Decision Making Models

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Foreign Policy Decision Making Models

The material in this section is based on Kegley & Wittkopf, World Politics, 8th Ed. 2001 Chapter 3, Foreign Policy Decision Making, pp. 53 - 83
Kegley, World Politics, 11th Rev Ed (2008)

Rational Actor Decision Making Model


  1. The international environment determines state actions.

  2. All foreign policy decision-makers are essentially alike in their decision-making process.

  3. Each state's decision making process can be viewed as if there were a single unitary actor making decisions.

  4. Each unitary actor makes rational choices.

Rational Decision Making requires

  1. Problem Recognition and Definition.  "Policy-makers perceive an external problem and attempt to define objectively its distinguishing characteristics."  Full information is assumed to be available.

  2. Goal Selection.  Policy makers "must determine what they want to accomplish."  It requires that they rank "all values . . . in a hierarchy from most to least preferred."

  3. Identification of Alternatives.  "Rationality also requires the compilation of an exhaustive list of all available policy options and an estimate of the costs association with each alternative.

  4. Choice.  Selection of "the single alternative with the best chance of achieving the desired goal(s).  For this purpose, the policymakers must conduct a rigorous means-ends, cost-benefit analyis guided by an accurate prediction of the probable success of each option.

Possible Examples of Rational Decision Making

  1. President John F. Kennedy's 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis decisions.

  2. President Bill Clinton's 1999 Kosovo intervention

Limitations on Rational Choice

  1. Bounded rationality.  We are human, prone to errors, and don't know everything.

  2. Cognitive dissonance.  We tend to block out information that does not agree with what we already believe to be accurate.

  3. Overloaded policy agendas.  Decision-makers handle many issues at the same time and cannot spend enough time on any one of these issues.  The pressures of circumstance limit the ability to choose.

  4. Making satisficing decisions rather than optimizing ones.

  5. Prospect theory.  Overreacting in crisis.  Underestimate possible gains. Unwilling to cut losses.

  6. Two level games.  Domestic politics does play a role in international decision making.

  7. Muddling through.  Incremental decision making.  Little bit more here; little less there.  No rational overall review of policies. 

Bureaucratic Decision Making Model

There is no single rational actor making decisions.  Central governments are complex bureaucracies.  In the United States, the U.S. President shares decision-making with the National Security Council, Defense Department, State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many other bureaucracies.

Bureaucracies are formal, hierarchical organizations.  There is a huge literature on bureaucracy beginning with Max Weber's ideal type.  The following cite several approaches to bureaucratic decision making.


Bureaucratic Politics Model views foreign policy "as based on bargaining and compromises among governmental agencies.


Policy networks are temporary alliances of leaders, interest groups, and agencies to influence policy.


Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) means following bureaucratic routines.  CYA means cover your ass.  


Groupthink.  Let's everyone think alike.  Small groups of people under intense pressure tend to develop a fortress mentality and defend the group against its outside critics.

History-Making Individuals Model of Decision Making

This model looks at the great men of history:  FDR, Churchill, Stalin, de Gaulle, Hitler, Mussolini.  Great men make history.  Foreign policy is shaped by the leaders who run their countries:  George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, Gerhard Schroeder, Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin.  If these leaders are not as great as the first six, then the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, is not right.  World War II put everyone on a different pedestal than do times of peace, or relative peace.

Why do leaders often make foolish decisions?  Why do they make decisions that are self-destructive to themselves and their country?  For example, Hitler and Hussein led their countries to disastrous consequences.

Procedural Rationality refers to the realist's rational actor model; whereas instrumental rationality is rational only if one accepts the leader's goals.  From Hitler's point of view, world conquest was rational.  That's what he wanted, so every decision that led in that direction was followed even if it led to certain disaster in the long run.

Tools of State Power for the Conduct of Foreign Policy

bulletForeign Aid
bulletForeign Trade
bulletCultural Exchange Programs
bulletIntelligence Operations
bulletOvert and Covert Operations
bulletEconomic Warfare
bulletTrade Wars
bulletPrice Fixing
bulletTrade Embargo
bulletSeizure of Assets
bulletCurrency Manipulations
bulletDenial of Raw Materials
bulletBreaking Diplomatic Relations
bulletGunboat Diplomacy
bulletMilitary Maneuvers


Public Actors 
    Central Government
        Actors within the Executive Branch:


Head of State, Head of Government, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, Director of Central Intelligence, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ambassadors.

            Bureaucratic Organizations

Office of the President, National Security Council, State Department, Defense Department, Central Intelligence Agency, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Embassies, Consulates, Federal Reserve, Treasury Department, Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Justice Department, Federal Bureau of Investigations, etc.

          Actors in the Legislative and Judicial Branches:


Chairmen and ranking minority members of Standing Committees of Congress.  Congressional staff persons involved with foreign policy issues.

Judges of Federal Courts, especially U.S. Supreme Court judges.

            Bureaucratic Organizations 

U.S. Congress: Standing Committees of Congress: Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, Appropriations Committees

Limited Role of Domestic Courts in Foreign Relations, U.S. Supreme Court

    Sub-national Governments:

Governors of the Fifty States, Mayors of Major Cities, State and Local Governments' Trade Representatives and the institutions associated with these individuals.

    Private (Non-Public) Actors:


Former Presidents (Bill Clinton), Secretaries of State (Henry Kissinger), older statesmen (George Kennan), 

            Bureaucratic Organization:

Foreign Policy Institutes of Major Research Universities, Think Tanks, Corporate and Labor Executives, Leaders of the Opposition Political Parties, the MEDIA, spokespeople for various ethnic and religious groups, interest groups, and the public at large.

            Various Voluntary Associations.

American Public Opinion.  Various societal communities.  Jewish-Americans, Irish-Americans, etc.



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Copyright Dr. Harold Damerow
Senior Professor of Government and History
Coordinator of International Studies

Union County College
Cranford, NJ 07016
August 27, 2010