In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Theories of Foreign Policy

  • Introduction
  • Classic Texts
  • Textbooks

International Relations Theories of Foreign Policy
Gunther Hellmann, Ursula Stark Urrestarazu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0104


The academic discipline studying international relations (IR) is often subdivided into two fields: “systemic” international relations, which provide for a bird’s-eye perspective on the international system as a whole, and “subsystemic” foreign policy analysis (FPA), which zooms in on the placement and actions of states considered to be the most fundamental unit of this system. Views differ, however, as to how strongly this distinction should be emphasized. In part this obviously depends on how one defines “foreign policy.” Conceptions of foreign policy stretch from an emphasis on external actions of (state) governments to practices of boundary drawing between political communities. The former notion leads scholars to focus on such things as decision-making processes, whereas the latter tends to emphasize the mutual implication of foreign policy agency and systemic reproduction and transformation. In American IR the prevailing tendency is still to see two rather distinct subfields, whereas scholarship outside the United States tends to emphasize the connections and mutual dependencies between the fields. In any case, the distinction has affected (and has, in turn, been affected by) how scholars conceive of “theory” in foreign policy analysis and what it may mean to “theorize.” Generally speaking—and in contrast to systemic theories—the subject matter of foreign policy is often thought to require more complex (or less parsimonious) models or theories because many more factors or variables are deemed to be relevant. Some scholars even argue that such complexities render foreign policy theories primarily as tools for post-hoc explanation with little use for prediction, a crucial dimension often associated with theories. Yet in the 21st century there is largely consensus among IR scholars that some form of theoretical reflection has to play an integral part in analyzing foreign policy irrespective of whether it is primarily a tool for explaining specific cases or also one for prediction, whether it aims at general or country-specific theory. This survey, therefore, aims at an overview of the field with an emphasis on both explicit forms of theorization, as well as the broad varieties in understanding what such theorization might entail.

Classic Texts

Classics are must-reads in order to get a sense of a particular field from a broader historical perspective. They define the reach and limits of the field. Not all of the following works would necessarily be included by a scholar who defined the field more narrowly (see, e.g., Hudson 2007 cited under Textbooks). Yet notions of a dividing line between “foreign policy” and “international politics” are deeply ingrained. For modern IR Waltz 1959 lays the groundwork for conceiving of international relations and foreign policy as two separate fields in terms of “images” or levels of analysis. Snyder, et al. 2002, as the most prominent publication from the other side of the aisle, complemented this move by conceiving of foreign policy in a much more differentiating and at the same time more positivist way. However, more traditional European contributions did not necessarily follow this line. Despite some crucial differences (e.g., Morgenthau 1948, Aron 1966, and Bull 1977) they consider foreign policy to be inseparably connected with “systemic” processes. Still, in some respects by the 1960s, FPA had developed as a distinctly separate field, especially in the United States and in particular with regard to different notions of theory (Rosenau 1966). This separation received a major push with the publication of Allison 1999 and its three “lenses” (or “cuts”) of looking at the essentially identical decisions.

  • Allison, Graham, and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Longman, 1999.

    Influential study of foreign policy decision making. Rather than advocating the presumed superiority of one theory, it convincingly shows that three different “lenses” or models (rational actor; organizational behavior; governmental politics) open up very different perspectives of key decisions. Three illustrative “cuts” on the Cuban Missile Crisis make it essential reading for any introductory course on foreign policy.

  • Aron, Raymond. Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966.

    An “old-European” classic of IR and certainly part of the realist tradition—though not of the “billiard-ball” variant. It reflects Aron’s conviction that foreign policy and systemic dynamics must not be separated: he examines (1) theory (focused equally on the unity, means, and goals of foreign policy, as well as international systems, polarity, and war), (2) sociology (the “determinants and constants” of foreign policy), (3) history (focused on the nuclear revolution), and (4) praxeology.

  • Bull, Hedley. The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. London and Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1977.

    “International Society,” the key term of the so-called English School (which Bull helped to coin) is the product of interaction among political communities—and productive of what they do. Although this book is primarily about international order, it has helped to sharpen systemic theorization by emphasizing the conditioning of foreign policy via international institutions as much as it contributed to theorizing the causal role of great powers for the (re-)production of international order.

  • Morgenthau, Hans. Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. New York: Knopf, 1948.

    A widely read realist classic. Foreign policy amounts to the pursuit of the “national interest” defined in terms of power due to an innate drive for power maximization. Never positivist (as the book was sometimes misread to be), it essentially advocates a Weberian approach conceiving the statesman in ideal-type fashion as a rational leader who steers through the messiness of international politics.

  • Rosenau, James. “Pre-theories and Theories of Foreign Policy.” In Approaches to Comparative and International Politics. Edited by R. Barry Farrell, 27–92. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1966.

    This is not only one of Rosenau’s “best essays” (as he said himself in an interview in 2004) but is also one of the most influential articles in the history of the theorization of foreign policy by one of the giants of American FPA. The very notion of “pre-theory” was indicative of both the precarious theoretical status and the high ambition.

  • Snyder, Richard C., H. W. Bruck, and Burton Sapin, eds. Foreign Policy Decision-Making (Revisited). With additional chapters by Valerie M. Hudson, Derek H. Chollet, and James M. Goldgeier. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

    This “behaviorist” classic revolutionized foreign policy theory when originally published in 1954. Rather than perpetuating institutional, legal, or classical power analysis it propagated a Gestalt switch by focusing on those individuals “acting in the name of the state” (p. 59). Assuming that individual preferences were both situationally and biographically determined added complexity to the model; this made it an easy target for parsimonious theorizing but also an attractive model of “real world” decision making.

  • Waltz, Kenneth H. Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.

    Waltz has been adamant that a theory of foreign policy can never be built due to the complexities involved. However, in his first book, which examines the causes of war at three levels of analysis, he does theorize the state (and thus foreign policy)—if only to elaborate the point that anarchy as a systemic condition “imposes certain requirements on a foreign policy that pretends to be rational” (p. 201).

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