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date: 17 August 2017

Beliefs and Foreign Policy Decision Making

Summary and Keywords

How do the beliefs of leaders affect foreign policy decision-making processes and outcomes? This question has been central to the study of foreign policy decision making (FPDM), yet it receives scant attention in the broader international relations literature. Although many controversies and debates surround the issue of specifically how political leaders’ beliefs affect foreign policy decisions and outcomes, there is one key assumption in this literature that is universally accepted: leaders matter. Individual leaders, their unique beliefs, and their distinctive cognitive limitations affect both the quality of the decision-making process and the direction of the foreign policy outcomes. The beliefs and images leaders hold act as powerful frames and limitations to incoming information. Despite the rich history of the field, scholars who study beliefs still have much more work to do to expand the generalizability of the qualitative findings in the literature. Scholars need more data, deriving from more sources, for more leaders, so that they can generate larger and more comprehensive datasets. Indeed, there is a great opportunity to expand this field of research and to paint a clearer picture of the decision-making process.

Keywords: beliefs, foreign policy decision making, political psychology, foreign policy analysis, leader psychology


What role do the beliefs of individuals in foreign policy have in decision making? This topic has a long and rich history, going back at least to the 1950s (Boulding, 1959; Leites, 1953). Of primary concern here are research questions that investigate the role of beliefs in (1) foreign policy choices and outcomes; and (2) foreign policymaking processes.

Key Questions and Mechanisms Driving Research on Beliefs

How can the beliefs of leaders affect foreign policy decisions? This central question has motivated a generation of foreign policy decision-making scholars. The approach stands in stark contrast to the approaches taken by scholars who are more interested in how the structure of a system or a certain situation affects foreign policy outcomes. As early as the 1950s, some scholars of international relations found the most common approaches—particularly those emphasizing power and national interest—to be insufficient for explaining the varying outcomes observed in the study of international relations. Up until—and even after—the release of Foreign Policy Decision-Making (Snyder, Bruck, & Sapin, 1962), mainstream scholars of international relations sought simplified models of the international system—leaving out the role of individuals and their beliefs—in order to explain the variation in foreign policy outcomes (Hudson, 2002, p. 2).

The response to this shortcoming has provided an overarching argument that has informed the study of foreign policy analysis and its subfield, foreign policy decision making: individuals, particularly leaders, are important in understanding a state’s foreign policy choices. If one follows this logic to its end, it is easy to understand how an emphasis on the state as the key actor provides an incomplete picture in any consideration of foreign policy decisions. Snyder, Bruck, and Sapin argue that foreign policy decisions cannot be traced to the state alone; rather, the decisions can be traced to the unique human entities that actually steer the ship of state (1962). Therefore, to understand foreign policy decisions, it is essential to understand what individual leaders bring to the decision-making environment. The key individual factor that plays a powerful role in understanding foreign policy decisions is the beliefs leaders hold about the political environment and other actors.

Leaders are important for understanding foreign policy decisions because these decisions are often made exclusively by heads of state. While these leaders do in fact face a series of structural or situational constraints, such as the international balance of power or domestic institutional checks and balances, it is the leaders’ beliefs about these different situational and structural factors that often inform foreign policy choices. Many scholars of foreign policy decision making have demonstrated that leaders have very different beliefs about the threats posed by other actors (Holsti, 1962, 1967; Stuart & Starr, 1981) and very different beliefs about the fundamental nature of the political universe and the most effective tools for pursuing their political goals (George, 1969; Leites, 1953). It is these beliefs that determine the foreign policy decisions (George, 1969, p. 190).

These beliefs do not necessarily act independently of the structural factors that are of interest to other international relations scholars. Rather, these different beliefs can act as the lenses through which leaders see certain situations. More precisely, individuals do not act upon the objective realities of a situation; rather, they act upon their beliefs about the situation (Holsti, 1962, p. 244). For example, Nathan Leites argued that Lenin’s belief about the nature of the political universe helps us understand why the foreign policy of the Soviet Union seldom involved conciliation or compromise even after his death (1957). More importantly, these beliefs were eventually carried from Lenin to key members of the Politburo.

Leaders have a variety of foreign policy choices at their disposal. According to many international relations scholars, the choices that are made are informed by objective realities about the particular situation or structural constraints. However, even in the presence of those constraints, leaders exercise a great deal of autonomy when choosing the path of foreign policy. As a result, a leader’s belief about the nature of international relations or a leader’s belief about the nature of a potential adversary will be central to understanding the choices of these leaders. If a leader believes that a potential adversary is acting in bad faith in all situations, it is increasingly likely that the leader will choose a more hostile approach to dealing with such an adversary. Indeed, this was the finding for one of the early and important works in the area of the effect of belief analysis. Ole Holsti (1962) found that John Foster Dulles’s beliefs led him to interpret virtually all behaviors by the Soviet Union—even apparently conciliatory behaviors—as inherently conflictual and aggressive. The understanding about the role of political beliefs provides a much clearer picture of foreign policy decision making than those approaches that rely on things like the balance of power or the role of domestic institutions. Beyond simply understanding decisions, beliefs can also shape the understanding of the process by which leaders come to certain decisions.

With regard to the effect of beliefs on the process of foreign policymaking, it can be noted that many of the seminal and classic works in FPDM make this connection (Snyder, Bruck, & Sapin, 1962; Sprout & Sprout, 1965; George, 1969; Walker, 1983). Here the logic is not that the content of their beliefs directly affects policy and policy directions, but rather that beliefs affect how the foreign policy process is conducted. The classic work on the decision-making process is the work on groupthink by Irving Janis (1972, 1982, 1989) who, through theoretical development and evaluation of several selected case studies, made two essential arguments: (1) that there is great variance in the quality of decision-making processes across (and sometimes within) administrations; and (2) that the variance in the quality of decision-making processes has a direct effect on the quality of decisions in foreign policy cases. Janis argued that the central causal mechanism affecting the quality of process is the level of cohesion in the decision-making group: those groups that are overly cohesive are inclined to reach premature consensus on policy, thus missing important information or policy options, and therefore ending up with less than optimal outcomes. Factors that may contribute to undue group cohesiveness or are symptomatic of it include such things as biased leadership, gatekeepers, and an illusion of invulnerability.

Since Janis’s seminal work, others have questioned the causal mechanism posited by Janis. For instance Glen Whyte (1998) argued that the main problem associated with poor-quality decision making is “excessive efficacy” by the group; Clark McCauley (1989) contended that “promotional leadership” was a critical determinative; and Roderick Kramer (1998) maintained that “convenient politics” was a root cause of poor decision making. Regardless of whether Janis or one of his critics is correct as to the causal mechanism, it is apparent that all of these perspectives, either directly or indirectly, include collective or individual beliefs in the administration as playing an important role in affecting the decision-making process. Janis, for instance, talks about an “illusion of invulnerability” that contributes to the groupthink phenomena he identified in his cases. The illusion of invulnerability is a belief system in the administration that the decision-making group is powerful, largely in control of matters and events, and can easily make the best decision. That is, the group sees itself as invulnerable, which, as Janis points out, means the group does not have to be as careful and diligent with its decision-making processes.

A similar role for beliefs can be found in Whyte’s concept of “excessive efficacy”: the decision-making group believes it has the ability to effectively produce the desired result, regardless of other situational constraints. Likewise, McCauley’s theory about “promotional leadership” is driven by efficacy beliefs, in this case particularly those beliefs held by the leader: the leader believes quite highly in his or her own choices and policies, and directs the group to be supportive of them. This concept is closely related to Janis’s original concept of biased leadership: the effect in each case is that the leader makes known his or her position early in the process and essentially signals to others that their main job is to support that position, something that quite obviously does not result in optimal evaluation of information, objectives, and alternatives.

And, finally, Kramer’s concept of “convenient politics” is also a group-based belief system that he argues has an effect on the decision-making process. Here the belief system is content driven: the top decision makers turn toward a policy choice because it serves domestic political interests; but the effect of that content is to circumvent a better-quality decision-making process. The “convenient” political decision acts as a heuristic, a decision-making shortcut, which effectively and expediently curtails careful consideration of other alternatives.

Other classic FPDM literatures pertaining to beliefs follow a similar logic. Anytime the decision-making group relies on a cognitive shortcut or heuristic belief, it has the effect of short circuiting a more careful and thorough decision-making process. For example, Khong’s (1992) work on analogies suggests that decision makers often see their current case as resembling another historical case or situation, and that provides an overly simplistic heuristic about how to proceed. Likewise, image theory (e.g., see R. Cottham, 1977; Herrmann & Fischerkeller, 1995; M. Cottham, 1992) posits that decision makers simplify their cognitive views of other actors into categories of images, which serve as heuristics on how to proceed with policy. Similarly, schema theory (e.g., see Larson, 1985) suggests that decision makers are likely to place current objects of focus (actors, situations, policies) into reductionist classes, types, or forms, thus oversimplifying important idiosyncratic information.

Other researchers have focused on beliefs about such things as the role of reputation and honor. Scholars such as Mercer (1996) have argued that the reputations of states cannot be changed; therefore, there should be no reason for a state to go to war over its reputation. Others have argued that a leader’s belief about the importance of reputation should fuel foreign policy preferences aimed at preserving the image of a state that lives up to its obligations. This particular argument is central to the study of deterrence—particularly during the Cold War (George & Smoke, 1974; Huth, 1988; Jervis, 1979; Jervis et al., 1989; Mearsheimer, 1983; Miller, 2003; Powell, 1990; Russett, 1963; Schelling, 1966; Snyder & Diesing, 1977; Singer & Small, 1966). The preponderance of evidence suggests that leaders care about reputation not only as it pertains to deterrence, but also as it relates to such things as honor (Dafoe, Renshon, & Huth, 2014; Dafoe & Caughey, 2016; Dolan, 2013).

Finally, another promising avenue for research focusing on how beliefs can affect foreign policy outcomes explores the way emotions shape decision outcomes. Central among these important emotions is anger. It is widely theorized that decisions made in anger have a greater chance of escalating minor disagreements to higher levels of militarized conflict. This is particularly true when a leader is angered by a perceived violation of another state (Hall, 2011). In addition to the way the leaders respond to perceived slights or violations, emotions can explain factors such as a leader’s concern with reputation, a leader’s ability to understand costly signals, a leader’s radical change in preferences, and the understanding of strategic problems a leader is facing (Mercer, 2013).

These more recent contributions on reputation and emotion provide promising avenues for future research about the effect of individual beliefs on foreign policy outcomes. The importance of reputation for resolve and credibility is well established in the literature. Concerns for reputation often cause leaders to choose foreign policy actions that can seem, on the surface, irrational. Additionally, the role of emotions and the effect they have on perceptions and concerns for factors such as reputation is additionally well documented. These effects have been demonstrated to have a meaningful effect on foreign policy preferences and outcomes.

Parallels with Other Disciplines

The preponderance of international relations scholarship approaches the understanding of foreign policy from the rational actor paradigm. This position argues that individuals make decisions based on an effective calculation of the costs and benefits associated with a potential choice. The theory of the rational actor is built around the idea of an “economic man.” This type of person is assumed to meet certain key criteria. First, the individual in question is a rational actor. Second, the individual is assumed to have knowledge about his or her environment that is either perfect or near perfect. Finally, he or she has a well-organized set of preferences and the ability to compute which course of actions, out of a range of possible alternatives, will maximize his or her benefits (Simon, 1955, p. 99).

Scholars who use this approach argue that certain situational factors send signals about the likelihood of success or failure of a chosen policy position. A prime example is the realist belief that states are unitary rational actors in the international system and that they are driven by a preference for security or survival (Mearsheimer, 1995; Waltz, 1959, 1979).1 Others have explored the expected utility model (EUT) of war (Bueno de Mesquita, 1981). This model argues that states choose the option with the greatest utility from a set of risky alternatives. Thus, when the potential gains are outweighed by the potential losses, war is less likely (Bueno de Mesquita, 1981). The rational actor model has been so central to the study of foreign policy that some have argued that its simplicity makes it the most effective approach to construct theories of political science more broadly (MacDonald, 2003, p. 551).

A critical examination of these various assumptions about the ability of individuals to rationally analyze these factors leads to an understanding that the rational actor approach represents an oversimplification of the political universe (Simon, 1955). These types of debates have parallels with the behavioral economics literature that argues that individual factors can undermine the assumed ability of individuals to rationally calculate the best outcomes (Simon, 1955, 1959, 1985).

Above all else, one proposition stands out in both behavioral economics and research on beliefs in FPDM: individuals matter. Not only do rational actor models oversimplify the decision-making environment, but they also homogenize the role of individuals in decision making. From this perspective, every individual faced with a similar situation will make the same foreign policy choice. However, a cursory glance at history shows us that leaders are not interchangeable. Individuals bring their own orientations, beliefs, and cognitive limitations to the decision-making environment. It is these individual factors that shape things like the search for information and the available outcomes the decision maker perceives as having at his or her disposal.

Scholars in the field of behavioral economics have long argued that the rational actor model of economic decision making represents an unrealistic oversimplification of the human decision-making process (Simon, 1955, 1959, 1985). Most specifically, behavioral economists focus on the different boundaries of individual rationality. Herbert Simon has argued that the rationality of the economic man should be replaced with a model that more adequately captures the actual access to information and computational capabilities possessed by individuals (1955, p. 99). The greatest limitations faced by individuals trying to “rationally” choose the best alternative outcome is a limited computational capacity (Simon, 1955, p. 101). More precisely, the world around the individual decision maker is far too complex and generates far too much information for the average person to perfectly process. Therefore, behavioral economists like Herbert Simon and many political psychologists who study foreign policy decision making argue that individuals are not perfectly rational. Rather, their rationality operates within some type of boundary condition. This leading alternative to the rational actor model is called the theory of “bounded rationality” (Simon, 1955).

One key difference between bounded rationality and rational actor models rests on the difference between utility maximization and preference satisfaction. Simon pointed out that individuals, contrary to the maximization motive posited by rational actors, tend to choose the outcome that is simply satisfactory (1955, 1959, 1985). This process is called “satisficing.” When using this decision rule, an individual will select the outcome that is “good enough,” though not necessarily the best (Mintz, 2010). Individuals tend to choose this path of decision making because the information costs associated with perfect rational calculations are high. Therefore, they will choose the alternative that satisfies a certain minimum threshold rather than the alternative that provides the maximum utility (Simon, 1955, 1959, 1985).

Because the world generates such a large amount information for people to process, individuals attempt to cope with this flow of information by being cognitive misers. This means individuals have to find shortcuts to avoid being overwhelmed by the complexity of the decision-making environment. Political psychologists have explored what key cognitive factors can act as bounds for individual rationality. Many scholars of foreign policy decision making have argued that the beliefs of individual leaders act as powerful frames for interpreting and understanding the decision-making environment (Renshon & Renshon, 2008, p. 512). Not only can beliefs act as a frame, they can also block and shape different incoming information from the surrounding environment (Walker, 1983).

The images that leaders hold about their country and other actors are key shortcuts used in decision making. Images are one leader’s belief about the hostility of another actor. Boulding (1959, pp. 120–121) says that an image must be thought of as the total cognitive, affective, and evaluative structure of the unit or the internal view of itself. Image theory argues, like the school of bounded rationality, that individuals make decisions by selecting a “preferred” decision in a field of possible choices (Boulding, 1959). Key images that are important for identifying preferred decisions are the images that a leader has of his or her nation and of other nations. Jervis (1976) argues that a key perception of leaders often revolves around the perception of the decision-making processes in their own state and in other states. Jervis finds that leaders often believe that the decision making in other states is centralized and rational, while decision making in their own state has many constraints and veto-players (1976, pp. 319–329).2 Because of this belief, individuals are more likely to assign their decisions to situational factors, while assigning behavioral factors to decisions made by other actors. Mercer (1996) argues that this belief about other actors can cause leaders to place special emphasis on signaling resolve when debating potential decisions.

Another key shortcut used by leaders is analogical reasoning. In this situation, leaders take lessons from historical events and use these lessons to find patterns and causal links to them so that they can understand their world (Jervis, 1976, p. 217). History matters most in the process of decision making when leaders use a past event as an analogy for a current event. These analogies are often used as shortcuts to help simplify the decision-making environment. Khong (1992, p. 10) argues that analogies can serve six key functions: “(1) they help define the nature of the situation confronting the policymaker, (2) they help assess the stakes, (3) they provide prescriptions. They help evaluate alternative options by, (4) predicting the chances of success, (5) evaluating their moral rightness, (6) warning about dangers associated with the options.” In cases where this approach is applied, the leaders attempt to rely on analogies of past decisions as a starting point for the decision-making process. The cognitive approaches discussed earlier (images and analogies) have acted as potential “bounds” that limit the ideal benefit-maximizing decision. Rather, each of these approaches represents how the psychology of the decision maker can help him or her reach the most acceptable decision (i.e., satisfice).

Recently, there has been an understanding that the rational choice model of decision making and the bounded rationality tradition are not mutually exclusive. Instead, there may in fact be a way to build a bridge between the cognitive perspectives and the rational choice perspectives. One emergent perspective is called the poliheuristic decision model. This decision model is a two-step process. In the first step, the decision maker narrows down the possible decisions using any number of cognitive shortcuts. In the second step, the decision maker uses the rational approach (i.e., maximizing benefits and minimizing risks) to choose from the remaining alternatives (Mintz, 1993a, 1995, 2003, 2010, p. 78; Mintz et al., 1997). More recent scholars have even gone so far as to identify the psychological characteristics of leaders that may help eliminate unacceptable decisions in the first step of the poliheuristic model (Keller & Yang, 2016).3 The key premise of this decision theory is that decision makers can, and often do, use multiple decision-making styles, including those that are suboptimal (Mintz et al., 1997).

To summarize, scholars of both behavioral economics and political psychology reject the rational choice model of decision making. The rational choice model may be useful for simple theory construction, but the theories constructed using this approach will fit poorly in the real world. The rational actor model makes lofty assumptions about the ability of humans to adequately process information and calculate the best possible outcome in an environment that produces an overwhelming amount of information. Behavioral economists and political psychologists agree that these limitations have their origins in individual psychology. Individual cognitive limitations such as preexisting beliefs and images can limit or block information. To truly understand how decisions are reached, models and theories must include factors unique to the decision-making agent to adequately capture the decision-making process in the real world.

Various Methods and Constructs in the Field

Various methods and approaches have been used in the literature to distill beliefs held by individuals in the decision-making process. Virtually all of these approaches result in proxy variables, of course, because we cannot actually see an individual’s beliefs. But the methods have been well documented and are rigorous, with appropriate validity checks along the way. Until recently, almost all of the methods regarding beliefs were qualitative case studies (e.g., see Erikson, 1958; Walker, 1977; Post, 1993; Glad, 1980; Renshon, 1996). A typical and well-known example of this approach comes from Stephen G. Walker’s (1977) study of the belief system of Henry Kissinger and its effect on U.S. foreign policy regarding Vietnam. Walker examined a variety of sources in his discernment of Kissinger’s beliefs, including past policy statements, academic writings, public comments, and philosophical expositions. These sources allowed Walker to find belief patterns in Kissinger’s own words, and those patterns essentially became predictor variables for patterns of U.S. behavior in the Vietnam conflict.

Qualitative methods, like any methods, have strengths and weaknesses: they tend to be in-depth, nuanced, and highly idiosyncratic; they also typically have limited generalizability (small-n problem) and reproducibility, and they cannot generally be used in more sophisticated statistical analyses because they lack quantitative indicators. In the last 15 years or so, some scholars have developed methods that result in quantitative indicators, an important breakthrough in the development of the field as a science.

Various constructs and approaches have been used over the years to discern the beliefs of individuals involved in foreign policy decision making: image theory, operational codes, and cognitive mapping. Image theory is the idea that the object-specific beliefs an actor holds toward another actor are likely to have an effect on policies directed toward that actor. Kenneth Boulding (1959) wrote the seminal work in this area with his book aptly titled The Image. But the theoretical area took on the markings of a research program primarily with the work of Richard Cottham (1977) and two of his adherents, Martha Cottham (1985, 1986, 1992, 1994), and Richard Herrmann (Herrmann, 1985, 1986; Herrmann & Keller, 2004; Herrmann & Fischerkeller, 1995). Based on cognitive psychology and the role of affect, these researchers argue that images are likely made up of three different dimensions: (1) the relative level of power between the actors (is the other actor stronger, weaker, or about the same as self?); (2) cultural comparisons between the actors (is the other actor culturally similar to self, or is it culturally inferior?); and (3) threat assessment (does the other actor pose a threat or an opportunity for self?). Various combinations of these factors result in archetypes of common images that actors are likely to hold toward other actors, both friends and foes. For instance, another actor who is perceived as having a similar level of power and culture to self, but poses a threat, is considered the classic enemy image, whereas an actor who is weaker and culturally inferior, but poses an opportunity, is considered a dependent image. Images are assessed using the qualitative methods discussed earlier, that is, by examining the public and archival evidence (typically, verbal material) that demonstrates objective-specific patterns in the way the actor sees the other.

Nathan Leites (1953) coined the term operational code in his study on bargaining behavior by the Soviet Politburo. The Rand Corporation enlisted Leites to investigate what U.S. foreign policy professionals deemed to be unusual bargaining behavior by their counterparts in the Soviet Union. Using clinical and depth psychology constructs, Leites argued that there was an operational code—a similarity in psychological behavioral patterns—throughout the Politburo that he attributed largely to the personalities of Lenin and Stalin. But Alexander George (1969, 1979), working at the time of the cognitive revolution in the field of psychology, turned the construct into one based primarily on cognitive beliefs. George said that an actor’s operational code could be determined by the analyst’s answers to 10 different questions pertaining to the political worldview of the actor. George’s 10 questions consisted of five philosophical beliefs (beliefs that centered largely on how the actor viewed the political universe and other actors in the political universe) and five instrumental beliefs (beliefs centered largely on how the actor viewed self and self’s strategies and tactics in the political universe). Operational code is a complex belief system, which means it differs from image theory in its complexity and its focus on beliefs regarding both other actors and the self. Many different contributions have been made using operational code analysis (e.g., Johnson, 1977; McLellan, 1971; Walker, 1977; Stuart & Starr, 1981), which provide support for the notion that an actor’s belief system is likely to have an effect on the policies he or she pursues.

Cognitive mapping is an even more complex analysis of an actor’s belief system. The seminal work in this area was done by Robert Axelrod (1972, 1976), though many others have made important contributions along the way (e.g., Bonham & Shapiro, 1976; Roberts, 1976; Hart, 1976; Young, 1994). The human mind continuously makes causal connections between concepts in the subject’s cognitive world, and there are many, many concepts about which to make causal connections. The connections tend to be patterned and identifiable based on the content analysis of a subject’s verbal material; people talk about things they are thinking about and making connections about. For instance, when Reagan was president, he likely connected the concept of the Soviet Union to the concept of communist expansionism, and that connection could be identified by seeing the patterns in the concepts when Reagan spoke about them.

Cognitive mapping is the process of identifying concepts in a subject’s worldview, looking for connections between them, and indicating the valence (positive or negative) of the connection between each concept. Of course, any single concept may be connected to many other concepts. Reagan likely linked the Soviet Union to other things such as nuclear weapons, Afghanistan, Central America, espionage, the United Nations, and many others. A cognitive map of a leader literally shows all of the relevant connections between many different concepts, resulting in a schematized map of the subject’s cognitions. The objective for most cognitive mappers is to identify the patterns in beliefs and to use them to make predictions about political behavior, an objective that was apparent in most of the cited works but explicit in the work of Bonham and Shapiro (1976). Axelrod (1976), however, had a different objective when he initially investigated cognitive maps. Aware of the problems of cognitive shortcuts discussed earlier regarding beliefs and the process of making foreign policy, Axelrod hoped that making the cognitive connections between concepts more apparent would result in decision makers seeing the inadequate shortcuts and thus improving their thinking and the quality of their own decision-making processes.

As already noted, the methods involved in many of these research programs pertaining to beliefs in foreign policymaking have been qualitative, conducted by looking subjectively for patterns typically one subject at a time, which limited the development of the field as a science. More recently, however, a small research program has developed using quantitative indicators and leading to the markings of a young science. The initial (and most prolific) work has been done in conjunction with the operational code research program, though other areas are also now developing quantified versions. The method is called “at-a-distance” analysis, indicating that analysts do not have direct access to the actors of interest and therefore must assess their beliefs from a distance. The premise for the method is that the beliefs of an actor can be discerned by systematically content analyzing their verbal material (speeches, press conferences, interviews). The idea is that we can know much about the beliefs of an actor based on what that actor says.

Stephen Walker and his colleagues (Walker et al., 1998) developed an approach they call the Verbs in Context System (VICS) for operational code analysis. The content analysis method begins by identifying each verb phrase as the recording unit. Verbs represent the exercise of power between actors; they are typically directional (friendly or hostile), and can be scaled (e.g., some verbs are more hostile than others). The other important part of speech for the VICS method is identifying the grammatical subject of the verb phrase, which is coded as either self or other. Turning these codings into quantitative indicators is a matter aggregating the various combinations. Philosophical indexes are calculated by aggregating the verb codes for those clauses where others are the grammatical subject of the phrase; they indicate how the actor sees others in terms of conflict versus cooperation. Instrumental indexes are calculated similarly, except that the grammatical subject of the aggregated verb phrases is self; this gives an indication of the self’s view of the utility of his or her own cooperative actions versus conflictual actions.

While Walker and his colleagues (Walker et al., 1998) initially hand-coded the verbal material of subjects to get the quantitative indicators, an important breakthrough in the research program happened when they began automating the method with a special software program called Profiler Plus (see Automation has allowed the research program to expand quickly, and it reduces errors and variances associated with human coders. In fact, the content analysis and automation processes have resulted in a significant expansion of the operational code research program (e.g., see Schafer & Walker, 2006; Dille & Young, 2000; Dyson & Preston, 2006; Malici & Buckner, 2008; Marfleet, 2000; Walker, Malici, & Schafer, 2011). This research is now making important contributions to the science of large-n conflict analysis in the field of international relations (Foster & Keller, 2010, 2014). While operational code research has moved forward as the original quantitative program in the area of beliefs, similar developments are now taking place in other programs as well, including image theory, cognitive complexity, role theory, and rhetoric analysis.

Beyond the at-a-distance approach to understanding leaders’ beliefs, great strides have taken place in the application of surveys, survey experiments, and other lab experiments that explore factors such as beliefs, emotions, preferences, and attitudes in the domain of foreign policy decision making. Lloyd Etheredge’s (1978) pioneering work on the preferences of U.S. government elites is an example (see also Holsti & Rosenau, 1986). Etheredge surveyed individuals who served in upper-ranking positions in both the State Department and the Department of Defense to determine if there were meaningful differences in the preferences for hardline approaches to the Soviet Union. Etheredge found that elites in the State Department were more likely to favor a less hardline approach toward the Soviet Union than those elites in the Department of Defense (1978). Additionally, more controlled survey experiments have been applied to test the argument that beliefs and foreign policy preferences are formed in a hierarchical fashion (Hurwitz & Peffley, 1987; Hurwitz, Peffley, & Seligson, 1993; Kertzer, 2013; Kertzer & Rathbun, 2015; Kertzer et al., 2014).

Moreover, the experimental approach has been used to investigate preferences and outcomes in foreign policy. One illustrative example is the testing of the poliheuristic theory of decision making. This work explores how individuals utilize cognitive shortcuts to eliminate unacceptable decisions in the early stages of decision making before turning to a more rational-comprehensive process to make the most satisfactory decision (Mintz, 1993b, 1995, 2003, 2010, p. 78; Mintz et al., 1997). Lab experiments provide a clear causal link between variables of interest and outcomes. After the aforementioned scholars uncovered credible evidence for the poliheuristic process, subsequent researchers found applications to how individuals weed out unacceptable decisions in the domain of foreign policy (Keller & Yang, 2016).

Scope and Boundary Conditions

Typically, scholars working in the area of beliefs in FPDM do not think that beliefs are determinative in foreign policymaking, and they readily acknowledge the importance of many structural and situation factors. On the one hand, one of the early pioneers in the field, Alexander George (1979), was fairly restrained with his belief about the effect of psychological factors on decision making. On the other hand, Schafer and Walker (2006) argue that psychological effects are always present because human actors are always necessary for any foreign policy decision. In some cases, a larger-than-life personality might totally dominate the process (e.g., Hitler, Stalin, or Kim Jong Un), meaning that that all aspects of policy are influenced by that personality. But even if a larger-than-life personality is not present, or structural/situational constraints trump overt personality effects—something Schafer and Walker call mirroring effects—it is still the case that humans must interpret events and constraints and make final decisions; and where there is interpretation, subjectivity, and decision making by humans, personality and beliefs will always be present, perhaps more or less significantly.

Maybe, then, the question is not whether personality is present and matters, but rather under what conditions is it likely to have a notable effect? In this area, several scholars have weighed in and posited a variety of conditions that make idiosyncratic variables more likely to have an effect (e.g., Greenstein, 1969; Hermann, 1976; Byman & Pollack, 2001; Holsti, 1982). While each contribution has some unique elements, these works reflect more commonalities than differences. In general, these scholars believe that beliefs may matter more when the actor occupies a powerful position in government; in other words, the actor has the institutional capability to take action. This is almost always the case for the chief of state, but sometimes powerful advisors may also be in such a position, such as Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration and Dick Cheney during the George W. Bush administration.

Beliefs are also more likely to matter if the situation is unique or events are quickly developing. Similarly, when a situation is a crisis or threatens symbolically important values, then the leader’s beliefs may matter more as advisors and the public turn quickly to follow the leader. In addition, beliefs may have more of an effect when the actor has a strong background in foreign policy, or a high level of interest in the unfolding events. Finally, the impact of beliefs may be affected by the interaction between a leader’s beliefs and other parts of his or her personality such as dominance, authoritarianism, high control orientation, or need for power; if a leader dominates or demands compliance, then his or her beliefs are much more likely to drive policy.

Key Controversies and Debates

Early approaches to understanding the role of the beliefs of leaders gave us a rich history of in-depth, qualitative approaches. These in-depth analyses have provided scholars with a clear picture of the process by which individual characteristics can shape foreign and domestic policy outcomes. Despite these contributions, many of these approaches have relied on subjective analyses of leaders and their behaviors. In response, many scholars have tried to move in a more systematic direction. These developments have included attempts to quantify many of these beliefs and characteristics.4 By quantifying these beliefs and characteristics, scholars are able to be more consistent in the types of profiles they create. This consistency can help add these variables to large-n quantitative models. However, quantifying these variables creates its own problems.

For these measures to have value in large-n quantitative models, increased confidence about the validity of these quantitative measures is needed. The question of validity has led to a debate about which type of speech act is most appropriate for an accurate belief profile. Some scholars argue that spontaneous material is the most accurate way to create valid measures because of their concerns over “image management.” Heads of state and political leaders are often well aware that their words are being closely watched. As a result, leaders may shape speeches in such a way as to hide their true beliefs. Another argument for using spontaneous material is that the profile will not inadvertently capture psychological elements of the speechwriter or the amorphous concept of the “administration.”

Some scholars, however, have countered this position by arguing that the type of speech analyzed does not necessarily matter. For example, Winter (2002, pp. 46–47) and Suedfeld (2010, pp. 1677–1678) have argued that the speaker not only chooses the speechwriters, but likely he or she is closely involved in reviewing and editing the work of the speechwriter. Therefore, there is little reason to believe that a speech that reflects anything other than the leader’s beliefs or intentions would make it to the public. Some have also argued that the type of speech being assessed may be less important as long as the measurement derived from the assessment leads to accurate predictions about the leader’s behavior (Winter, 2013, pp. 431–432). This argument has some support from Walker, Schafer, and Young (2003), who point out that as time passes in an administration, the verbal behavior tends to align more closely with actual foreign policy behavior.

Aside from the debates among scholars who study beliefs in foreign policy decision making, yet another issue looms large for scholars of this field: the issue of empirical limitations. The clear majority of the scholarship focusing on how beliefs shape foreign policy behavior relies on comparative case studies, samples made up largely of U.S. presidents, or experiments. These approaches greatly limit the generalizability of the findings to other situations and cases (Levy, 2013, p. 301). These approaches are helpful in developing theories and tracing the process by which beliefs can affect foreign policy choices, but they cannot provide prescriptive findings for the broader field of international relations. While this criticism may represent proverbial “low-hanging fruit,” it remains largely unaddressed by scholars who consider the role of beliefs in foreign policy decision making.

Not all debates in the study of beliefs center on methodological challenges. Some theoretical debates focus on how the belief systems of leaders are organized. For example, some scholars have argued that the belief systems of leaders are organized in a hierarchical, top-down fashion (George, 1969; Hurwitz & Peffley, 1987). This means that individuals start with fundamental “core beliefs” about the world around them. The formation of foreign policy preferences starts from these master beliefs and passes through an individual’s “posture” toward the proper role of government in foreign affairs (Hurwitz & Peffley, 1987, p. 1100). These postures should be thought of as general and devoid of specific policy recommendations. Rather, postures speak to an individual’s belief about whether the government should be accommodating or aggressive toward other actors (Hurwitz & Peffley, 1987, p. 1101).5 Finally, at the bottom of this hierarchical model are the policy preferences individuals hold for policy-related issues like defense spending, nuclear arms policy, international trade, and policies toward the Soviet Union (Hurwitz & Peffley, 1987, p. 1101; Hurwitz, Peffley, & Seligson, 1993).

Subsequent studies exploring the potential hierarchical nature of belief systems find variations in the structuring dimension between countries (Hurwitz, Peffley, & Seligson, 1993). Hurwitz et al. find that, while the average American’s foreign policy preferences are informed by a militaristic structuring dimension, Costa Ricans do not derive their fundamental foreign policy preferences in the same way; rather, Costa Ricans form their preferences from anticommunist structuring dimensions, as well as the images of other relevant states (Hurwitz, Peffley, & Seligson, 1993; Kertzer et al., 2014; Kertzer & Rathbun, 2015). Many of these studies emphasize the concept of preference structures. This approach allows scholars to see how individuals move from their moral foundations to their ending foreign policy preferences.

What Remains?

There is a short answer to the question posed in the section heading: much remains to be done in the area of beliefs in foreign policy decision making. While the topic has a rich past and a present with much promise, research on beliefs in FPDM is still limited, almost a fringe element of the larger discipline. This observation seems odd; after all, it makes such intuitive sense that the beliefs matter in the making of foreign policy. Hitler’s beliefs mattered; Stalin’s beliefs mattered; Thatcher’s beliefs mattered; Trump’s beliefs are significantly different from Clinton’s, and it matters that he won the 2016 U.S. presidential election and will now be the person who has the final say on U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the world of foreign policymaking where beliefs do not matter. Why then are they not more central to research in the field?

There are probably many answers to that question. One is that the study of beliefs entails at least some knowledge of psychology; yet, many researchers in the discipline are grounded in political science with little or no knowledge of psychology. Another reason is that psychological variables like beliefs are conceptually messy to deal with and tricky to operationalize and measure empirically. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there simply is not much data to work with. The heart of the remaining challenges in research on beliefs in FPDM are empirical: we need more data; we need more and perhaps better constructs; we need more validity checks; we need more empirical testing; and we need to better engage with the best science in the broader discipline of international relations. The strength of this research area so far has been the thick, rich, qualitative analyses of a small number of cases from the past. But the future is about improving the science of the research. Given the intuitive and anecdotal notion that beliefs matter, it is simply inadequate for the field to disregard the effect of beliefs because of the empirical challenges.

It all begins with data. Any brand-new student in the discipline of international relations is only a few clicks away from downloading data from existing datasets to conduct original research. Correlates of War, Issue Correlates of War, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the World Bank, the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research, International Crisis Behavior, and many, many others provide data on structural and situational factors, casualty counts, population size and density, type of government, and much more; but none of these include data on the beliefs of decision makers. A big-data world is the new reality. For many, it is intuitive that beliefs matter; yet there are no major datasets pertaining to the beliefs of actors. Such projects are in the works (and, indeed, the current authors are involved in one such project), but for the study of beliefs to move forward, data availability is the essential focus.

Many of the remaining questions and problems in the field are empirical. It is not known if current constructs, such as images and operational codes, are good proxy variables. It is not known if there might be better ones out there. It is not known what the relative effect of beliefs is versus structural/situational variables. There are many temporal questions to test, cultural differences to explore, and interaction effects with many other variables to investigate. All of these things require large amounts of diverse data. And in today’s big-data world, with the abundance of various types of verbal material available, developing large datasets must be the way of the future. Perhaps alternative at-a-distance methods, such as eye scanning or tone analysis—things that seem entirely possible in this big-data world—will soon be developed.

Today’s researchers stand on the shoulders of great thinkers and researchers, especially Boulding, George, Holsti, Cottam, and Walker. Their works argued theoretically that beliefs matter; their qualitative case studies demonstrated this belief empirically. The future rests with moving the research forward, developing the science, building the data, and investigating the many important remaining questions.


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(1.) While this approach is the dominant paradigm in international relations, realists do not entirely ignore the potential applications for the role of perceptions. Neoclassical realists argue that factors like “perceptions of power” can affect foreign policy decisions (Wohlforth, 1993). Others have argued that domestic factors such as state extractive capacity (Christensen, 1996) and offensive or defensive interests of states (Schweller, 1996) can affect foreign policy decisions.

(2.) Social psychologists often argue that this creates an attribution bias.

(3.) They find that an individual’s threat perception is directly related to the willingness of an individual to eliminate more conciliatory policy decisions in the first stage.

(4.) A key example is the creation of the Verbs in Context Systems (VICS), which makes operational code analysis more systematic than its foundation pieces.

(5.) This is referred to as the “structuring dimension.”