Foreign policy decisions are often thought of as collective events, conceptualized more in terms of sociology, historical patterns, structures, institutions, and culture before the individual psychological variables are considered. Situational and circumstantial variables are considered tantamount to psychological traits, cognitive, emotional, or behavioral cues. Structural perspectives like realism, neoliberalism, and idealism had become more important than focusing on the actual actors making decisions, just as the behaviors of corporations cloud the behaviors of their leaders. Yet power brokers and state-level actors are individual people, with attendant backgrounds, biases, and beliefs. The cluster of variables impacting personal-level decision making likewise impacts macro-level decision making. Foreign policy decisions can and should be viewed with a psychological lens in order to better understand historical successes and failures, and perhaps ironically even used to inform more effective foreign policy.
Foreign policy analysis does in fact depend on a thorough understanding of psychological variables and constraints. Fusing foreign policy with psychology is not necessarily a new approach, but has become increasingly important in the post-9/11 universe in which non-state actors have transformed geo-political realities. As a result, the formal and scholarly analysis of foreign policy has been shifting its focus from the "structure of the international system" toward the decisions made by "independent actors," especially after September 11 (Smith, Hadfield and Dunne 2). The weakening of the classic nation-state has also led to the increased importance of incorporating astute psychological analysis in foreign policy analysis.
Foreign policy is currently being conceptualized as something that individual actors do, with broad social, economic, and political consequences, rather than as something that societies do collectively. Using this viewpoint, the state is not an "actor," because the state is an abstraction, whereas individual leaders are concrete (Smith, Hadfield, And Dunne 89). With the actor once again central in the analysis of foreign policy, it becomes easier to make future recommendations based on empirical evidence rather than broad speculation. As Smith, Hadfield and Dunne put it, critical foreign policy should be "empirical" even if it is not strictly "empiricist," (5). Alden and Amran note that there is "predictive" value in understanding the decision-making process of individual actors (29). It is impossible to remain fully objective and empirical when abstractions like "states" are analyzed, but when social science research is applied to individual actors, the study of foreign policy becomes more objective and more pragmatic.
Focusing on psychological factors does not downplay the role of nation and culture. In fact, social norms and culture inform decisions at all levels, including foreign policy decisions. The behavior of power brokers is directly linked to situational variables and norms, but not determined by those variables alone. The international system can be construed as part of a "psycho-social milieu," (Smith, Hadfield and Dunne 23). As Alden and Amran put it, "the relationship between the decision maker, the state, and the structure of the international system is complex," (30). The decision-maker is a psychological being influenced by external, situational, and environmental variables ranging from social norms and culture to social pressure and the constraints of his or her legal position. Both nature and nurture can be accounted for in a psychological framework of foreign policy analysis, with attention paid to the individual's background, leadership style, and personality. Psychological variables will have already impacted the person's decision to become a leader, involved in political affairs. Likewise, psychological variables impact daily decisions and decisive actions. Psychology can also shed light on group behavior. "Group madness," "collective panic," "violent scapegoating," and "mindless conformity" are common problems with the phenomenon of groupthink (Janis 3).
Psychological variables directly impact decision-making processes, which is why theories of choice and decision-making have become central to policy analysis. Rational choice theory has remained salient in the study of foreign policy (Alden and Amran). However, rational models of foreign policy analysis are severely limited, if not outright fallacious (Abshire and Dickson; Alden and Amran). The rational theories impose artificial rationality, imposing an "order…on world events, which may not in fact exist," (Abshire and Dickson 114). However, rational choice theory can account for the individual actor's choices when those choices are based on self-interest. Various degrees of self-interest in the decision making process will have a strong bearing on the individual actor and thus, the outcomes of any one decision. Yet because no human being is fully rational, it is impossible to employ rational choice theory in exclusion of other theories of choice. Other theories that equally...
The converse is that applying psychology can help leaders make decisions that best reflect the core goals of their overall foreign policy strategy. Policy advisers can rely on psychological models to advise their leaders. Likewise, psychology is a valuable tool when constructing foreign policies related to military interventions. This is because psychology can illuminate the variables motivating individual terrorist actors including suicide terrorists, and also show how political leaders may underestimate their enemies or make serious misjudgments that lead to disastrous outcomes. Jervis discusses the importance of cognitive consistency in the assimilation of information used to make foreign policy decisions. Leaders need to make decisions often without sufficient data, operating within an ambiguous framework (Jervis 196).
Psychological theories of foreign policy are inherently proactive and future-oriented, even as they aid historians in constructing biographical data or historical narratives. Jervis points out the importance of focusing on psychological factors to eliminate future error in foreign policy acts. "It is partly because most international relations scholars have paid no attention to psychology that they have failed to recognize the importance of misperception" in important foreign policy decisions (Jervis 6). In a similar fashion, Abshire and Dickson state the relevance of comprehending the processes by which miscalculations occur, in order to maintain peace. If peace is a common objective, then it is extremely important to recognize errors in judgment, which may simply be errors in perception (Abshire and Dickson). Perception and cognition inform individual and group decisions. When perceptions are clear, judgments can be more rational than when perceptions are clouded by distorted views. This is in part why a diverse team of foreign policy advisers can help leaders to view problems from multiple angles.
By relegating important decisions to groups, individuals can too easily avoid responsibility for their mistakes, which is why the application of psychology is critical to proactive changes in foreign policy (Janis). Group dynamics invariably influence individual leaders. A cacophony of voices from various stakeholders may lead to clouded judgment. Ideological variables also account for key foreign policy steps and missteps. For instance, Smith, Hadfield and Dunne discuss the means by which President Kennedy made the decisions leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Factors like the media, public opinion, and social norms clouded Kennedy's judgment because there were basic assumptions made about everything from communism to the predicted behavior of Communist leaders. Janis also discusses the psychological issues impacting the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Individual actors who have a strong command of communications and interpersonal relations may be more apt to make decisions that at least conform to their goals. Psychological research in communications, including the importance of nonverbal behavior and intercultural communication, can help guide diplomacy and help avoid unnecessary conflict. Military tactics are often rooted in psychological theories that attempt to predict the behavior of the enemy via psychological models and cognitive maps. Cognitive schemas are bound to differ from person to person and culture to culture, which is why understanding their relevance can inform better foreign policy decisions. Likewise, individual actors rely on a toolkit of psychological responses based on their known strengths and weaknesses. As Greenstein points out, leadership traits and personality theory has accounted for many foreign policy decisions. The interaction between world leaders is like the interaction between people in any other arena such as business or personal affairs. Traits like relative charisma or emotional intelligence impact communications, decision-making, and public opinion. Charismatic leaders are better suited to garner favorable public opinion even for war efforts; whereas leaders who are more transactional or authoritarian in their approach may rely on a different constellation of personality traits to achieve their goals. Especially in an image- and media-driven society, the public's opinion of the leader will be in part based on perceived psychological characteristics and the normative culture surrounding how those characteristics are judged.
The study of consciousness in the field of psychology has also been applied to foreign policy. A seminal work by Boulding shows how cognitive schema create a few possible futures, and that ascription to one or another of those cognitive schemas will lead to that outcome, desirable or not. To change the future, one needs to change the cognitive schema. Values,…
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