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date: 21 August 2017

Foreign Policy Belief Systems and Operational Code Analysis

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

Henry Kissinger once remarked, “As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces. But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make.” It is common sense that a state’s foreign policy cannot be explained without reference to the beliefs of such leaders as Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, or Kim Jong Un, to name a few. Ironically, however, leaders have mattered little for much of the history of the international relations discipline; structural approaches that focus on the distribution of power, international institutions, and domestic politics have been dominant.

To be sure, scholarship on belief systems has been present since the 1950s. Early key concepts included the decision maker’s “definition of the situation,” the “ecological environment,” and the “attitudinal prism.” This scholarship laid an important foundation, but at that time, it did not generate competitive research programs. Agent-centered approaches remained secondary, and beliefs were viewed as residual variables. They were also considered “unobservable,” difficult to assess and operationalize. Indeed, rigorous methods that would enable the scientific study of belief systems have long remained absent.

Over time, such challenges have been addressed successfully by scholarly advances and by real-world developments. Especially the end of the Cold War, insufficiency of structural theories became evident. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union took a fundamentally new course and gave up power. The dominant structural theories could neither predict nor explain the ensuing events. Scholarly analysts were “caught flat-footed,” as one scholar wrote. What really mattered, it seemed, was that the available theories did not pay much attention to decision-makers’ belief systems.

Of particular relevance in advancing new theories are decision-makers’ operational code beliefs. Along with the general literature on belief systems, the operational code research program began in the 1950s. It gained prominence with the work of Alexander George and Ole Holsti in the 1960s and 1970s. A decision-maker’s operational code is constituted by his answers to questions such as: What is the essential nature of political life? Is the political universe essentially one of harmony or conflict? What is the fundamental character of one’s political opponents? What is the best approach for selecting goals for political action?

The most significant advances in the operational code research program were made in the 1980s and onward by Stephen Walker and his students. This progress occurred on the theoretical, methodological, and empirical plane, and through their work this research program continues to be a mainstay of contemporary international relations scholarship.