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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews (Overviews of the Foreign Policy Analysis Literature)
  • Early Encounters with Morality: Realism
  • The Break with the Past? Liberalism as Morality in Foreign Policy
  • Democratic Peace Theory (DPT)
  • Public Opinion and Morality
  • Constructivism and Morality’s Role in Foreign Policy
  • Just War Theory and War: General Contours
  • Humanitarian Interventions
  • Critical Security Studies Scholars and Humanitarian Interventions
  • The Responsibility to Protect (R2P)
  • The Co-constitution of Morality, Ethics, and Foreign Policy
  • EU Foreign Policy

International Relations Morality in Foreign Policy
Maria Fanis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0306


The foreign policy analysis (FPA) subfield is situated at the intersection of international relations (IR) and foreign policy behaviors of states. It is characterized by the primacy of the agent-specific ontology and the various cognitive decision-making theoretical models that explain the causal link between actors and foreign policymaking. FPA privileges realist conceptions of the world and downplays the role of normative considerations in foreign policymaking. With the end of the Cold War and the increased frequency of humanitarian interventions foreign policy analyses devoted more attention to normative considerations and the role of ethics or morality in foreign policy, while also retaining the focus on agent-specific explanations. In particular, the just war theory, while primarily a theory/tradition about moral reasoning, became the most prominent theoretical model in the debates about humanitarian interventions. However, the just war theory scholars mostly debate the theory’s reasoning with reference to the specific humanitarian actions instead of using it as a heuristic device for mapping out the moral compass of the actual decision makers. In other words, the FPA subfield has not experienced any paradigmatic transformations, similar to those in IR, and it is not ready to deal with the possibility of morality as a separate analytical category. The British foreign policy literature differs from the American along those lines, especially concerning the foreign policy of the European Union (EU). This literature looks at morality as the initial motivating factor behind EU foreign policy, whereas the American scholarship debates the morality of foreign policy outcomes based on the criteria set out by the just war theory. The FPA subfield in the United States could benefit from thinking about morality from a critical perspective. Incorporating critical approaches in FPA will elevate the role of morality in foreign policymaking.

General Overviews (Overviews of the Foreign Policy Analysis Literature)

FPA is a well-established and developed subfield of international relations (IR). It is situated at the intersection of IR and foreign policymaking. IR became a distinct field of academic inquiry after World War II, and soon after the first foundational work FPA appeared in 1962 (Snyder, et al. 1962) followed by Rosenau 1964 and Sprout and Sprout 1956. FPA. The emphasis since then on a rationalist explanation of world politics did not warrant a focus on morality as a possible contributing factor to foreign policymaking. In addition, the theoretical dominance of realism in security studies, which occupy the bulk of foreign policy analyses, made it easier to exclude norms and morality in favor of material explanations. FPA focuses on the decision-making process of policymakers (Snyder, et al. 1962). Consequently, as Hudson remarks clearly, FPA employs an “agent-oriented” theoretical perspective in order to probe the “why” questions. This agent-oriented ontology could have certainly entertained an array of epistemological venues. However, the importance of the “why” research question precluded the possibility that the agent’s cognitive decision-making calculations might reflect wider societal norms, and possibly morality, an epistemological possibility that could have been engendered by a “how” question (Doty 1993, p. 300). Therefore, while the “cognitive revolution” allowed FPA to entertain policymakers’ subjective perceptions of international events (Doty 1993, p. 300), and, by extension, ideational and normative influences, the “why” question foreclosed that possibility. The end of the Cold War precipitated two developments that opened up avenues for the role of morality in the FPA literature. The first was the ascendance of social constructivism as a new theoretical perspective in IR and FPA whose emphasis on the social context, as opposed to the material, was to be captured and analyzed as an intersubjective social reality rather than as one confined to cognitive psychological explanations. This development ushered in the ideational and, at times, moral explanations in FPA. The second was the steady increase in humanitarian interventions, which made ethical and moral considerations an inescapable part of the foreign policy choices of states. However, morality never attained the status of a concept that warranted its own thematic analysis in the FPA literature. In addition, morality has been conceptualized quite differently by social constructivists and post-structuralists, thus making it impossible to develop a unified research agenda on morality as an analytical category in FPA.

  • Doty, Roxanne Lynn. “Foreign Policy as Social Construction: A Post-positivist Analysis of U.S. Counterinsurgency Policy in the Philippines.” International Studies Quarterly 37.3 (1993): 297–320.

    DOI: 10.2307/2600810

    Here Doty brings attention to the advantages from adopting a post-structuralist approach to foreign policy. Her argument, namely that asking the “how” instead of the “why” a specific foreign policy was chosen could open new avenues in foreign policy analysis did not influence the traditional FPA field in any significant way.

  • Rosenau, J. N. “Pre-theories and Theories of Foreign Policy.” In Approaches to Comparative and International Politics. Edited by Robert B. Farrell, 115–169. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

    In this chapter Rosenau engages with Snyder, et al. 1962 by calling for a foreign policy analysis that moves beyond the factors that Snyder, Bruck, and Sapin identified in their book. Rosenau believed that it was not enough to discover the factors behind foreign policymaking, but that also we had to discover the dynamics of the processes that influence foreign policy. He also suggested that the field of FPA should be oriented toward the production of testable theories.

  • Snyder, Richard C., H. W. Bruck, and Burton Sapin. Foreign Policy Decision-Making: An Approach to the Study of International Politics. New York: Free Press, 1962.

    This is the foundational book in foreign policy analysis. It introduced scholars to the importance of the “decision makers” and the decision-making process in explaining foreign policies. The authors drew on political psychology, sociology, and organizational theory in order to capture the variables that most influenced the decision-making process. The authors also changed the dependent variable for explaining foreign policy outcomes to explaining the actors’ decision-making process. Reprinted in 2002.

  • Sprout, Harold, and Margaret Sprout. “Environment Factors in the Study of International Politics.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 1.4 (1956): 309–328.

    DOI: 10.1177/002200275700100401

    The Sprouts made a very significant contribution to the field by pointing out that foreign policy analyses would be amiss if they did not take into consideration the circumstance under which policymakers make their decision, which they called the “psycho milieu.” They were the first scholars to argue that there might be incongruities between the observable external environment of policymakers and the one perceived by the policymakers themselves. Expanded and revised in article form in 1957.

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