In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ideology, Values, and Foreign Policy

  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Foundations
  • Social and Political Psychology
  • Values and Foreign Policy

International Relations Ideology, Values, and Foreign Policy
Peter Beattie
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0262


Ideology is a prototypical “contested concept,” though competing definitions can generally be sorted into pejorative and nonpejorative categories. Pejorative definitions consider ideology to be a set of false beliefs about the world and how it operates, typically facilitating exploitation or injustice. Nonpejorative definitions consider ideology to be something neutral (or its normative dimension to be undetermined a priori), a kind of systematized thinking about politics or political economy; a worldview. It is the latter definition that is most common in international relations scholarship outside of the Marxian tradition, and it will be used here. Values are commonly defined as rank-ordered ideas about what is desirable, transcending specific situations, that guide behavioral choices and influence evaluations. Given these two definitions, values are subsumed under ideology; they form the normative dimension of ideology. For example, A may value both self-determination and democracy (and A may see elections as a means of ensuring self-determination); but if A’s ideology pictures the international system as dominated by a superpower that regularly interferes in elections, she may support the decision of a less powerful state to avoid elections to evade the superpower’s interference. Ideology, as a systematized way of thinking about politics, can help adjudicate conflicts between values—as in this example, between self-determination and democracy. International relations scholarship has traditionally overlooked the influence of ideology and values on foreign policy and public opinion about foreign policy. Considerations of power maximization and balancing were commonly hypothesized to overwhelm any influence of ideational factors, such that the latter could be safely ignored as mere epiphenomena of the former. More recently, the variously named ideational, interpretivist, or constructivist turn in international relations has opened the way for IR scholars to investigate the effects of ideas within the international system. Foreign policy analysis, operating at a less abstract level, has been more open to ideational factors as influences on policymakers. Yet a great deal remains to be explored about the way ideology and values constrain and influence foreign policy decision-makers, and public opinion (which, in turn, may constrain and influence decision-makers). Ideology and values can be conceptualized at the micro level as beliefs held by individuals and at the macro level as widely shared beliefs (akin to “social representations”) enforced, inculcated, and/or reproduced by institutions.

Theoretical Foundations

Although positivism has been abandoned by philosophers of science, it remains influential if not predominant within international relations (IR). Since ideology and values are not as susceptible to observation and measurement as power variables—though they can be measured via surveys and textual analyses of leaders’ writings, transcripts, and speeches—scholars interested in exploring their effects on foreign policy have established different philosophical foundations. An early pioneer is Roy Bhaskar, whose application of scientific realism to the social sciences initiated the critical realism school (Bhaskar 1975); Searle 1995 is less challenging for newcomers to philosophy of science. Wendt 1999 later elaborated how a critical realist perspective applies to IR, and Jackson 2011 provides a comparative analysis of IR theories and their often unstated ontological and epistemological assumptions. Taking a step between philosophy of science and empirical investigation of ideational influence, Béland and Cox 2011 provides a good introduction to the relevant debates and approaches. Contra Levi 1970, which summarizes the long-standing view that ideology is subservient to interest, Blyth 2003 makes the short but powerful argument that ideas are not only a proper focus of study in IR, but also they are essential. Evolutionary approaches to ideas (e.g., gene-culture co-evolution) treat them as material, bridging the gap between “materialist” and “idealist” theories; Tang 2013 offers IR scholars an excellent introduction to social/cultural evolution theory and its implications for IR. Lastly, Maynard and Mildenberger 2018 provides a survey of how ideology has been defined and studied across a variety of disciplines.

  • Béland, Daniel, and Robert Henry Cox, eds. Ideas and Politics in Social Science Research. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Provides a broad survey of approaches to the study of ideational influences in politics; introduces key points of debates in this area (coming from authors in favor of the ideational approach); discusses methodological, empirical, and theoretical issues.

  • Bhaskar, Roy. A Realist Theory of Science. Leeds, UK: Leeds Books, 1975.

    One of the most influential books on ontology and epistemology in social inquiry; applies scientific realism to the social sciences, providing a philosophical framework for why unobservables (like ideology and values) are proper objects of scientific study.

  • Blyth, Mark. “Structures Do Not Come with an Instruction Sheet: Interests, Ideas, and Progress in Political Science.” Perspectives on Politics 1.4 (2003): 695–706.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592703000471

    Concise statement of the importance of studying ideational influences in IR; problematizes the notion of state interests, arguing that interests do not spring immediately from material reality; rather, they are mediated through ideas, leaving ample room for historical and institutional factors to produce distortion.

  • Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus. The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations. New York: Routledge, 2011.

    Explores the philosophies of science underpinning theoretical traditions in IR; takes an ecumenical approach, explaining how the different epistemological and ontological assumptions underlying IR theories can be useful in building knowledge about the subject; points toward how the study of ideology and values can be incorporated into or reconciled with non-ideational approaches.

  • Levi, Werner. “Ideology, Interests, and Foreign Policy.” International Studies Quarterly 14.1 (1970): 1–31.

    DOI: 10.2307/3013538

    Elaborates the long-prevailing view that ideology is causally inefficacious compared to interest, owing to the structure of the international system; a limited definition of ideology and inattention to subrational features of human psychology secure the conclusion.

  • Maynard, Jonathan Leader, and Matto Mildenberger. “Convergence and Divergence in the Study of Ideology: A Critical Review.” British Journal of Political Science 48.2 (2018): 563–589.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0007123415000654

    Reviews the variety of ways scholars in different disciplines and paradigms have conceptualized and studied ideology; suggests points of convergence and offers ways to incorporate insights from different research traditions.

  • Searle, John R. The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Free Press, 1995.

    Offers another application of scientific realism to the social realm, particularly social institutions; it is clearer and more commonsensical than Bhaskar 1975, although perhaps at the cost of some depth.

  • Tang, Shiping. The Social Evolution of International Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199658336.001.0001

    Equal parts materialist and idealist, this evolutionary framework explains how power and ideas jointly influence international politics; biological, social, and cultural/ideational evolution are used to explain the development of international politics from pre-history to today.

  • Wendt, Alexander. Social Theory of International Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511612183

    A seminal work in developing constructivism as an IR theory; explains how state interests are never self-evident but are constructed through ideas; provides an application of scientific realism directly to international relations.

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