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date: 25 April 2017

Foreign Policy Mistakes

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

It is indeed the case that good decisions can avoid wars or win them, while bad decisions can start wars or lose them, and these consequences are just one reason why the study of foreign policy mistakes is so important. Yet, it can, of course, not be the case that an evaluation of foreign policy decisions is rendered to the subjective eyes of the beholder. Instead, what is needed is an objective framework by which to identify and analyze foreign policy mistakes. Foreign policy mistakes are procedural errors on the diagnostic or the prescriptive level of the foreign policy decision-making task. They can be mistakes of omission or commission and can occur in regards to a threat or to an opportunity.

Of special importance is the question how foreign policy mistakes can be avoided. This question can be answered through a decision-making framework defined by (a) the level of information a leader can have about a foreign policy challenge, and (b) the potential consequences of a decision. Because many, if not most, challenges in questions of international security are ill-defined, the myopic strategy of disjointed incrementalism is ideal. It avoids mistakes by making reversible (disjointed) and relatively small (incremental) moves away from the status quo.