Le’ Notes #49: Foreign policy analysis – it all starts at home

So far, we’ve covered how foreign policy is formulated and executed by individuals or a small group of individuals. We’ve discussed how these individuals often do not make so-called rational decisions; instead, they are often influenced by their own outlooks of the world and their institutional interests.

But for most of the world, foreign policy is not always just dictated by individuals. This is not to say that these prominent individuals do not have any power. There are often many other parties that may restrain the extent of an individual’s (or a small group of individuals’) power. You might know these as domestic political institutions, and they play an important role in keeping democracies afloat.

In this post, we’ll explore the role these institutions play in shaping foreign policy. Note that here, I use the term “institutions” quite loosely to refer to the many domestic structures that exist in democracies, such as political parties. This doesn’t cover public opinion, interest groups or the media; that’ll be addressed in a later post.

The democratic peace theory

A starting point for examining the role of domestic institutions is the assumption that democracies would be less likely to wage war against other democracies. This is also known as “democratic peace theory”, and it is, as Levy (1988 [PDF]) puts it, “as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations.” How does this happen?

At the domestic level, there’s more impediments to declaring a hostile foreign policy to other democratic states. Leaders are expected to be responsible for losing wars, a risk that many would unlikely take. Politicians, representing their constituents, would likely oppose aggressive policies for fear of losing votes. The press, enjoying a large degree of freedom, would be quick to expose possible aggressive plans thus reducing the element of surprise. Fellow democracies would also likely prefer cooperation over conflict, mostly due to shared values. Even if they have disputes, they’re more inclined to settle them through established international institutions. Long story short, there’s a lot of disincentives to pursuing an aggressive foreign policy with other democracies.

However, this does mean that democracies never fight wars at all. They do, but it’s more likely against non-democracies, often authoritarian or rule-breaking regimes. And even when they do, they often do so under the pretext of protecting world order or upholding international law. The First Gulf War (1991) was an example of this, when the United States, with approval from the UN Security Council, waged war against Iraq in retaliation of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

Now, it may be tempting to then assume that once they’ve gotten a taste of war, democracies would then continue on spreading democratic values with a crusade-like fervour. While this may be possible, domestic institutions at home will also likely restrain these ambitions. The media often plays a role in this. Though the American public initially supported the Vietnam War, they quickly called for an end to the war after the media circulated horrific imagery of the effects of the war on the Vietnamese. However, that’s just one part of the equation. The US Congress also contributed to restraining further ventures in Vietnam, using their powers to launch investigations into the executive’s decision to continue the war and even forming anti-war coalitions which consolidated during Nixon’s time.

So, even as democracies continue to be involved in wars, their conduct of war is often restrained by the institutions at home, be it by elected representatives or by the people.

Party lines and domestic contestation

Which brings me to my next subject, which are the political parties that make up the legislative. In typical democracies, the decision to go to war (an extreme choice, I know) often requires both legislative and executive approval. This restraint is important so state leaders can’t just be declaring war willy-nilly. However, in day-to-day foreign policy, decisions are often debated and decided at the legislative level. These debates are usually characterized by adherence to party lines, such as the Democratic-Republican split in the United States or the conservative-nationalist/progressive-globalist (rough division, I know) divide in Indonesia.

An assumption then follows—foreign policy then, is a product of the hitherto dominant party line.

To demonstrate this assumption, I use Keiko Hirata’s (2008 [paywall]) research on Japanese party lines in affecting Japan’s perceived international security role. Hirata broadly describes the four groups that have a prominent role in influencing Japan’s national security debate after the Cold War: nationalists, pacifists, mercantilists, and normalists. These groups are represented by the political parties in Japan’s Diet. The mercantilists, for example, stand for constitutional reinterpretation (the issue here is Japan’s anti-war Article 9 of the Constitution), but keeping defence spending to a minimum to promote economic activity. This is in stark contrast to the nationalists, who advocate for the reassertion of Japanese military power. In the middle are the normalists, who advocate Japan’s return as a ‘normal’ state; this includes gradual increase of military power to share the international security burden with the United States and other partners. The normalists have gradually consolidated power in the Diet, as shown in the rise of Shinzo Abe and the decline of mercantilist factions in the Diet, thus leading to a more “normal” foreign policy.

While Hirata focuses almost exclusively on the legislative, a more pluralistic approach would be to examine the many state bureaucracies which have notable influence on foreign policy making. We can examine their bureaucratic interests, their relative position in the domestic political scene, and their relation to other bureaucracies to understand how they are involved in foreign policy.

To demonstrate this, I draw upon Syailendra’s (2016 [paywall]) research on differences in perception among Indonesian ministries vis-à-vis China and how this stifles decision-making.

Syailendra focuses on key actors in the decision-making process—namely the president, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), the military (represented by the Navy and Army), and the Ministry of Fisheries—and how differing goals and perceptions affect Indonesia’s engagement (or lack thereof) with China. The president, Joko Widodo, initially ran with an ambitious maritime platform known as the “Global Maritime Fulcrum” (with which critics had a field day when it was discontinued in the second term) which led him to increase economic rapport with China. However, not all of his key ministers perceive this rapport to be beneficial, especially as China continued its illegal incursions into Indonesian waters. The Ministry of Fisheries, for example, is sceptical of further cooperation with China as it may impede the ministry’s mission of stopping illegal fishing. Additionally, the military, driven by their mandate to protect Indonesian sovereignty, continues to see China as a potential threat. In the middle, the MOFA prefers to acknowledge the lack of a dispute with China, arguing that acknowledgement of a dispute would only serve to justify China’s claims in the South China Sea. As a result, the MOFA doesn’t prefer hard-handed engagement with China.

As Syailendra argues, the lack of a common point of agreement among these key actors results in the inability to rank foreign policy alternatives. In other words, each actor seems as if they’re acting by themselves instead of unison. Hence, the lack of a solid response.


While it may be fun to think that foreign policy is a product of genius individuals at the helm of the state, that is not always the case. Foreign is discussed and debated by democratic institutions, which act as restraints to the decision-making power of individuals. These institutions, while they may often complicate analyses of foreign policy, are an important variable in the creation of foreign policy. I’ve covered two ways of understanding how these democratic institutions may either impede or accelerate specific foreign policy decisions. The point remains the same: foreign policy starts at home.

Header image: Photo by Colin Lloyd from Pexels

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