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date: 26 March 2017

Foreign Policy Leadership in Less Developed Countries (LDCs)

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

Why do leaders make foreign policy decisions that often appear irrational or engage in major reversals of previous policy to the extent that observers wonder at their calculations? The field of Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) offers multiple ways to approach questions of decision making. Many kinds of variables are explored, in the general areas of elites, institutions, and ideas. The focus on leadership and decision making is especially rich for comparative purposes, because it is open to specification of the different contexts within which leaders operate. The poliheuristic theory (PH) and other work emphasizing the importance of the domestic context have provided explanatory power about the factors affecting leader decision making. Extensive application of PH has shown that decisions about foreign policy are often made according to a noncompensatory principle (the acceptability heuristic): leaders use a shortcut, in which options that threaten their political position are ruled out. Generally, the metric is about domestic politics—an option has to leave the leader in a good position with his or her domestic audience. But much of FPA work has been based on case studies of Western or other developed states, or at least has not approached the context of developing states theoretically—in a way that recognizes it as governed by generalizable principles different from the Western context. What we know from scholars of developing country politics is that, in fact, the considerations of leaders of less developed countries (LDCs) can be quite distinct. They focus more on regime security than the Western notion of national security. We must question whether positon in domestic politics is the primary noncompensatory guide. Further, threats to that security come from inside and outside the state’s borders. To comprehend the foreign policies of developing states, frameworks must take into account how leaders conduct “intermestic” policy (policy where lines are blurred between the international and domestic).

For LDCs, the analyst needs to understand two aspects: the threats the regime faces and the constituencies the leader sees as crucial to sustaining survival and controlling those threats.

Analysis of how a leader uses a “framing threat” strategy and a “broadening audience” strategy can be used as a tool to indicate the two criteria (threats the regime faces; internal and external constituencies). By focusing the analysis on the intermestic uses of threat, we gain insight into the most crucial priorities for the decision maker, and thus, how the noncompensatory decision rule is applied. “Acceptable” policies must address these threats. Second, examining how a leader uses the broadening audience strategy shows us which constituencies the leader calls on as supporters and provides an indication of how the noncompensatory decision rule is applied. Indeed, we cannot only ask if the leader has legitimacy; we must answer the query, “legitimate to whom?” These audiences often cross borders. Integration of several FPA perspectives with work by developing country scholars provides a rich framework that sheds light on previously puzzling foreign policy decisions. If we keep domestic and foreign policy separate in our models, we are missing a key dimension of LDC politics: underdevelopment of regime security and the legitimacy that helps provide it are tied to interests and identities that are transnational in nature.