Actors & Structures in Foreign
Policy Analysis
January 23, 2014
Overview
 Introduction
 Historical background
 The role of actors and structures in ‘process’
approaches to foreign policy analysis
 The role of actors and structures in ‘policy’
approaches to foreign policy analysis
 A possible solution – integrative framework
Introduction
 Foreign policy is impacted by a number of
actors and structures, both domestic and
international
 These actors and structures act in
combination all of which makes foreign policy
analysis challenging
 Scholars have tried to create some kind of
analytical framework or approach to make
things clearer, but fundamental
disagreements remain.
 In other words…
Analyzing foreign policy is complicated…
Historical background
Realism: (Morgenthau)
 Effort to provide universal law-like explanations
for the external behaviour of all states
 Did this by linking the concept of power to
national interest.
 Idea that with these “laws” in place you explain
and understand the behaviour of states
 Realism was the dominate approach to IR in the
US during the Cold War
Behaviouralism:
Gained dominance in US social sciences
in post WWII era at same time realism was
dominating IR in US
Effort to apply scientific approach to social
sciences
Idea that could use testable hypotheses to
develop a empirical generalisations of
political behaviour
Two key questions
 What are we trying to explain with our analysis?
i.e. What is the object of our analysis (the
explanadum or independent variable)?
 What factors do we see as responsible for
explaining the thing we are trying to explain?
i.e. What are approaches and instruments
that do the explaining (the explanans or
dependent variable)
 Essentially approaches to foreign policy analysis
can be divided based on whether they focus on the
decision-making process or on the policy itself
when looking for explanatory factors
The role of actors and structures is considered in
both approaches, with different perspectives
placing more emphasis on one or the other
The role of actors and structures in
‘process’ approaches to FPA
Here the focus is on decision-making;
identifying what foreign policy-makers are
doing.
Process-orientated analysts of foreign
policy consider how certain goals arise
and why certain behaviours result.
The role of the decision-making process
Focus on the factors and processes
through which foreign policy decisions,
statements and behaviours are made
The aim is to explore the process of
foreign policy decision-making rather than
policies themselves.
Don’t see states as unitary actors
Instead states are the institutional
structures within which individual decisionmakers act.
So can’t see actors as generic, because
individuals will act differently, so focus on
specific individuals
Levels of analysis
Process focused approaches tend to
favour a level of analysis framework
At its most basic there are three levels:
Individual
State
International
Impact of actors and structures are
examined one level at a time
The role of actors and structures in
‘policy’ approaches to FPA
The focus here is the choice of specific
policies, rather than specific decisionmaking process.
Policies are understood to result from
processes, rather than being part of them.
The role of actors and structures in
‘policy’ approaches to FPA
The main focus is the action that is the
product of the decision (i.e. the policy);
distinguishing a foreign policy action
from the process that preceded it.
The focus is on policy agreements, not
the behaviour of any particular entity.
These approaches vary in the degree to
which they see either actors or
structures as more important
Structural perspectives and foreign policy
 Realism (aggressive and defensive
neorealists, neoclassical realists)
 Neoliberal institutionalism (regime theory)
 Constructivism
 These perspectives don’t exclude actors in
their analysis, but instead see the
structure as the key factor explaining how
states behave
Actor-based perspectives and foreign
policy
Cognitive and psychological approaches
Bureaucratic politics approach (Allison)
New liberalism
Interpretative actor perspective
Cognitive & psychological
approaches
Contrasts with realist and liberal
approaches that see actors as rational
i.e. actors are open-minded and adapt to
changing circumstances
Instead cognitive and psychological
approaches suggests that a variety factors
can get in the way, including:
Individual beliefs, personality, the way
they process information & cognitive traits
An example: Groupthink
Coined by Irving Janis in the 1970s
Idea that highly cohesive groups under
significant pressure to make a good
decision and maintain unanimity can end
up acting irrationally and fail consider
alternative approaches
Janis’ examples: Bay of Pigs, failed Iran
hostage rescue, US failure to anticipate
Pearl Harbour
Bureaucratic politics approach
Idea that internal negotiating and infighting
results in a final decision that no person or
group in the decision-making process
intended
Thus, focus of this approach is on
interactions of individuals or groups inside
the organisation
New liberalism
In contrast to neoliberalism, focus on the
importance of actors rather than
institutions
In particular looks at importance of societal
actors rather than politically appointed
actors or groups
Interpretive actor perspective
Emphasizes the role of individual decisionmakers as key explanatory factor
Thus, focus on analyzing the thinking and
actions of particular individuals
Agency-structure problem
 Tendency to see either actors or structures as
key to explaining particular policy choice
 Thus, treat them as distinct from one another
 Problem is that in real world actors and structure
interact and influence one another, so can’t
really look at them separately
 Challenge is to find an approach that integrates
impact of both actors and structure across all
levels of analysis
Potential solution - integrative framework
Foreign policy actions are explained in a threeway structure of intentional, dispositional and
structural dimensions.
Integrative framework
Step 1
Focus first on the relationship between a
given foreign policy action and the
intention or goal that was behind it
Essentially trace reasoning behind a
specific action - i.e. they did this in order to
achieve that
Example: the US decision to invade
Iraq
Starting from step 1, what kind of things
would we look for to examine the
intentional dimensions of the decision to
invade Iraq?
How would we determine what the specific
goal(s) or intention of the invasion was?
Integrative framework
Step 2
 Trace the link between the intentional and the
dispositional dimensions, focusing on the
underlying values that motivate actors to pursue
certain goals over others.
 Here bring cognitive & psychological
approaches
Perceptions, beliefs, values etc.
 These first two steps focus on actors
US and Iraq
Based on step 2 how would we analyze
why the US decision-makers chose those
particular goals over others?
What kinds of information would we be
looking for to help us explain these
choices?
Integrative framework
Step 3
 Examines how structural factors affect actors
 Looks at how these structural factors are
perceived, reacted to and taken into account by
the actors.
 Structural factors affect the cognitive and
psychological dispositions of individuals.
 Can either enable or constrain actors’
dispositions
US & Iraq
How would we determine how structural
factors and the actors perceptions of them
impact their choices?
What structural factors were likely to be
important in this case?
Integrative framework
Not a complete solution to agencystructure problem
Tends to be a static approach, i.e. can use
it to explain a single foreign policy action,
but not a series of actions over time