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date: 16 August 2017

Sequences in Foreign Policy Decision Making

Summary and Keywords

Discussion of some representative work from the scholars of foreign policy provides a review of the literature that can guide researchers in examining the separate yet interrelated stages of the decision-making process and that can demonstrate the importance of sequences in the process of foreign policymaking.

Keywords: sequences in foreign policy decision making, stages of foreign policymaking, dynamic foreign policy, foreign policymaking


Scholars of foreign policy decision making often focus on the analysis of a single decision. However, a foreign policy problem of any consequence is likely to be “ill-structured” (Steinbruner, 1974), “unstructured” (Mintz & DeRouen, 2010), or “wicked” (Walker & Malici, 2011), and rarely disappears from the scene easily, making foreign policymakers return “again and again to the task of coping with an issue they have addressed before” (Billings & Hermann, 1998, p. 53). Foreign policy problems contain an “imperfect correspondence between information and the environment” and the resulting uncertainty usually affects “two or more values … [so that] a great return for one can be obtained only at a loss for the other” (Steinbruner, 1974, p. 16). In addition, during the foreign policy decision-making process, the power to make the decision is spread over a number of actors or organizational units. Decision makers face at least two types of value trade-offs when developing foreign policy: the need to balance foreign vs. domestic priorities, and the need to maintain their positions and leadership (Hagan, 2001). Finally, it is not always obvious whether the decision makers are going to be able to reach some kind of consensus given the value trade-offs that may be demanded of them. Indeed, issues of coordination and the locus of decision become points of contention. Given the volatility of the situation, in some cases, no integrated foreign policy can be made at all.

Furthermore, the literature on “strategic action” in the study of international relations and foreign policy has concluded that the process of foreign policymaking involves “strategic, interactive decisions,” with at least two players (e.g., states, international organizations) “that affect and are affected by the other player’s decisions” (Mintz & DeRouen, 2010, p. 15). Similarly, the literature on iterative games has focused on the influence of repeated games on cooperation and defection, as in the case of the prisoners’ dilemma. In a computer-simulated experiment, Axelrod (1984) demonstrated that the “winning” strategy in a repeated prisoner’s dilemma is one that he terms “tit for tat.” The tit-for-tat strategy calls for cooperation on the first move and, then, in each subsequent move, the actor chooses the behavior demonstrated by his or her opponent in the previous round. Although this particular study does not help us to understand the process of decision making, the iterative games literature considers the “sequencing” of decisions—largely in strategic terms—an important variable in foreign policymaking. In their recent study, Walker and Malici (2011, p. 241) analyzed the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam and Iraq wars and argued that while “acute international crises often last only a few days or weeks, it is possible to extend the logic of their dynamics into a series of strategic interaction episodes in political dyads,” suggesting the importance of examining sequence in foreign policy analysis. Similarly, if one takes, for example, the American and the regional responses to the Syrian crisis, it becomes clear that since the beginning of the crisis in 2011, foreign policymakers in Washington, D.C., and in the capitals of many Middle Eastern states have had to deal with the issue on numerous occasions, and many times they have had to tweak or completely change their foreign policy course.

While these studies are important in illustrating how the foreign policymaking process is sequential, involving a series of interrelated decisions taken by different actors, comprised of different individuals or groups of individuals with imperfect information and competing priorities, it is also important to study the stages in foreign policymaking and the sequence of certain questions that foreign policymakers have to consider when confronted with a foreign policy problem.

In describing the relevance of human nature to politics, Simon (1985) argued that to understand how people are going to act politically, the analyst must take into account what they want, how they process information, the ways in which they represent various aspects of their world, what they pay attention to, and their beliefs. All of these, according to Simon, “bounded their rationality,” causing them to focus on “satisficing.” In this sense, it is a mistake to assume that leaders or groups experiencing the same foreign policy issue have similar goals and will choose similar responses without information suggesting that their definitions of the situation and beliefs are somewhat equivalent. In fact, scholars have proposed that policymakers do not respond directly to an objectively constituted environment, but rather think and act upon their image or representation of that environment (Brecher, 1974; Jervis, 1976).

Due to the problems associated with the analytic/rational model and the main postulations above (for detailed reviews, see Hudson, 2005; Kaarbo, 2015, the extant literature on foreign policymaking has long established that foreign policy should be studied from a decision- making perspective. The most influential study that has shaped this literature was published by Snyder, Bruck, and Sapin, 1954. In their work, Snyder and colleagues (see also Snyder et al., 1962) argued that people matter in international affairs and that policymakers’ interpretations of the world and the ways their preferences became aggregated in the decision-making process could shape what governments and institutions did in the foreign policy arena, thereby introducing decision making as an approach for analyzing foreign policymaking. In Snyder et al.’s view, the foreign policy decision-making process could be conceptualized in terms of linkages among the action, reaction, and interaction of variables categorized under headings of internal and external setting and societal structure and behavior (Snyder, Bruck, & Sapin, 1962, pp. 65–74; also see Allison, 1971; Cantir & Kaarbo, 2012; Garrison, 1999; George, 1980; Hagan, 2001; Hagan & Hermann, 2001; Halperin, 1974; Hermann, Kegley, & Rosenau, 1987; Janis, 1972; Jervis, 1976; Khong, 1992; Lebow, 1981; Lebow & Stein, 1994; Rosati, 1995; Stogdill et al., 1981; ’t Hart, 1994; ’t Hart, Stern, & Sundelius, 1997; Thies & Breuning, 2012; Vertzberger, 1990; Walker et al., 2010; Walker & Malici, 2011).

This conceptualization, Snyder and colleagues suggested, has several advantages, including more inclusiveness, provision of clues about variables that might explain state behavior, and aims to identify where and how relationships among variables related a government’s behavior. Indeed, Snyder and colleagues’ work, which considered the decision makers as participants in a system of action, laid the foundation for a large, and still growing, body of research that has examined how leaders, groups, and coalitions of actors can affect the way that foreign policy problems are framed, options that are selected, the choices that are made, and what gets implemented.

Although many studies emphasized the role of sequence in foreign policymaking, the study of sequential decision making in foreign policy received a boost following Hermann’s, 1990 article that examined governments’ choice to change course in foreign policy. In this study, Hermann called for the field to pay more attention to the conditions that give rise to major changes in foreign policy, suggesting that foreign policy is subject to at least four types of changes, including: adjustment changes, programmatic changes, problem-goal changes, and changes in international orientation. According to Hermann, changes in a country’s foreign policy result from a sequential decision-making process that is influenced primarily by a leadership change, bureaucratic advocacy, domestic restructuring, or an external shock.

Whereas this particular study was an important first step in studying decision making in foreign policy from a process perspective, it did not provide a set of guidelines or a model for how sequential decision making could be studied. Billings and Hermann (1998) bridged this gap with their work on problem re-representation by way of expanding the concept of sequential decision making further and providing a general scheme to study it.

According to Billings and Hermann, “sequential decision making occurs when policymakers engage in a series of decisions on the same issue or problem across a period of time” (1998, p. 54; also see Beasley et al., 2001, p. 235). In other words, decision making becomes sequential when policymakers find that they need to consider a problem for an extended period of time or when they need to reconsider a foreign policy problem they have already addressed before or some variant of it. Studying foreign policy by focusing on the sequential nature of the decision-making process makes it possible to observe whether there is any dependency among different stages (Maoz & Mor, 2002). The Billings and Hermann framework consisted of ten different, yet interrelated, stages, including: determination of decision units, problem location, problem diagnosis, option development, choice, implementation, receipt of information/feedback, evaluation of information/feedback, reconsideration of the problem, and follow-on choice. Whereas there have been studies that focused on the first five stages, foreign policy scholars are becoming increasingly more interested in examining the latter five stages, because these stages show why policymakers may have to deal with a problem they had previously decided on, and why either a change or no change in foreign policy may be necessary or can become a possibility. According to Billings and Hermann (1998), in cases of reconsideration of a foreign policy problem, decision makers may continue with the present foreign policy, change foreign policy with small adjustments, change foreign policy but not the problem representation, or re-represent the problem or reconsider fundamental goals.

Despite the recognition in the literature that the foreign policy decision making is best understood when the decision-making process is broken up into different stages and studied sequentially, scholars prefer to examine the whole process as if there were no such stages and to explore the nature of the whole decision process. In addition to the difficulty of studying foreign policy sequentially without really having the necessary theoretical or methodological tools at hand, an important concern that was raised by Kuperman (2006) and others relates to the question of how to disaggregate a foreign policy decision-making process. However, given the foundational works on this topic and the increasing interest in studying sequential decision making in foreign policy, we can divide the decision-making process into at least seven separate yet interrelated stages and discuss representative work from the literature that demonstrates the importance of studying foreign policy in this way.

Identification of a Problem: Definition and Depiction (Framing) of the Problem

The extant literature suggests that identification of a problem may occur either because an event alerts policymakers that a problem exists (Miller & Starr, 1967, cited in Abelson & Levi, 1985, p. 269) or policymakers become aware of a problem due to certain departures from normality (Steinbruner, 2002). In other words, the key characteristic of a decision problem is that there is “a perception of discrepancy between the existing state and the desired state” (Abelson & Levi, 1985, p. 270). As important as the identification of the problem is the representation of the nature of that problem by the decision makers. Historical experience, domestic and international pressures, and decision makers’ perception of the “other” can play an important role in shaping how a particular problem is identified, perceived, and handled.

At this stage of the foreign policy decision-making process, scholars of foreign policy are interested in the questions: How is the problem identified and then presented? How does problem definition influence policy dispositions and choices? and Where do frames come from? (Stern, 2004). As Sylvan (1998, p. 4) pertinently suggests, “the way in which decision makers choose options can best be understood by first studying the way in which they represent the problem they see themselves as facing” [emphasis added]. In other words, the subjective specification and depiction of a problem are fundamental aspects of foreign policy and set the stage for choice (cited in Stern, 2004, p. 115).

In the 1998 book edited by Sylvan and Voss, the editors and other contributors used different techniques and methodologies and discussed the influence of collective interpretations (Beasley), image theory and image change (Cottam & McCoy), reasoning and stories (Syvan & Haddad), and issue areas (Breuning) on problem representation. Studies by these scholars suggest that the problem identification and representation stage simply affects the creation of alternatives and the selection of a policy option. Just as prior beliefs and ideas may guide a decision maker in selecting certain options, a particular representation or framing of a problem can limit the range of possibilities, by “imposing a structure on [the policy problem that is] ill-structured in [its] raw form” (Stern, 2004, p. 116). In fact, continuing research on foreign policy problem representation has followed on this work since its publication (Billings et al., 2002; Charlick-Payley & Sylvan, 2000; Garrison, 2000, 2001; Mintz & Redd, 2003; Stern, 1999, 2005; Sylvan, Grove, & Martinson, 2005).

Prospect theory in the international relations literature is also important in the discussion of how a foreign policy issue is framed. According to Kahneman and Tversky (1979, 1984), individuals are more inclined to risk acceptance when confronted with choices between losses and risk aversion when confronted with choices over gains. Some scholars (e.g., Levy, 1992), also focusing on prospect theory, attempted to develop detailed case studies of discrete foreign policy decisions and emphasized the role of framing effects on elite decision making. What is learned from these studies is that, when it comes to foreign policy, decision makers subjectively construct the frames through which they understand their options (gains or losses).

Finally, in a recent study that employed symbolic interactionist theory, Mor (2016) analyzed the process of defining situations under ambiguity in the case of the Second (2006) Lebanon War. His research found that how different domestic actors developed preferences for definitions depended on the kind of situational parameters that they monitored as part of their group perspective, the availability of historical analogies, and (role)-identity and self-esteem needs, namely the legitimation of actors’ claimed identity through an effective role performance.

Identification of the Decision Makers (Decision Units)

While it may sometimes be the case that the decision problem itself will immediately suggest who will involve in the choice generation and what type of alternative options are likely to be feasible, in many cases this is not the case. Therefore, knowing who has the authority to generate options and to commit to one is an important consideration in foreign policy analysis. While certain individuals, groups, networks, and organizations in which policymakers are located affect the flow of information, the decision rules, and procedures, routines in different governmental settings also influence the decision-making process (Cuhadar et al., 2016; Haney, 1997; Kaarbo, 1996; Oppermann & Brummer, 2014; Ozkececi-Taner, 2005; Stern & Sundelius, 1992).

The important questions to ask at this stage of the foreign policy decision-making process are: Who is involved in the generation of foreign policy options (or, What is the decision unit)? What factors lead to the formation of a certain decision unit? The disaggregation of the foreign policymaking process makes it possible for the analyst to point who is involved at each stage and what factors are in place.

The decision unit as a concept was introduced by Hermann, Hermann, and Hagan (1987) and further elaborated by these authors and their colleagues (Hermann, 2001; Hermann & Hermann, 1989; Stewart, Hermann, & Hermann, 1989). Building upon a growing body of research on foreign policymaking (Bendor & Hammond, 1992; Caldwell & McKeown, 1993; Evans, Jacobsen, & Putnam, 1993; Hermann & Kegley, 1996 Hudson, 1995; Khong, 1992; Kupchan, 1994; Maoz, 1990; Stern & Verbeek, 1998; Sylvan & Voss, 1998; ’t Hart, 1990; ’t Hart, Stern, & Sundelius, 1997; Vertzberger, 1990; Welch, 1992), this model suggests that “at the apex of foreign policy decision making in all governments or ruling parties is a group of actors—the ultimate decision unit—who, if they agree, have both the ability to commit the resources of the government in foreign affairs and the power or authority to prevent other entities within the government from overtly reversing their position.”

The unit having this authority in a country may (and frequently does) vary with the nature of the problem as well as the decision-making structure established by the constitution, law, or general practice, and it can be a predominant leader, a single group, or a coalition of autonomous actors.

Option Generation: Evaluation of Options and Choosing an Option

Once a problem has been recognized and framed and the decision makers have been identified, the next stage involves identifying alternative foreign policy options. In other words, it is important to answer the questions: What happens when the decision unit is configured? What factors influence the decision-making process? Which range of options is considered by the decision unit in question? Findings from the literature that focus on the “decision units” suggest that the ways in which predominant leaders exercise their leadership styles influence option generation and the final decision substantively. In addition, the effects of conflict and how conflict is resolved are almost always considerable in the decision-making process in a single group or in coalition government settings.

As Abelson and Levi (1985, pp. 274–275) suggest, “decision makers must necessarily use some criteria for deciding what constitutes an alternative”; they “… must clarify the criteria by which to judge the alternatives, then identify the possible outcomes of the decision, and estimate the probabilities that the alternatives will produce various outcomes.” During the process of evaluating options, information acquisition and processing become important and decision makers may be directed toward confirmation processing, in which they attempt to resolve problems connected with the preferred alternative (Soelberg, 1967, in Abelson & Levi, 1985, p. 275). Therefore, there are two important questions to be asked at this stage: How do decision makers actually make decisions? How do they choose an option from a roster of alternatives?

The literature on foreign policy analysis has established that the selection of a particular alternative occurs throughout the evaluation phase, “as the set of alternatives is first narrowed down to an active roster of perhaps three to six alternatives and then reduced further” (Abelson & Levi, 1985, p. 276). The poliheuristic theory of decision making, which has emerged from work conducted by Mintz (1993) on noncompensatory dynamics in political decision making, is conceptualized as consisting of two stages, “in which the first stage involves the elimination of certain alternatives from the choice set” (Mintz & Geva, 1997, p. 82) in order to simplify and reduce the set of possible options and outcomes (Mintz, 2003, or “decision matrix,” and “the second stage consists of an analytic process of choosing an alternative that minimizes risk and guarantees rewards” (Mintz & Geva, 1997, p. 82; see also Redd, 2002, p. 336). In other words, the comparisons the decision makers make in choosing their final policy option is made within a very limited alternative set.

According to these researchers, “The decision makers measure costs and benefits, risks and rewards, gains and losses in political terms” (Redd, 2002, p. 337) and they are unlikely to take any course of action that is incompatible with domestic political imperatives. In other words, “avoiding political loss is a driving goal for state leaders” (DeRouen & Sprecher, 2004, p. 57). The noncompensatory model “simplifies the decision search process by sequentially eliminating alternatives that do not meet [this] certain threshold using key criteria” (DeRouen & Sprecher, 2004, p. 58). In other words, minimum standards must be fulfilled, or the alternative is discarded (Mintz & Geva, 1997, pp. 85–86), e.g., politicians will rarely choose an alternative that will hurt them politically (Mintz, 2003).

Foreign policy scholars have concluded that the search for the final policy decision ends when an acceptable alternative survives scrutiny on the key dimensions, or when an alternative is satisficing (Astorino-Courtois & Trusty, 2000; Christensen & Redd, 2004; Dacey & Carlson, 2004; De Rouen, 2003; DeRouen & Sprecher, 2004; Mintz, 2003; Sathasivam, 2003; Taylor-Robinson & Redd, 2003). In other words, as Soelberg (1967, p. 23) suggests, the final policy choice is made when an acceptable decision has been reached, or “when the decision maker runs up against an inescapable time deadline.” It is believed that the trade-offs that the decision makers confront are likely to make the final selection phase difficult. This is especially the case when the alternatives remaining in the choice set are close in overall value and if substantial uncertainty about outcomes and probabilities remains. The selection phase also tends to be stressful because it makes salient the fundamental conflict apparent in decision making: to choose one alternative necessitates that the other alternatives must be forgone.

More recently, scholars of poliheuristic theory of decision making have studied the relationship between framing and the creation of the set of possible options and the selection of an option (Taylor-Robinson & Redd, 2003). In their study, Taylor-Robinson and Redd (2003, p. 78) find that “framing and lobbying by a third party (the United Fruit Company) constrained President Eisenhower’s choice set and led him to authorize a covert operation” to overthrow the president of Guatemala in 1954.


Implementation is usually seen as the final stage in any decision-making process. It is considered to be critical to a comprehensive understanding of the foreign policymaking process (Pressman & Wildawsky, 1984; Sabatier, 1993, cited in Stern, 1999, p. 52). There are a number of important questions that need to be answered at this stage, including:

  • Who is responsible for the implementation of the policy choice?

  • Was the policy choice effectively implemented?

  • If the answer is No, why was it not?

  • What were the hindering factors?

A thorough analysis of this stage is necessary because there are many factors, such as unexpected interventions, communication and coordination problems, and variations in interpretations of guidelines for implementation, that can affect the effective implementation of a policy choice.

Despite the importance of implementation at the foreign policy decision-making stage, however, there are very few sustained scholarly works that have focused attention on it. More specifically, some foreign policy scholars have examined the role of communication and coordination problems among peoples and groups responsible for implementing a decision (Stern, 1999). They have also recently begun to study the impact of implementation, but only in so far as to examine what kind of reframing effect the implementation of a particular policy has on a certain foreign policy problem or crisis. Working under the assumption that sequential decision making may involve re-representation of an earlier foreign policy issue, Billings and Hermann (1998) suggested that the feedback and evaluation of feedback that follow the implementation stage may result in reconsideration of the problem by policymakers.

Reconsideration and/or Reframing of a Problem

Beasley et al. (2001, p. 236) suggested that there are a number of circumstances under which policy makers may be expected to reexamine a prior decision and modify actions they took earlier during or following the implementation stage. After studying some 65 cases of foreign policy decision making, these scholars concluded that, if the prior action was successful in achieving its objectives, then the policymakers might reconvene to reallocate resources to other tasks. Conversely, they concluded, if the implemented action appeared to be a failure, the policymakers might wish to determine whether another course could better achieve the intended results or should they consider forgoing the objective. In other words, feedback can cause the policymakers (a) to reexamine a foreign policy choice they made earlier, (b) to continue with the current course of action, or (c) to alter the current course of action. However, Beasley et al. (2001) also warned that the influence of feedback is determined greatly by to what extent the policymakers are open to criticism or to what extent they depend on information in making their decisions. For example, the literature that focuses on escalation of commitment demonstrates that sometimes policymakers respond to negative feedback—information indicating that what they are doing is not leading to the desired reaction—by continuing to commit resources to a particular course of action and thus escalating the situation. This results in the overcommitment to a course of action, suggesting that foreign policymakers may become locked into an ill-fated course of action (Brockner & Rubin, 1985; Staw, 1981).

Billings et al. (2002) concluded that, there is also a need to look at how the process of reframing a problem can facilitate or produce major changes in courses of action. They found that reframing in a sequential decision-making process can (a) allow for the introduction of search and provisional actions, (b) make it possible for the majority to incorporate minority positions, (c) counteract escalation forces, or (d) alter the salience of constituency groups with different policy preferences.

New studies are beginning to examine these issues in greater detail. For example, in a recent edited volume, scholars examined what to do when things go wrong (Hermann, 2012). Hermann and Billings (2012) looked into group dynamics and the role of prior action if and when a previous policy needs examination. Their study analyzed the dynamics that lead single groups to be less open to a reconsideration of a previously made policy decision when the prior action is either conditional or definitive. Similarly, in their study, Gadinger and Dirk (2015) examined the role of feedback loops between states’ foreign policies and their external environments in policy fields like climate policy, Western interventionism, and the global financial crisis. Similarly, there have been studies about the importance of learning in foreign policy (Adebahr, 2009; Brown & Kenney, 2006; Harnisch, 2012; Harnisch & Schieder, 2006; Malici, 2010). These are important, because without understanding how a certain policy is implemented, and whether it has been implemented in its purest sense or there have been some modifications made before, during, or after its implementation, no foreign policy analysis can be considered to be complete.

Despite past and more recent efforts, the literature on sequential decision making in foreign policy still has a long way to go in terms of accumulation of knowledge. Different decision-making models have contributed to the continued strength of foreign policy analysis as a field. However, with regard to the study of sequential decision making in foreign policy, scholars must find an answer to the most important and pressing question of how to integrate the different theoretical and methodological tools that different research traditions are using in their examination of foreign policymaking. More collaboration across different research agendas will contribute to the study of sequential decision making in foreign policy.


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