Use of Force in Foreign Policy
Summary and Keywords
Foreign policy analysis has been used effectively to explain the use of force. Several leading approaches and paradigms help explain the use of force as a tool of foreign policy. These approaches are based on the important preliminary step of opening up the black box of state, which highlights the importance of decision making for explaining international politics. The two primary approaches to explaining foreign policy analysis are rational choice theory and psychological theories.
Foreign policy analysis opens the door to a variety of novel and interesting topics. Many topics of domestic politics relate to international conflict, including democratic peace theory, selectorate theory, public opinion, domestic institutions, and leaders. Each of these topics is important for explaining the use of force in foreign policy. Future research on the use of force and international conflict should account for the importance of domestic politics. Studies of leaders, selectorate theory, and the bargaining model of war provide especially promising avenues for future research.
Scholars have taken many different approaches to explain the use of force and international conflict. A prominent one is the foreign policy analysis approach, which generally emphasizes the importance of domestic politics in international relations. Foreign policy analysis has been applied to virtually every aspect of international relations, including subjects as varied as international political economy, international organizations, human rights, and international environmental policy. While numerous approaches can provide insight into the use of force, the interest here is mainly in the use of force in foreign policy. The leading approaches and paradigms in foreign policy analysis highlight the importance of the subnational and national units of analysis for explaining the use of force.
Opening up the black box of state was a monumental step for international relations theory, and it signals the importance of decision making for explaining international politics. The two primary approaches to explaining decision making are rational choice theory and psychological theories. Foreign policy analysis opens the door to a variety of novel and interesting topics. Several topics of domestic politics that relate to international conflict are democratic peace theory, selectorate theory, public opinion, domestic institutions, and leaders.
Opening the Black Box of State
When investigating why states use force, scholars of international relations traditionally utilized grand theories, such as realism, to explain state behavior. According to realism and its variants, states are unitary actors, and to understand why states utilize force requires a system-level, or systemic, theory (Waltz, 1979; Mearsheimer, 2001). Systemic theories assume that the international structure (consisting of the constellation of states and actors in the international arena) constrains state behavior and to understand international politics, scholars should focus on the international system (Waltz, 1979). Realist approaches argue that distributions of power in the international system are the key to identifying when states will use force (Schweller & Priess, 1997). Realists such as Waltz (1979) dismiss consideration of domestic politics as reductionist.
Scholars who assume that states are unitary actors analyze interactions in terms of states: Germany attacked Great Britain in 1940, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, the United States deployed forces in Grenada in 1983, and so on. The decision-making perspective introduced by Snyder, Bruck, and Sapin (1954, 1962) opened the proverbial “black box” of the state. This approach to studying international politics revolutionized the study of foreign policy because it challenged the realist assumption that states can be reified, in other words, possess goals, motivations, and fears as if they were people (Quackenbush, 2015). Snyder, Bruck, and Sapin (2002, p. 59) argue that when scholars talk about the state, they really mean “its official decision makers,” and when scholars talk about state action, they mean the choices of “those acting in the name of the state.” Sprout and Sprout (1965) concurred that international relations theories ignoring decision makers were misguided because they overlooked important cultural, historical, ideological, and demographic factors important to decision making, and hence, the foreign policies of states. Shifting the focus away from states to human decision makers was an important contribution to international relations theory and, subsequently, the study of foreign policy (Hudson, 2005).
The decision-making approach opened up numerous alternative avenues of research for understanding the behavior and interactions of states far beyond what was achieved while realism dominated the study of foreign policy. Lake (2011) argues that international relations scholars should leave behind the “isms” and instead focus on specific topics and subfields of international politics. Regardless of whether realism remains useful for explaining international politics, the decision-making approach allowed for alternative frameworks to analyze state behavior by opening the black box of state. Out of this approach came foreign policy analysis, which can be best described as a research program studying the decision-making process (Walker, Malici, & Schafer, 2011). As Drury et al. (2010a) explain, foreign policy analysis is defined by its actor- or agent-specific focus. This agent-based approach is what separates foreign policy analysis from other traditions of international relations scholarship (Kaarbo, 2015).
Foreign Policy Analysis Approaches to Explaining Conflict
Although foreign policy analysis is grounded in opening the black box of state, there are multiple ways this can be done. Opening the black box of state places the focus on explaining decision making. One possibility is to assume that decision makers are rational, which leads to rational choice theory. A second possibility is to focus on the psychology of decision makers, which leads to psychological and cognitive theory.
Rational Choice Theory
Rational choice theory is rooted in the assumption of instrumental rationality.1 An instrumentally rational actor is one who, when confronted with “two alternatives which give rise to outcomes . . . will choose the one which yields the more preferred outcome” (Luce & Raiffa, 1957, p. 50). Note that the definition does not say which alternative is better; the decision maker decides. This definition avoids many problems that plague other conceptions of rationality by not trying to dictate what decision makers should prefer. Instrumentally rational players, then, are those who always make choices they believe are consistent with their interests and objectives as they define them.
Additionally, a rational actor must have complete and transitive preferences. For preferences to be complete, for any two alternatives x and y, either x is preferred to y, y is preferred to x, or the person is indifferent between x and y. Transitivity involves preferences among at least three different outcomes. Considering the most basic case with three alternatives x, y, and z, transitivity means that if x is preferred to y and y is preferred to z, then x is preferred to z. Thus, if a person prefers chocolate ice cream to vanilla, and vanilla ice cream to strawberry, then it only makes sense that they prefer chocolate ice cream to strawberry.
Instrumental rationality makes no normative judgments about preferences. Saying that someone is instrumentally rational is not paying them a compliment; it is simply saying that they act according to their preferences, whatever they may be. Even so, many have argued that a variety of psychological, informational, or structural factors interfere with actors’—particularly states’—ability to act rationally. These factors, however, only interfere with procedural rationality, not instrumental rationality.2 Instrumental rationality is compatible with a wide variety of supposedly limiting factors (Zagare, 1990). If decisions are central to international relations, it makes sense that decision makers make those decisions with a purpose. Such purposive decision making is what instrumental rationality is about. Assuming instrumental rationality allows the use of important tools for explaining decision making.
Expected utility theory provides the foundation for many formal models of rational decision making. It suggests that people actually think not only about what they want, but also the odds that they will get it. Expected utility is calculated simply be multiplying the utility of outcomes by the probability that they will actually happen and summing the results over the set of possible outcomes. Many early rational choice models of international conflict relied solely on expected utility calculations (e.g., Bueno de Mesquita, 1981; Huth & Russett, 1984). However, when used in isolation, expected utility theory has one crucial limitation: it does not account for strategic interaction between decision makers. Rather, expected utility theory focuses on each actor’s choice in a vacuum. Of course, in the real world, leaders of states must take into account a variety of other potential decision makers: other states, members of their own government, international organizations, the domestic population, and many others. While most theories do not account for all of these different decision makers, it is important to be able to understand this strategic interaction between multiple actors.
Game theory is the analysis of how decision makers interact in decision making to take into account reactions and choices of the other decision makers. Game theory can be used in a variety of different ways. First, game theory could be used as a strictly normative tool to evaluate the efficacy of competing policy prescriptions. Game-theoretic models could also be employed descriptively to explain single cases that are intrinsically interesting or otherwise important. Bates et al. (1998) call this approach “analytic narratives,” where the theory and a case study are tightly integrated. A game-theoretic analysis of a single historical case could also be regarded as an inductive step taken to facilitate the development of a general theory.
Game theory is most commonly used within the study of international relations to develop general theories. Such theories strive to model general political processes such as those associated with crisis bargaining, alliance formation, and war. There have been a large number of such applications in the study of international conflict. An important example of game-theoretic explanation of international conflict is the International Interaction Game developed by Bueno de Mesquita and Lalman (1992).
Bueno de Mesquita and Lalman (1992) model international interactions between two states who choose whether to make a demand on the other and, given that demands have been made, whether or not to use force to pursue their aims. If neither state makes a demand, the status quo results. If both states make demands and choose to use force, then war commences. If a state backs down to a demand, it is said to acquiesce, but if it backs down to a use of force, it is said to capitulate. Finally, if both states make demands but neither resorts to the use of force, negotiation results. In the domestic constraints variant of the game, which receives the most empirical support, the decision to make a demand is the result of unspecified domestic processes.
Because Bueno de Mesquita and Lalman (1992) allow for a wide range of possible preference orderings of states, the International Interaction Game provides a general theory that accounts for a wide range of strategic situations. This allows them to theorize about the conditions leading to war, including the effect of factors such as states’ willingness to back down, their uncertainty, and their level of satisfaction with the status quo. Bueno de Mesquita and Lalman (1992) conduct a series of quantitative tests of their theory using data from Europe between 1816 and 1970. Bennett and Stam (2000a, 2000b, 2004) conduct a broader series of quantitative tests of the International Interaction Game across all regions of the world from 1816 to 1992. Through a series of empirical tests, the predictions made by the International Interaction Game are generally supported by the evidence.
The bargaining model of war is a rational choice framework that is a focus of much recent research on international conflict. The bargaining model of war refers to a variety of individual models that, despite having certain differences, share important common features, particularly the inclusion of the size of demands as part of the game and the inclusion of war as part of the bargaining process (Reiter, 2003). The bargaining model focuses squarely on an important puzzle regarding international conflict. War is an extremely costly way for states to settle their disputes. And although countries have conflicts of interest all the time, only some disputes are resolved by force. So why go to war? Given the human and material costs of military conflict, why do states sometimes wage war rather than resolve their disputes through negotiations?
As long as war is costly, a bargaining range will exist where both sides prefer settlement to war. Thus, war can only result from some breakdown of bargaining. Bargaining failures can arise from three sources: incomplete information, commitment problems, and indivisible issues (Fearon, 1995). A variety of bargaining models have further explained the outbreak of international conflict, looking at the influence of factors such as military mobilizations (Slantchev, 2005), public commitment (Tarar & Leventoglu, 2009), and international organizations (Chapman & Wolford, 2010). Bargaining models have also been developed to explain war outcomes and termination (Filson & Werner, 2002, 2004; Powell, 2004; Slantchev, 2003; Smith, 1998; Smith & Stam, 2004; Wagner, 2000).
Psychological and Cognitive Theory
Another approach to explaining the use of force in foreign policy relies on psychological and cognitive theories of decision making. Since there are limitations to procedural rationality, these theories emphasize social or cognitive psychology in explaining foreign policy decisions (Quackenbush, 2015). Psychological and cognitive approaches explain decision making by looking at the rules, biases, and beliefs that decision makers use in making difficult decisions, such as whether to employ military force (Stein & Welch, 1997). In contrast to rational choice theory, psychological and cognitive theories of decision making assume that individuals confronting complex situations respond in terms of nonrational pressures and influences (Verba, 1969). While procedural rationality is based on a “cool and clearheaded means-ends calculation” (Verba, 1969, p. 218), psychological influences and preconceived beliefs can cloud decision making, especially in times of crisis requiring military force.
One cognitive approach focuses on the perceptions that leaders have about foreign states. According to Holsti (1962), decision makers hold “images” about foreign actors based on knowledge and past experience about the world. Images can include information about the self and the other, and provide cognitive simplifications for decision making (Hermann, 2003). In a case study of U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Holsti (1962) finds that Dulles’s image of the USSR translated into particularly hostile beliefs about Soviet intentions and behavior. However, a state’s image does not always match its behavior (Jervis, 1970). In his seminal work, Jervis (1976) shows how perceptions and misperceptions that leaders have about the world and other international actors can affect their foreign policy decision making. Based on these studies, psychological and cognitive approaches argue that to understand the decision to use force, scholars must understand the perceptions, belief systems, biases, and images that individuals maintain when making decisions.
Based on a leader’s psychology, one tool for determining a leader’s propensity to use force is operational code analysis. George (1969) defines a leader’s operational code in terms of her beliefs about the nature of politics, the extent to which she believes her decisions can shape events, and her choices of strategy and tactics (Quackenbush, 2015). Building on work by George (1969) and Walker (1983), Walker, Schafer, and Young (1998) introduce a scoring system and procedures for identifying leaders’ operational codes. In their analysis, they examine President Jimmy Carter’s view of politics by using speeches from the public record, demonstrating that Carter’s belief system determined his outlook toward the Soviet Union.
Similar to operational code analysis, Hermann (1987) developed leadership trait analysis, which employs content analysis of verbal patterns to measure leadership variables (Keller & Foster, 2012). Scholars have used leadership trait analysis to explain conflict (Hermann & Kegley, 1998). Likewise, Winter (2004) focuses on the motivations of leaders to explain conflict, arguing that “high levels of power motive imagery are associated with conflict escalation and war, whereas affiliation imagery is associated with peaceful conflict resolution” (Winter, 2004, p. 381).
There are also psychological approaches to foreign policy decision making that emphasize the psychological dispositions and personality of individuals based on their backgrounds and life circumstances (Stein & Welch, 1997). In their seminal study of President Woodrow Wilson and his relationship with his mentor Colonel Edward House, George and George (1956) argue that Wilson’s conduct during crises followed a psychological pattern that could be explained by childhood experiences. Hermann and Hermann (1967) conducted a simulation study to replicate the decision-making process that led to World War I. One purpose of the simulation was to “explore the relative effect on political actions of personality characteristics” (Hermann & Hermann, 1967, p. 401). Other studies focus on how leaders’ psychological characteristics affect their decision-making process by specifically focusing on their advisory system (George, 1980; Hermann & Preston, 1994).
Prospect theory, which specifically focuses on behavioral psychology, offers another approach to explain whether leaders will utilize military actions in foreign policy (e.g., McDermott, 1992; McInerney, 1992). Kahneman and Tversky (1979) developed prospect theory in response to rational choice theory.3 Prospect theory builds on the concept of bounded rationality, in which rational decision making is constrained by external situations and the capacities of a decision maker (Simon, 1985). Leaders can rely on heuristics such as representativeness (Tversky & Kahneman, 1982), anchoring (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974), and availability (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973) during the process of decision making, which can alter their decisions. The key element of prospect theory is that people are risk-averse in the domain of gains (less willing to take risks if it means greater gains) and risk-acceptant in the domain of losses (more willing to take risks to recuperate, or avoid, losses). This shows that, in general, people are averse to losses (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979).
An alternative behavioral approach to understanding decision making is poliheuristic theory (e.g., Mintz, 1993). As developed by Mintz (2004), poliheuristic theory posits a two-staged decision-making process. In the first stage, decision makers use a “noncompensatory principle” to eliminate certain alternatives from their decision calculus. In the second stage, decision makers utilize an analytic, cost-benefit process to make a decision that minimizes risks and maximizes benefits. The emphasis on utility maximization in the second stage has led some scholars to argue that poliheuristic theory bridges the gap between psychological approaches to foreign policy analysis and rational choice theory (e.g., Danilovic, 2003).
Topics Opened by Foreign Policy Analysis
Foreign policy analysis scholars have examined a variety of important topics related to international conflict. These topics relate in various ways to how domestic politics affect the use of force. Some of these topics include democratic peace theory, selectorate theory, public opinion, domestic institutions, and leaders. Each of these topics can help elucidate the causes of bellicose behavior among states. Most of these topics have been studied from both rational choice and psychological perspectives.
Perhaps the most broadly examined aspect of the relationship between domestic politics and international conflict is the effect of regime type. In particular, a great deal of research has focused on democratic peace theory, which developed from two key findings: first, democracies almost never fight other democracies, and second, democracies regularly fight nondemocracies (e.g., Bueno de Mesquita et al., 1999; Chan, 1997; Maoz & Russett, 1993). Substantial empirical evidence has supported this idea (e.g., Buhaug, 2005; Geva, DeRouen, & Mintz, 1993; Maoz & Abdolali, 1989; Morgan & Campbell, 1991; Pickering, 2002; Quackenbush & Rudy, 2009; Russett & Oneal, 2001; Starr, 1992; Weede, 1992).
While these studies find strong support for the dyadic democratic peace, their findings yield little support for the idea that democracies are more peaceful in general than other states. Nonetheless, some other studies (Rummel, 1983, 1985, 1995; MacMillan, 2003; Ray, 2000; Huth & Allee, 2002; Leeds & Davis, 1999; Oneal & Ray, 1997; Rousseau et al., 1996) argue that democracies are more pacific than other regimes in general, not just in their relations with other democracies. Thus, they argue in favor of what is known as the monadic democratic peace. To assess these claims, Quackenbush and Rudy (2009) conduct a thorough empirical analysis of the monadic democratic peace. Examining the frequency of conflict and the likelihood of dispute initiation using four different measures of democracy, they find that, while the dyadic democratic peace is strongly supported, there is little, if any, empirical support for the monadic democratic peace.
There are three primary approaches to explaining the democratic peace. The first type, the normative explanation of the democratic peace, is centered on the impact of democratic norms of behavior, which emphasize regulated political competition through peaceful means (Dixon, 1994; Doyle, 1986; Maoz & Russett, 1993). When one party wins a democratic election, there is no need to eliminate the opponent, and it is perfectly accepted (and expected) that the loser will come back to challenge again. Thus, political conflicts in democracies are resolved by compromise rather than by the elimination of opponents.
The second type of explanation for the democratic peace focuses on the structure of democratic institutions. The basic idea of the institutional explanation of the democratic peace is that democracies are characterized by institutional constraints—checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of government (Morgan & Campbell, 1991). Furthermore, democracies have large (as a percentage of their population) electorates that compel democratically elected leaders to seek popular support for their policies. The third primary explanation of the democratic peace comes from selectorate theory (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 1999, 2003). Selectorate theory also provides a general theory of domestic politics.
Beyond a simple focus on regime type, there are many ways in which domestic politics can set the conditions determining whether leaders will utilize force in foreign policy. As Rosati and Scott (2014) explain, numerous domestic elements in the United States can affect a president’s ability to govern, including the public, the media, and other branches of government. These factors are also relevant in other democratic countries. Although domestic politics matter in autocratic regimes as well, the effect of domestic factors is typically weaker. Bueno de Mesquita et al.’s (1999) selectorate theory provides a conceptual framework for understanding when domestic politics will have an effect on leaders’ decision making.
Selectorate theory explains how domestic groups can limit leaders in decisions regarding the use of force. According to Bueno de Mesquita et al. (1999), leaders can be constrained by the size and preferences of the selectorate and the winning coalition. The selectorate consists of the people who can choose the leader, while the winning coalition consists of the minimal number of supporters that a leader needs to remain in power. In an autocracy, the selectorate and winning coalition are much smaller than they are in a democracy. For example, in a military dictatorship, the selectorate would consist of military personnel, while the winning coalition would consist of the minimum number of officers needed for the leader to avoid a coup attempt. Selectorate theory argues that leaders have to be responsive to the preferences of the selectorate in order to maintain their winning coalition. Bueno de Mesquita et al. (2002) find that when the size of the selectorate is large and the winning coalition is small, leaders are less likely to fear the defection of their supporters. Thus, in autocratic regime types, with smaller winning coalitions, leaders have fewer preferences they need to be responsive to, and therefore they are less constrained in decision making.
Selectorate theory can explain the constraints that a leader faces when deciding to use force. Bueno de Mesquita et al. (2003) extend selectorate theory to explain how the size and preferences of a winning coalition can affect decisions in international politics. They provide examples of how selection institutions influence war aims. In democracies, voters make up the selectorate, and, therefore, the public can influence a leader’s decision to use force. In the case of authoritarian leaders, Weeks (2014) argues that variation in the extent to which leaders are accountable to domestic groups affects their calculus in pursuing belligerent policies. She argues that certain types of autocracies are less likely to go to war than other types because of different levels of accountability among a domestic audience. In personalist regimes, the domestic audience poses no meaningful constraints on the autocrat, but in nonpersonalist civilian regime types, there is a higher level of domestic accountability. Likewise, Croco (2011) argues that a domestic audience’s willingness to punish leaders for losing a war can affect their calculus for war termination. She finds that a leader’s culpability for conflict onset determines whether the state achieves a favorable war outcome. The likelihood that leaders are punished for losing a conflict or rewarded for winning a conflict can also depend on whether the political opposition supported the government during the war (Arena, 2008).
In the American context throughout the 1950s, the prevailing wisdom held that public opinion had little effect on foreign policy. This general consensus regarding the role of public opinion in American foreign policy was based on the work of Almond (1950, 1956) and Lippmann (1922, 1925, 1955) and argued that public opinion was “volatile, unstructured, and of little significance to foreign policy” (Rosati & Scott, 2014, p. 341). Referred to as the Almond–Lippmann consensus, this conventional wisdom began to face counterexamples in the 1960s. Holsti (1992) argues that the opinions and actions of the public in terms of antiwar demonstrations and mobilization challenged the Almond–Lippmann consensus. Mueller’s (1973) study of the Korean and Vietnam wars shows that U.S. public opinion shifted throughout the conflicts’ durations, but the change reflected the rise in battle deaths. Thus, public opinion about the wars was not unstructured and incoherent, as the Almond–Lippmann consensus argued. In their analysis of public opinion during the 2003 Iraq War, Gelpi, Feaver, and Reifler (2005/2006) concur that the American public holds coherent opinions and makes reasonable judgments about support for the United States’ use of force. In operations that are quick and successful, such as U.S. operations in Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, and Kosovo, the public tends to remain supportive, while lengthier conflicts, such as Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, and Iraq, tend to result in the erosion of public support (Rosati & Scott, 2014). Even when decision makers are skeptical about using public opinion polls, Powlick (1995) finds that officials utilize alternative sources to gauge the public’s opinion about certain foreign policy options.
Public attention and public attitudes are important because they can affect a leader’s use of force if the leader is concerned about the level of his or her public support. In examining eight cases where the United States used limited military force, Jentleson (1992) finds that the American public tends to be more supportive of using force when the policy objective is to restrain an aggressor state compared to when the objective is to impose internal political change of a state’s regime. He argues that this distinction among the American public’s support for different uses of military force has implications for U.S. foreign policy strategy. What Jentleson (1992) calls the principal policy objectives (PPOs) of the government’s rationale for using force matters to public opinion, and the type of military intervention contributes to whether the public will or will not support the leaders in using force (Jentleson & Britton, 1998).
For leaders concerned about their support among the public, this literature shows that when determining whether to use force, presidents have to consider whether the public will or will not support the stated foreign policy objective. As Neustadt (1960) famously argues, a president’s “power to persuade” is partially determined by her or his professional reputation and public prestige. While a president can use rhetoric to sway the attitudes of an inattentive public, for people who are well informed about international events, it is more difficult to sway public opinion (Drury et al., 2010b). Therefore, a leader’s rhetorical abilities can be limited in the extent to which a well-informed public can be convinced to support the use of force.
When the public generally supports the PPO, presidents can also use force as a diversionary tactic. As Morgan and Bickers (1992, p. 26) explain, “state leaders often turn to foreign policy adventures, including war, as a means of dealing with internal political problems” and thus use force as a foreign policy tool to divert the attention of the public away from the domestic issues. During times in which the United States uses military force abroad, the public tends to “rally-around-the-flag” and increase support for the president. Taken together, diversionary tactics along with the rally-around-the-flag effect provide an explanation for the use of force based on a leader’s desire to retain domestic political support. Researchers argue that leaders utilize diversionary tactics when they are faced with decreasing support among their winning coalition (Morgan & Bickers, 1992), when they want to shift focus away from weak economic conditions (Fordham, 1998; DeRouen, 2000; DeRouen & Peake, 2002), or when they are faced with domestic unrest (Sprecher & DeRouen, 2002; Sobek, 2007). Whether or not leaders use diversionary tactics could also depend on the rivalry structure of the state (Mitchell & Prins, 2004), the tenure length of the state’s leader (Chiozza & Goemans, 2003), or the internal ethnic tensions within a state (Tir & Jasinski, 2008). Moreover, Baum (2002) identifies partisan differences in the rally-around-the-flag effect among the American public. Although the evidence supporting the use of diversionary tactics is mixed, this is one avenue of research that articulates how domestic politics, particularly the interaction of internal conditions and public opinion, can affect the use of force in foreign policy.
Public opinion can also have a constraining or enhancing effect on leaders who are concerned about their electoral prospects in an upcoming election. Aldrich, Sullivan, and Borgida (1989) find that the public can identify clear differences between candidates in regard to their foreign policies, and if the public opposes or supports certain foreign policy options, then this opinion could affect upcoming elections. On the one hand, if a president is concerned about losing public support and the public is opposed to the use of force, then a president concerned with his or her reelection bid could be constrained in using force as a foreign policy tool. For example, Baum (2004) argues that public opinion had a constraining effect on President George H.W. Bush in launching a large-scale intervention in Somalia due to the fear of public backlash leading up to the 1992 presidential election. On the other hand, as the rally-around-the-flag effect shows, a president can get a boost of public support that can translate into electoral success. In this instance, the electoral benefits that arise from the rally-around-the-flag effect could influence a president to use force abroad in an attempt to increase his or her reelection. Scholars have also posited that the media can have an interceding effect on the relationship between public opinion and foreign policy decisions (Robinson, 1999; Baum & Potter, 2008).
Another domestic politics approach to explaining the use of force is examining the role that legislative institutions play in shaping foreign policy. Howell and Pevehouse (2005, p. 209) recommend that scholars consider “theories of domestic political institutions, partisanship, and interbranch relations” when explaining the use of force by the United States. In the United States, Congress can exert its power to prevent the use of force. One method by which Congress can influence a president’s decision to use force is to use the “power of the purse” to disburse or withhold funding. For example, Congress cut military assistance to South Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975, withheld funding to halt intervention into the Angolan Civil War in 1975–1976, and restricted American involvement in the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s (Rosati & Scott, 2014). In other instances, Congress can vote to declare war, giving the president full authority to use force, as it has done five times in American history. Short of a declaration of war, Congress can authorize the use of force, as it did in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s.
Individual members of Congress can also affect the use of force. Carter and Scott (2009) argue that “foreign policy entrepreneurs”—members of Congress who are active in matters of foreign policy—can affect decisions to use force, as was the case in United States’ military intervention in Haiti in 1994. Likewise, Hildebrandt et al. (2013) analyze congressional votes relevant to the United States’ humanitarian interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, arguing that domestic political dynamics can help explain the deployment of troops for humanitarian missions. As these studies make clear, analyzing the role of legislative institutions can be helpful in explaining the use of force.
Saunders (2009, p. 120) argues that “it is impossible to fully understand both when and how states intervene without exploring a crucial but often-overlooked factor in international relations: the role of individual leaders.” Leaders have been an important focus of much recent literature seeking to explain the use of force.
For example, Debs and Goemans (2010) develop a formal rational choice model showing that democratic leaders are more willing and able to avoid war compared to nondemocratic leaders. This study falls under a broader range of literature that argues that international factors such as conflict can affect the tenure of leaders (Bueno de Mesquita & Siverson, 1995; Chiozza & Goemans, 2004). Wolford (2012) also focuses on the political survival of leaders in the context of war, developing a model demonstrating that a state’s resort to war depends on the different preferences of leaders. When an incumbent leader’s successor is expected to have different preferences from his or her predecessor, this can alter crisis bargaining decisions, which could affect the probability of war. Other studies utilizing formal modeling to explain the relationship between leaders and international conflict focus on selectorate theory (Goemans & Fey, 2009) and domestic political competition with an opposition party (Schultz, 2005).
There are also a few notable examples of using psychological and cognitive approaches to explain a leader’s use of force as a tool of foreign policy. Malici (2006, p. 44) examines the use of military force for German decision makers during the Gulf War, the Yugoslav crisis, the Kosovo crisis, the Afghanistan War, and the Iraq War. He finds that although Germany did engage militarily in the Yugoslav crisis, the Kosovo crisis, and the Afghanistan War, the belief system of Germany’s decision makers explains the limited nature of force that Germany employed in these conflicts. Using operational code analysis, Marfleet and Miller (2005) explain the failure of the United States to gain a second resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq by examining the public statements delivered by U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac. In a similar study, Dyson (2006) explains British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to assist the United States in the invasion of Iraq, concluding that Blair’s personality and leadership style shaped both the process and the outcome of British foreign policy in the Iraq War. As these studies display, identifying the belief systems of individual leaders and decision makers is a useful approach to explaining the use of force.
Another notable example of a psychological approach comes from Mitchell (2005), who develops an advisory systems typology to address how presidents’ management style affects their choice of advisory structure. He uses this system to explain President Richard Nixon’s use of force in the Vietnam War and President Bill Clinton’s decision regarding whether to use force in Bosnia in 1993. According to Mitchell, understanding the advisory structure and leadership style of a president is important to explain the decision to use force.
There are also studies that utilize prospect theory and poliheuristic theory to examine leaders’ decisions to use force. For example, McDermott (1992) argues that President Jimmy Carter was willing to approve of the risky operation to rescue hostages during the Iranian hostage crisis because he viewed the situation in terms of political losses and was therefore more willing to accept the risk of a military operation. In another example, McInerney (1992) uses prospect theory to explain the Soviet Union’s foreign policy toward Syria and Israel leading up to the Six Days War, arguing that the leadership of the Soviet Union was risk-acceptant and was therefore more willing to engage in risky behavior such as using force. While there are critiques of applying prospect theory to international events (Levy, 1992), the theory nonetheless provides an interesting cognitive approach to understanding decision makers’ use of force.
As an example of poliheuristic theory, Mintz (1993) uses the noncompensatory principle to explain the George H.W. Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq in 1991. He argues that the administration had three available options to force Saddam Hussain to retreat from Kuwait: (1) use force, (2) rely on containment, and (3) withdraw. According to Mintz’s analysis, withdrawal would have hurt President Bush militarily and politically, and was therefore eliminated as an option; the containment strategy was also eliminated because of the effect such a strategy would have on the American economy and the president’s popularity. This left President Bush with the default option to use force. In concluding that the benefits of using force outweighed the costs, President Bush approved a military operation to remove Saddam Hussain’s forces from Kuwait. As these studies demonstrate, focusing on leaders can enhance our understanding of the use of force in foreign policy.
Foreign policy analysis has yielded a great deal of insight into the use of force. This approach stems from opening up the black box of state, and it leads to producing many insights that are not possible through traditional approaches that ignore the role of domestic politics. The rational choice and psychological approaches help explain decision making. In addition, the literatures regarding the democratic peace, selectorate theory, public opinion, domestic institutions, and leaders—all topics opened by foreign policy analysis— provide important explanations of the use of force in foreign policy.
Future research on the use of force and international conflict should account for the importance of domestic politics. There has been tremendous growth in the study of leaders in the past decade, and it is proving to be a particularly promising topic for future research. While systemic theories treat the state as a unitary actor, many useful theories to explain militarized conflict have been developed by taking an agent-based approach to studying foreign policy. These theories, and the topics they open up to research, have greatly contributed to the cumulation of knowledge regarding the use of force in international relations. Because of their capacity to provide links between islands of theory, selectorate theory and the bargaining model of war also deserve continued attention (Quackenbush, 2015). By continuing to pursue these avenues of research, scholars can more fully illuminate the decision-making process leading to war and peace.
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