In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Foreign Policy Decision-Making

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Decision-Making Processes: The Rational-Cognitive Debate
  • Domestic Political Influences

International Relations Foreign Policy Decision-Making
Jessica D. Blankshain
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0269


The study of foreign policy decision-making seeks to understand how states formulate and enact foreign policy. It views foreign policy as a series of decisions made by particular actors using specific decision-making processes. The origins of this focus on decision-making are generally traced to the 1950s and 1960s, with the literature increasing in complexity and diversity of approaches in more recent decades. Foreign policy decision-making is situated within foreign policy analysis (a subfield of international relations subfield), which applies theories and methods from an array of disciplines—political science, public administration, economics, psychology, sociology—to understand how states make foreign policy, and how these policies translate into geopolitical outcomes. The literature on foreign policy decision-making is often subdivided based on assumptions about the process by which actors make foreign policy decisions—primarily falling into rational and nonrational decision-making; about who is assumed to make the decision—states, individuals, groups, or organizations; and about the influences believed to be most important in affecting those decisions—international factors, domestic political factors, interpersonal dynamics, etc. While much of the literature focuses on foreign policy decision-making in the United States, there have been attempts to apply models developed in the US context to other states, as well as to generate generalizable theories about foreign policy decision-making that apply to certain types of states.

General Overview

Taking a decision-making-focused approach to understanding foreign policy began as a reaction to systemic theories of international relations that examined interactions between states without much attention to actors and processes within those states. Snyder, et al. 2002 (originally 1954) is widely credited with kick-starting the field, which then developed rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s. Garrison 2003 and Hudson 2005 review the development of the field since the early post-WWII years and suggest where it may go in the future. Goldgeier 2018 provides an excellent summary of key works in the field.

  • Garrison, Jean A., ed. “Foreign Policy Analysis in 20/20: A Symposium.” International Studies Review 5.2 (2003): 155–202.

    This symposium features essays exploring the evolution of different strands of foreign policy analysis and suggesting avenues for further scholarship, with contributions by Jean A. Garrison, Juliet Kaarbo, Douglas Foyle, Mark Schafer and Eric K. Stern. Essays cover the role of identity in foreign policy decision-making, the interplay of international and domestic politics, the importance of different methodological approaches for foreign policy analysis, group dynamics, and crisis decision-making.

  • Goldgeier, James M. “Foreign Policy Decision Making.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies. Edited by Renée Marlin-Bennet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    Goldgeier provides a concise summary of the evolution and future of the study of foreign policy decision-making. He emphasizes the shift from focusing on rational decision-making to examining the roles of organizations and individuals, including the study of bureaucratic politics, group decision-making, and individual cognition. First published 2010. Available online by subscription.

  • Hudson, Valerie M. “Foreign Policy Analysis: Actor-Specific Theory and the Ground of International Relations.” Foreign Policy Analysis 1.1 (2005): 1–30.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1743-8594.2005.00001.x

    The inaugural article in Foreign Policy Analysis (cited under Journals). Hudson characterizes the subfield of foreign policy analysis as an important actor-specific foundation of international relations theory. This article covers both the definition and importance of foreign policy analysis as a discipline, as well as a brief history of its evolution, with a concise summary of critical early works and current trajectory.

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

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230107526

    This monograph by Snyder, Bruck, and Sapin (originally published in 1954) is a foundational work in foreign policy decision-making. It proposes a focus on how individual human beings, acting on behalf of states and organized into groups and state institutions, make decisions. The 2002 reprint includes essays by Valerie Hudson and Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier on the importance of the original work and the current state of the field.

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