (China and Iran) and American strategic and economic interests, which Trump perceived to be at stake.

Belief sets and personalities are rather difficult to pinpoint accurately, but in general, they may be understood by observing a leader’s upbringing and the context in which they grew up. Their political experiences, especially their political ideologies, may also shed some light on their belief sets.

If you wanted to understand Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s current president, you may try to understand how Joko Widodo’s Javanese upbringing—which supposedly shapes his values on political power and thus his worldview—may influence his choice of foreign policy. This is what Masudi and Ramdhoni tried to do. They draw upon Jokowi’s childhood, using information gathered from his family, to understand how a former slum dweller managed to rise through the ranks and sit in the Presidential Palace. Shaped by experiences in both poverty and running a business, the reader may understand the influence of being pragmatic and entrepreneurial. This may help explain why Jokowi’s foreign policy prefers economic development. As The Economist puts it, Jokowi prefers to have a “thousand jilted friends” who are aligned in their vision, instead of having friends who do not provide any benefit to the national interest. 

A huge caveat for observation and research

At this point, it may be tempting to play amateur psychologist. You may think, “Hey, predicting foreign policy is easy! Just understand the leader and you’ll be omniscient!”

It’s not always clear-cut, especially when we deal with democracies. Remember, power is relatively diffused in a democracy, which is something I’ll address in future posts.

While the leader is indeed an important decision unit and their perceptions or cognition of the world do matter, we cannot just pinpoint cognition to be the sole factor in the decision-making process. Oftentimes, a leader’s cognition may be influenced by whispers from a close adviser, clouded by groupthink, or being pressured by public opinion (which is something that will be addressed in future posts). How can we be very certain that a specific leadership trait is directly linked to a certain foreign policy decision?

There’s also the case of our own biases, which is a given in any form of qualitative research. When analyzing a certain leader, our own political orientation or perhaps disdain of a specific character may serve as a cognitive filter. For example, if I am part of the opposition, I may be prone to considering Jokowi as a glorified businessman who doesn’t have an idea of how foreign policy works. This filter may then lead me into a cycle of confirmation bias; because I see it that way, any action he takes automatically confirm my views. I may also be prone to dismissing any of his actions that disprove my own preconceived notions.

One way around this is to use a robust method of coding leadership traits, as done by Margaret Hermann [PDF]. Hermann’s Leadership Traits Analysis (LTA) framework provides a detailed code of specific leadership traits. Hermann also provides methodological notes on how each trait may be observed. While you don’t have to follow Hermann to the letter, having some sort of guidebook may help to diminish personal bias.


We’ve discussed how leader personalities and cognitive process may be used in analysing a foreign policy decision. These cognitive processes are often at play in the construction of belief sets, which provide the leader a “lens” to view the world. By understanding the “lens”, we may gain more insight as to why a specific policy decision was taken. 

However, this approach is not without flaws. In the next post, I’ll cover some of the other dynamics at play, such as the role of advisers and how this arrangement encourages group-think.

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