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date: 19 September 2017

Multiple Streams in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

The Multiple Streams Approach (MSA) builds on the organizational process tradition by (1) unpacking the organizational process “paradigm,” (2) maintaining emphasis on “governmental action as organizational output,” and (3) stressing the importance of ambiguity and temporal sorting as essential blocks of policy making. Operating at the systemic level, it is an actor-centered approach. It conceptualizes foreign policy choice as being made at the system—government—level and is the result of coupling three streams by policy entrepreneurs—policies, problems, and politics—during open policy windows. It differs from traditional models of foreign policy making by stressing process over outcome and stands between the rational and cognitive schools of foreign policy making. The empirical literature finds the MSA is a good candidate to bridge the divide between domestic and foreign policy, shedding light on debates of small versus large state foreign policy behavior by utilizing both qualitative and quantitative techniques.

Keywords: multiple streams approach, policy entrepreneurs, foreign policy, organizational process, garbage can model, ambiguity, temporal sorting


Although the study of foreign policy was originally conceptualized as part of the broader public policy “revolution” sweeping through political science at the time (Allison, 1971), the subsequent evolution of the field did not live up to the original expectations. Allison used three perspectives to analyze the Cuban Missile Crisis to stress the point that each shed light on different parts of the foreign policy puzzle: Model I, which he termed “rational actor”; Model II, which he called “Organizational Process”; and Model III, which he labeled “Governmental Politics.” Model II borrowed some elements articulated by Simon (1957), March and Simon (1958), and Cyert and March (1963) to construct an argument of policy outputs based largely on satisficing and standard operating procedures (SOPs). But it was later abandoned and folded into Model III (later renamed Bureaucratic Politics) because it was viewed as too narrow and difficult to apply by itself (Welch, 1992, p. 118). The Multiple Streams Approach (MSA) builds on the organizational process tradition by (1) unpacking the organizational process “paradigm,” (2) maintaining emphasis on “governmental action as organizational output,” and (3) reassembling elements of the process and heading in a different direction from SOPs into the realm of ambiguity and temporal sorting as essential blocks of policy making. The MSA also differs from Governmental Politics in two respects: (1) It conceptualizes policy as much more than bargaining between bureaucrats and/or elected officials (e.g., Brummer, 2017). Foreign policy also involves broader variables such as the national mood in addition to preference construction; (2) The MSA views the process as very dynamic and temporally limited, elements that are missing from governmental politics analyses.

The MSA is a useful tool to analyze a certain class of foreign policy decisions under specific conditions. It is particularly (but not singularly) suited to explaining foreign policy under crisis, by focusing on the role of serendipity, policy entrepreneurs, and manipulation of process and ideas. The MSA contends that foreign policy outputs are the result of coupling three streams by policy entrepreneurs—policies, problems, and politics—during open policy windows. It differs from traditional models of foreign policy making by stressing process over outcome and by synthesizing structural and agency elements into a coherent theoretical framework. While it was originally developed to explain agenda setting in U.S. domestic policy, it has been expanded to cover decision making in large and small countries (Blavoukos & Bourantonis, 2012; Saikaly, 2009; Travis & Zahariadis, 2002; Zahariadis, 2005).

First to be discussed will be the suitability of MSA as a tool to explore foreign policy by looking at the similarities and differences between foreign and domestic policy. Next, the framework will be unpacked into its constituent elements and shown how they fit together to explain foreign policy. Then the limited number of empirical MSA applications in foreign policies will be reviewed to illustrate its utility. The conclusion discusses linkages with other foreign policy approaches and maps a possible future research agenda.

Foreign Policy As Public Policy

Why should an argument on domestic public policy apply equally well or at least with minor modifications to foreign policy? It does so because both fields can be fruitfully subsumed under a systems theory explanation. However, before proceeding, a definition of terms is in order.

Foreign policy is defined as a series of decisions or pattern of interactions at the edge of sovereignty, that is, interactions between states or interactions or decisions that cross state boundaries. The key element is sovereignty and this is one major distinction between domestic and foreign policies. While some authors use the term “model” to describe MSA, the term “approach” or “framework” will be used here. This follows Ostrom’s (2007) lead to differentiate between frameworks/approaches and models. She argues that frameworks organize “diagnostic and prescriptive inquiry” by helping to “provide the most general list of variables that should be used to analyze all types of institutional arrangements . . . Models make precise assumptions about a limited set of parameters and variables” (Ostrom, 2007, pp. 25–26). It follows that many models can be compatible with any one framework. In its current form, MSA is treated as a framework, which will be used to explain a class of foreign policy phenomena.

The MSA has been used to explain foreign policy because of its systems approach. The term “systems approach” is used here as applied in organizational theory—that is, as an approach that focuses on the interactions and relationships between parts in order to understand an entire organization’s behavior—and should not be confused with the international system or Waltz’s (1979) systemic theory of structural realism. Borrowing from Thompson’s (2003) distinction regarding organizational theory, domestic policy represents the system’s core domain and foreign policy deals with the task environment. Just like organizations, states face the paradox of having to maintain relative stability in their domestic world but are called upon to be respond flexibly and adapt to an increasingly turbulent and uncertain environment over which they exercise minimal control. The two processes therefore are effectively two sides of the same coin, but they contain different power dependencies and varying degrees of control. What a public (domestic) policy perspective contributes relative to one derived from an international relations (IR) perspective is a dynamic analysis of the process of arriving at a choice. It considers the environment as independent and stresses the internal dynamics of decision making, including perceptions and misperceptions, organizational dynamics, and agenda setting. In systems terms, it unpacks the black box and considers the process of how inputs turn into outputs. Foreign policy choices are made in organizational environments that constrain or facilitate and certainly bias some options but not others (Snyder, Bruck, & Sapin, 2002). These factors may be systemic, such as the degree of coordination in a given foreign policy arena; or individual, such as an individual’s ideological predilection or framing strategy. It goes beyond explaining policy change (e.g., Blavoukos, 2016) and analyzes the entire spectrum of policy outputs. Policy need not deviate from established norms, it may also stay the same either by choice (policy makers decide change is not desirable) or by accident (policy makers are not paying attention so change is not even an option).

The Elements of Multiple Streams

To understand how MSA works in foreign policy, the discussion will turn to foundational concerns. First, the unit and level of analysis will be specified and, and then the assumptions permeating the approach, as well as details of the scope conditions, will be discussed. It is important to circumscribe MSA’s applicability because it does not explain all foreign policy decisions equally well.

Unpacking the Organizational Process

Operating at the systemic level, the MSA is an actor-centered approach. It conceptualizes foreign policy choice as being made at the system—government—level and subject to a mix of individual/group strategies and systemic structural constraints. The unit of analysis is policy or a single event.

The approach goes beyond SOPs to cover the entire range of outputs. It was developed by John Kingdon (1984), drawing inspiration from Cohen, March, and Olsen’s (1972) garbage can model of organizational choice. The garbage can model was developed as a computer simulation to explain decision making in multipurpose organizations, such as universities, what the authors called organized anarchies. Some authors, e.g., Newmann (1998), Augier and Guo (2012), and Gibson (2012), have used the garbage can model to supplement explanations of foreign policy decision making. Kingdon adapted and amended garbage can ideas to construct the MSA framework and used it to explain agenda setting at the federal level in the United States. Zahariadis (2003) extended the MSA to the entire policy formation process (agenda setting and decision making), and later applied it comparatively to explain Greek foreign policy (Zahariadis, 2005). The term “organized anarchy” will be used to refer to the national or supranational level of government and denote systems that have the properties outlined below.

The properties of organized anarchies constitute the MSA’s scope conditions of applicability: problematic preferences, opaque technology, and fluid participation. Policy makers often don’t have a clear and consistent preference on many issues. Yet, they are called upon to make decisions and thereby express a preference through their vote. The assumption of problematic policy preferences only means that policy makers do not have clear preferences with regard to specific policies. It does not imply that they have no preferences at all. With regard to the outcome of the next election or the question of who will be the next president, they take an unequivocal stand: Policy makers want to win elections, and they want their candidate to get elected as the next president (Herweg, Huß, & Zohlnhöfer, 2015). In organizational theory, technology refers to processes that turn organizational inputs into products. Quite often members of an organized anarchy are aware of their individual responsibilities, but exhibit only rudimentary knowledge of how their job fits into the overall mission of the organization, a phenomenon called opaque technology. In political systems, for instance, jurisdictional boundaries are unclear, and turf battles between different departments or agencies are common. Members of the legislature often complain of unaccountable officials, who, in turn, frequently express their frustration with overburdening reporting rules and independent-minded public managers. Finally, not all policy makers attend consistently to all decisions. They often drop out of the decision arena because they are busy, or because they don’t get reelected. Sometimes the same people can only follow a decision up to a certain point in the process when that particular issue leaves the arena for another venue to which the previous decision maker is not invited. In that sense, choices are made under conditions of fluid participation.

Governments, especially national governments, approximate these conditions well. To make the point even more forcefully, the MSA describes as scope conditions situations that are beyond the realm of ordinary rational choice. The MSA does not reject rationality. It simply steps in to poke holes into rational explanations when information and structural assumptions (unitary actor) do not hold true. Instead, the MSA assumes there is rampant ambiguity and a temporal sorting logic to decision making. It follows that the MSA does not explain all policies well: just those where conditions approximate the properties of unclear preferences, opaque technology, and fluid participation.

Ambiguity refers to having multiple and irreconcilable ways of thinking about an issue. It points to the endemic vagueness of issues and not to uncertainty. For example, issues have many dimensions and are subject to different interpretations. Quite often policy makers keep laws vague hoping to achieve agreement because each side can claim victory by infusing the outcome with its own bias (Sharkansky, 2002). The Greek Finance Minister made the point very clear when he spoke of politicians needing to use “creative ambiguity” to pass austerity measures through parliament (Tagaris, 2015). For this reason, more information will not address ambiguity, but it will address uncertainty. One implication of ambiguity is lack of preference clarity. If politicians use ambiguity or at least operate under those conditions, they are less likely to know what they want and by implication be able to make efficient cost/benefit calculations of different options. Ambiguity typically makes foreign policy decisions more complex, increasing stress and the use of cognitive shortcuts (Mintz & DeRouen, 2010, p. 27).

In this situation, an explanation following rational logic is of limited utility. One that focuses on temporal logic might be more useful because the latter is more empirically plausible. Perhaps the most precious commodity of chief executives, both in business and politics, is time. In order for one to make decisions, one has to first pay attention. Who pays attention to what is critical, which implies few decisions that require considerable time (because they are difficult, complex, or have dramatic implications) will likely be made at the top by people whose time is limited. In fact, time is a precious, irreplaceable resource whose supply is inelastic. As Drucker (1985, p. 26) reminds us, “no matter how high the demand the supply for it will not go up. There is no price for it and no marginal utility curve for it.” Attention is a function of time: Issue arrival and departure are key components of choice situations. This is particularly true of foreign policy situations where there is paucity of information and relatively little control of the environment. Quite often issues just happen. The MSA claims decision choices are colored by who happens to be paying attention at that time and under what constraints.


The MSA makes three assumptions. Solutions evolve and exist independently of the problems they were initially designed to solve. This does not mean that solutions do not aim to solve specific problems. It merely suggests the obvious. Solutions evolve but do not always track the same problems during their lifetime. For example, the sale of state assets was originally developed in the United Kingdom in the 1970s as a way of getting around public sector borrowing requirements. Sales of state assets were later advertised as vehicles for developing competition and fostering an entrepreneurial culture (Zahariadis, 1995). In foreign policy, the George W. Bush administration was fixated on Saddam Hussein long before the decision was made to invade Iraq in 2003 (Clarke, 2004; Saikaly, 2009). The question was not whether but how to do it. The solution remained the same, invade Iraq, while the problem evolved from preemptive strikes to weapons of mass destruction to liberating the Iraqi people, to spreading democracy in the Middle East. And conversely, problems may mutate, requiring different solutions over time, what Boscarino (2009) calls “problem surfing.” A bomb exploding in the Middle East and a subsequent video of a beheading require probably very different solutions even though they may both be linked to the same problematic organization, for example, ISIS.

Systemic information processing takes parallel form. This means that systems can process many things simultaneously because they can compartmentalize issues into subsystems and focus attention on several issues. For example, governments can debate and actually decide at the same time how to respond to Russia’s adventures in Syria, whether and how far to push allies to pay more for NATO, or whether to build a wall with Mexico. Individuals have limited cognitive (attention) capacities—try texting and driving—but organizations and especially governments in principle do not (March & Simon, 1958).

Foreign policy decisions are often made under time pressure. It may sound banal but it bears repeating: Policy makers often do not have the luxury of time to make decisions. They are confronted or have demands placed on them that require immediate attention without the ability to look for suitable solutions, let alone engage in cost/benefit calculations for each of them. Hence they need to prioritize actionable items and that takes time, resources, and is often subject to significant bias.

Structural Elements

The MSA conceptualizes foreign policy choice as consisting of five elements: three streams (problems, policies, and politics), agency (policy entrepreneurs), and a window of opportunity (policy window). Although each stream operates autonomously of the others, there are interactions. How these play out and under what conditions flavors the final outcome. In other words, the foreign policy process is highly complex and interactive. Elements, such as problems or policies, are produced either domestically or internationally. For example, states may decide to pursue the option of war to satisfy domestic constituents or ideologies, such as Nazi Germany, or have problems externally imposed on them that necessitate a response, such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Problems are issues that policy makers find important to attend. They may arise in the external environment, such as the Falklands war or the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2014 and often require attention and response. Sometimes doing nothing is a response, as U.S. policy in Syria has amply shown. It is important to remember problems, such as the European financial crisis in 2009 or the Yugoslav civil war in the early 1990s, have a perceptual element (Kingdon, 1984). Not everyone agrees the same issue is a public problem. For example, climate change for the Obama administration was a problem. Not so for the Trump administration. Issues are likely to become public problems when they are accompanied by focusing events, such as natural disasters (Birkland, 1997); placed in different categories, such as AIDS as a public health and not a homosexuality issue; or faced with sizable change, such as the resumption of building thousands of new settlements in Israel.

Policies are solutions or ideas debated among foreign policy elites competing to win acceptance in policy networks. The policy stream differs significantly between domestic and foreign policy in that policy networks are usually limited in foreign policy. There are normally very few constituents debating issues on behalf of other states. More often than not, debates involve think tanks, universities, political parties, and experts linked to foreign affairs ministries. The United States is unique in allowing “ethnic lobbies” to have a sometimes loud voice in foreign policy although the actual influence of these lobbies remains a hotly contested issue (DeWind & Segura, 2014; Mearsheimer & Walt, 2007; Paul & Paul, 2009).

The politics stream consists of three elements: the national mood, pressure-group campaigns, and administrative or legislative turnover. The national mood refers to the notion that a fairly large number of individuals in a given country tend to think along common lines and that the mood swings from time to time. Government officials sensing changes in this mood through, say, monitoring public opinion polls, act to promote certain items on the agenda or, conversely, to dim the hopes of others. In addition, politicians often view the support or opposition of interest groups as indicators of consensus or dissent in the broader political arena. For example, if many interest groups voice their support for Israeli settlements, it is likely that government officials will hasten to include the item on the agenda. In addition, legislative or administrative turnover frequently affects choice in quite dramatic ways. A sudden influx of new members of Congress or key personnel in the administration potentially increases the likely departure from established patterns of policy, such as resolute support for President Mubarak in Egypt.

Policy windows are opportunities for action. They open either in the problem or politics stream and provide the context within which foreign policy is made. For example, the open rebellion in Benghazi in 2011 provided an opportunity to U.S. policymakers to decide what they wanted to do with Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. Similarly, the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency became an opportunity to revisit old funding issues with NATO.

Policy entrepreneurs are individuals or corporate actors who attempt to couple the three streams. They are not mere advocates of solutions; they are power brokers, coalition enablers, and manipulators of problematic preferences and unclear technology (Cohen, 2016). They are usually political figures who manage to overcome barriers to entry and seek to change foreign policy or prevent change from happening. They could be political leaders who invest skills and resources during politically expedient times to manipulate the process in favor of their pet policies (e.g., Hermann, Preston, Korany, & Shaw, 2001; Zahariadis, 2015).

Policy entrepreneurs try to couple the three streams during open policy windows to produce policy. For example, the events of 9/11 in 2001 opened a policy window to revisit issues related to Saddam Hussein and Iraq. While 9/11 had nothing to do with Iraq, the problem of terrorism was successfully used as a pretext to redefine Saddam as an immediate threat to national security. Problems verifying the destruction of his stockpile of chemical and biological weapons existed since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991. The desire to invade Iraq and get rid of Saddam long predated the invasion (Clarke, 2004). President George W. Bush did not get elected making explicit his desire to invade Iraq. It was 9/11 that made the invasion possible and interaction among all three factors (the problem of verifying the destruction of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the election of the Bush administration, and the advent to power of policy makers who previously advocated invasion and acted entrepreneurially to make it happen) that made it likely (Saikaly, 2009). The MSA provides not only a good explanation why the United States decided to invade Iraq in 2003, but it also tells us why it did not happen during the Clinton administration, which faced similar problems with Saddam.

Empirical Applications

Zahariadis (2005), Mazarr (2007), Travis and Zahariadis (2002), and Durant and Diehl (1989), among others, probe the utility of MSA in foreign policy. They find that MSA is a good candidate to bridge the divide between domestic and foreign policy. The key problem is to link domestic and external variables. To provide direction to this brief MSA review of foreign policy, the discussion now will be of the literature as revolving along two axes: large vs. small states and qualitative vs. quantitative.

Large vs. Small States

A major question in foreign policy is the difference, if any, between policies of small and large states. IR scholars generally conclude that small states are rule-takers and large states are rule-makers. The external environment plays a crucial role in shaping small state options (Hey, 2003; Rosenau, 1971; but see Gvalia, Siroky, Lebanidze, & Iashvili, 2013; and Lindell & Persson, 1986). Can a framework originally formulated to explain policy in a large state (United States) also explain small state foreign policy? The MSA takes a different approach and focuses on domestic politics as critical in shaping foreign policy. Counterintuitively, the external environment plays a more important role in cooperation than conflict. Decisions to pursue confrontational policy are shaped by domestic politics to a greater extent because of dramatic consequences for domestic actors. In this way, the small versus large state debate in IR informs MSA by pointing out limitations and highlighting the importance of variables under different conditions.

Durant and Diehl (1989) first extended MSA to predecision processes in U.S. foreign policy. They argued the original incremental evolutionary metaphor for alternatives as specified by Kingdon (1984) had to be revamped to include both gradualist and nonincremental policy types. To this end, they offered a typology of policy alternatives that incorporated both type (incremental or not) and scope (novel or not) of proposal. Diehl (1990) analyzed the impact that the SALT II Treaty had on Reagan administration arms control policy during the period 1981–1984, using MSA. He concluded that SALT II had only a lingering negative impact on policy formulation. Mazarr (2007) used MSA to explain agenda setting in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He demonstrated that the invasion option preceded the actual decision by many years; it just lacked political support. The events of 9/11 opened a policy window that shifted the national mood in favor of a forceful removal of Saddam Hussein. Saikaly (2009) extended the Iraq analysis to the entire policy formation stage—agenda setting and decision making.

Shifting focus to small states, Zahariadis (2005) probes the utility and explanatory power of three lenses: MSA, rational internationalism, and two-level games. Conceptualizing the dependent variable as degree of confrontational or cooperative policy, the author finds that while the MSA provides the better overall explanation because it explains more accurately a greater number of occurrences, it systematically underexplains cooperative policy. The reason may be that conflict produces the “rally around the flag” effect, inducing the creation of broad domestic coalitions in the face of external threat. However, the decision to adopt more aggressive policy is filtered through domestic struggles because of stark consequences, making domestic politics key to understanding confrontational behavior. In contrast, cooperation as an outcome accentuates differences in domestic actor preferences and requires, according to Zahariadis (2005, p. 188), more concerted effort and synergistic linkages with the external environment. Domestic politics is still important but more information and greater interaction with external actors is needed to fully map the consequences of cooperative behavior. The implication is that no one perspective uniformly performs better in all circumstances. Models that explain cooperation may be different from those that explain conflict; one cannot be viewed as the antithesis of the other. More recently, Zahariadis (2015) adds the role of emotion as a tool for anchoring foreign policy around specific options, making it exceedingly difficult to take corrective action even when there is widespread agreement that the policy is not producing desirable results.

Two lessons are drawn from the above review of MSA literature. First, foreign policy outcomes need to be acceptable to domestic audiences who will ratify the solutions. Despite differences regarding the ability of interest groups to access the foreign policy establishment of a particular country, domestic actors filter external threats while pursuing their own domestic pet projects. The external environment plays a role, but externally generated problems or solutions still need to be domestically interpreted. Second, policy entrepreneurs play a major part in coupling, just like in the case of domestic policies (Blavoukos & Bourantonis, 2012; Carter & Schott, 2010; Hamson, 2014). Having started as an explanation of domestic policy in a “disorderly” presidential democracy, MSA proves to be useful even in small, parliamentary democracies, such as Greece, and in foreign policy where participation is less fluid.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Studies

The majority of analyses using MSA are qualitative case studies. Of the 311 MSA studies that Jones and colleagues (2016) reviewed, only 13 were clear statistical explanations and just 2 of them dealt with foreign policy. For example, Saikaly (2009) uses MSA to explain the series of decisions leading to the invasion of Iraq. She identifies a single case, the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and uses several perspectives in a comparative fashion to assess which works better. The benefits are greater insight into causal mechanisms to provide analytical depth rather than broad generalization (Yin, 2014).

Zahariadis (2016) uses a most-different systems design with a single issue. Comparing Greece’s foreign policy toward the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and U.S. policy in Iraq, he is able to assess how well MSA explains foreign policy in large and small states by taking into account three important foreign policy explanations: leader personality, the government’s institutional structure, and issue characteristics. Despite differences, foreign policy decisions appear to be driven by similar factors—in that case radical shifts in national mood. In another study, Zahariadis (2005) uses MSA comparatively to assess Greek foreign policy in the rational actor’s (Allison, 1971) home turf. In other words, he assesses the scope and quality of MSA’s explanation in a context that favors rational action responding to external stimuli.

Moving away from explanations of individual decisions or events, Bossong (2013) analyzes patterns. Focusing on the utility of policy windows and the ensuing narratives, he finds MSA to be a useful tool to analyze patterns of agenda setting (as opposed to particular events) and nonincremental policy change in the fields of international security and European counterterrorism.

However, to gain further weight, policy needs to be assessed also using quantitative techniques (Sabatier, 2007). Case studies are limited as tests of explanatory and predictive power (Yin, 2014). To gain traction, Travis and Zahariadis (2002) set out to explain U.S. foreign aid allocations. Using an anchor-and-adjust conceptualization, they employ ordinary least squares regression to explain why particular levels of aid were given to some countries and not others. More specifically, they modify MSA in several ways to argue that aid decisions are the result of trade ties, socialist orientation, human needs, and the political ideologies of the administration and the Senate interacting with adjustments to baseline funding. First, they assume away the concept of policy entrepreneurs, which is so important in qualitative MSA studies. Second, they view coupling as a series of sequential interactions of two rather than three streams. That is, they explore conditional relationships between external problems and internal policies (baseline funding) and domestic political ideology and baseline funding to assess whether recipients will get funding and how much. All in all, the MSA is amenable to statistical analysis in foreign policy, but significant work still needs to be done to test alternative and more complete conceptualizations of the framework.


Despite receiving wide attention in the field of public policy, although not commensurably similar levels of attention in foreign policy, the MSA is not without its share of critics. There are two main problematic areas in need of analytical focus.

First, the lack of institutions explicitly spelled out in the framework has led authors to question MSA’s usefulness in public or foreign policy. One of MSA’s greatest strengths, its ability to link agency to structure in a single framework, is also a major liability. Critics argue MSA pays limited attention to institutional arrangements (Mucciaroni, 1992). Schlager (2007, p. 307) perceptively adds that specification of institutional structures will more clearly identify different coupling processes within and across government systems.

The lack of institutional language is indeed puzzling. Barzelay and Gallego (2006, p. 539) label MSA institutionally processual to emphasize ideational interactions among policy entrepreneurs, experts, media, and decision makers. Kingdon (1984) addresses the criticism more directly by arguing MSA incorporates institutional arrangements; it just does not use familiar terminology. For example, he notes the impact of value acceptability in the policy stream or the balance of interests in the political stream as evidence of institutional effects. But that’s not enough. The presence of different institutional venues, often hierarchically arranged, suggests the dynamics of each venue strongly affect the final outcome. Do entrepreneurs engage in venue shopping? If so, how? Zohlnhöfer, Herweg, and Huß (2016) provide some guidance and some hypotheses regarding the effects of institutions on public policy from an MSA perspective, but they focus solely on domestic policy. Do their conclusions also apply to foreign policy? The original garbage can model paid significant attention to institutions through specification of access and decision structures (Cohen, March, & Olsen, 1972). The emphasis was lost in MSA, and it needs to be rediscovered. It is an area of considerable interest that remains underexplored.

Second, the metaphorical language of the original conceptualization (Kingdon, 1984) is replete with ambiguities. Streams, policy windows, policy entrepreneurs, and so on need analytical precision to be useful in empirical applications. For example, the process of coupling needs further refinement and elaboration. Most MSA scholarship stresses the work of individual policy entrepreneurs in both domestic and foreign policy (Blavoukos & Bourantonis, 2012). While this line of research is fruitful, it risks making the process of coupling too idiosyncratic. For example, specifying the skills and characteristics of individual entrepreneurs reduces the ability to generalize in cross-national environments. There are too many contextual factors, institutions, or culture, which may affect the outcome. What MSA needs is an integrated theory of entrepreneurship. Mintrom and Norman (2009) and Zahariadis and Exadaktylos (2016) chart possible directions based on strategies pursued, but more theoretical and empirical research needs to be done to specify scope conditions and highlight the strategies of success and failure in foreign policy.

Which Way Forward?

The MSA has developed quite significantly from its humble origins as Allison’s Organizational Process model of foreign policy. Moving away from preoccupation with SOPs, the framework has augmented its explanatory power by blending attention to external stimuli and domestic processes while enriching and refining the organizational milieu within which foreign policy takes place. The MSA is primarily a process framework, which is well suited to explaining foreign policy. But more work still needs to be done to fully capture its breadth and richness.

Perhaps the most obvious area of further research is to refine the framework’s elements and expand the scope of applicability. Quite often foreign policy is characterized by ambiguity due to lack of information and the turbulence caused by crises. But what constitutes crises, and how can they be conceptualized as policy windows? The literature is as yet silent on systematically examining the perceptual elements of policy windows. Do all leaders view windows/crises the same way? And does the realm of foreign policy alter the framing capacity of policy entrepreneurs? Are entrepreneurs systematically more powerful because of the limited range of foreign policy elites and general lack of widely accessible information?

Crises are an important part of foreign policy analysis. As Brecher (1993) makes abundantly clear, foreign policy crises involve a multitude of factors at the state level, including individual perceptions of external threats as well as challenges to the structure of the international system. And here the MSA can provide important insight because it incorporates both actor and structure to explanations of choice. More specifically, it explores the impact and strategies of policy entrepreneurs in connecting problems to policies and receptive political audiences. To do so, it borrows from the literatures on prospect theory (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979) and affect priming (Forgas, 2001) in psychology to specify how policy makers may be “nudged” or manipulated (Maoz, 1990) under specific conditions toward particular solutions to perceived threats. By emphasizing how problems are framed, the MSA links up with individual-level factors. In addition, it describes the institutional environment within which the foreign policy process takes place in the absence of clear signals and preferences.

The MSA stands between the rational and cognitive schools of foreign policy making. Fueled by realist assumptions, rationalists have built sophisticated models using the unitary actor and satisficing assumptions to maximize gains and minimize losses in an anarchic international environment (Allison, 1971; Zagare & Kilgour, 2000). While there is much to recommend about rational decision making, critics argue the model is unrealistic; foreign policy is not made this way. Framing their argument as an alternative to rational action, political psychologists have used a variety of devices to maintain that psychological factors, such as framing, groupthink, and cognitive barriers, bias choice in favor of particular courses of action (Jervis, 1976). The MSA stands in between the two approaches. While it, too, claims to assume more realistic conditions, such as ambiguity and temporal sorting, it does not present itself as an alternative to rationality. It complements but does not supplant rational action. For this reason, the MSA argues it is applicable under very specific conditions of organized anarchies. While it uses psychological insight to assess choice, for example, the role of framing in coupling processes, it operates at the state, not the individual level of analysis. Unlike cognitive approaches (but see Welch, 2005), it also includes organizational constraints and processes as important contributors to choice.

Being a “newcomer” to the study of foreign policy, the MSA still has a long way to go to fully capitalize on its strengths. It needs more systematic empirical study to fully sharpen and capture falsifiable hypotheses stemming from the framework. It also needs clearer specification and operationalization of concepts, such as policy windows, so that they do not become ad hoc rationalizations but rather important predictors of foreign policy choice. Nevertheless, its wide applicability in public policy provides room for optimism that it can yield substantial insight in foreign policy as well.


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