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

Introduction

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.

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    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.

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

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    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.

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  • 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.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    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.

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  • 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: 10.1057/9780230107526Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    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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Textbooks

Textbooks on foreign policy analysis and/or foreign policy decision-making introduce the reader to a range of theories, and often also apply these theories to historical and contemporary cases. Textbooks on foreign policy decision-making are aimed at a range of audiences. Alden and Aran 2017 and Neack 2014 are appropriate for introducing undergraduate students to the field. Beach 2012; Hudson 2014; Morin and Paquin 2018; and Smith, et al. 2016 are better suited to graduate students looking to understand and contribute to the scholarly literature. Gvosdev, et al. 2019 and Mintz and DeRouen 2010 focus on making the study of foreign policy decision-making useful to practitioners and students.

  • Alden, Chris, and Amnon Aran. Foreign Policy Analysis: New Approaches. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2017.

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    An introductory text, now in its second edition, aimed at undergraduates or master’s degree students. It begins with rationalist theories of foreign policy decision-making focused on the unitary state, and then discusses critiques to this approach with a strong focus on bureaucracies and foreign policy decision-making. The authors also discuss in depth domestic political influences on foreign policy decision-making from the perspective of institutions, economics, and interest groups.

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  • Beach, Derek. Analyzing Foreign Policy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-00279-2Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This text discusses a range of types of foreign policy actions—“what states do”—from security policy to diplomacy to economic policy, and considers the possibility that the field may need to change as the world becomes less state-centric. This book is particularly valuable for those who wish to conduct their own research, as it has a detailed section on research strategies and methods. It is not US-focused.

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  • Gvosdev, Nikolas K., Jessica D. Blankshain, and David A. Cooper. Decision-Making in American Foreign Policy: Translating Theory into Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108566742Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Intended for master’s degree or advanced undergraduate students intending to become national security practitioners. The text translates theoretical concepts—primarily levels of analysis (see Waltz 2001, cited under Conceptual Models in the Study of Decision-Making); two-level games (Putnam 1988, cited under Domestic Political Influences); and conceptual models (Allison and Zelikow 1999, cited under Conceptual Models in the Study of Decision-Making and Organizational Models), which the authors expand from three to six—for practitioners, with a focus on applied examples. The text covers cases from the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations.

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  • Hudson, Valerie M. Foreign Policy Analysis: Classic and Contemporary Theory. 2d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

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    This text, now in its second edition, is targeted at graduate students and advanced undergraduates seeking to understand academic theories of foreign policy analysis. Hudson is careful to distinguish between decisions, actions, and outcomes, as there is not always a straightforward relationship between the three. In terms of “explanans,” Hudson considers individual-level factors, group-level factors, national-level factors (including culture, identity, and domestic politics), and the effect of the international system.

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  • Mintz, Alex, and Karl R. DeRouen. Understanding Foreign Policy Decision Making. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511757761Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This text, oriented toward practitioners and academics, considers types of decisions, different models of foreign policy decision-making, and influences at multiple levels of analysis. The authors particularly focus on applied decision analysis as a way to improve foreign policy decision-making. Throughout the text, they apply theories to cases involving a range of countries, including the United States, Israel, Iceland, and New Zealand.

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  • Morin, Jean-Frédéric, and Jonathan Paquin. Foreign Policy Analysis: A Toolbox. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-61003-0Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This textbook is aimed primarily at graduate students (or advanced undergraduates) and scholars, discussing theoretical models and empirical methodology. The authors consider explanations of foreign policy at the individual, organizational, cultural, and systemic levels.

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  • Neack, Laura. The New Foreign Policy: Complex Interactions, Competing Interests. 3d ed. New Millennium Books in International Studies. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

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    Now in its third edition, this text provides an undergraduate-level introduction to foreign policy analysis. Neack takes a levels of analysis approach to foreign policy analysis, examining influences on foreign policy decision-making at the system, state, and individual levels. In addition to covering classic theories, Neack explicitly considers how different types of states (great powers, competitors, rising powers, and allies) formulate foreign policy.

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  • Smith, Steve, Amelia Hadfield, and Timothy Dunne, eds. Foreign Policy: Theories, Actors, Cases. 3d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

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    Now in its third edition, this textbook/edited volume provides a solid overview of foreign policy analysis, grounding the field within international relations and applying foreign policy theories to a range of cases covering military, economic, and diplomatic policy in a variety of countries in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

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Journals

A wide range of journals publish content relevant to the study of foreign policy decision-making. Foreign Affairs, Orbis, Survival, and the Washington Quarterly publish work written for a more general, policy-oriented audience. Foreign Policy Analysis is one of the few leading journals dedicated exclusively to advancing scholarly work in the field. International Studies Quarterly, the Journal of Conflict Resolution, and Security Studies are peer-reviewed scholarly journals with a wider focus that frequently publish articles relevant to foreign policy decision-making.

Decision-Making Processes: The Rational-Cognitive Debate

A key tension in the literature on foreign policy decision-making is between rational and cognitively constrained models of decision-making processes. Jervis 1968 was foundational in introducing the possibility of consistent deviations from rationality in foreign policy decision-making. Geva and Mintz 1997 provides a comprehensive review of decision-making models that span the rational-cognitive spectrum. Mintz 2004 examines one such blended model—poliheuristic theory—in more detail. Kahneman 2013 and Thaler and Sunstein 2009 explore human cognition and how it affects decision-making in a wide variety of contexts, many focused on everyday economic decisions, while Simon 1997 discusses cognitive constraints in the context of administrative organizations. Sylvan and Voss 1998 applies these cognitive and psychological constraints to foreign policy, examining how foreign policy decisions are framed.

  • Geva, Nehemia, and Alex Mintz, eds. Decisionmaking on War and Peace: The Cognitive-Rational Debate. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1997.

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    This edited volume features leading scholars of foreign policy decision-making writing on various approaches to decision-making that span the range from rational to cognitive/psychological. The book’s central argument is that neither rational nor cognitive schools are exclusive in their explanation of foreign policy decision-making, but that productive theorizing and study should consider both and attempt to bridge the two. Approaches discussed include rational choice theory, prospect theory, and poliheuristic theory, among others.

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  • Jervis, Robert. “Hypotheses on Misperception.” World Politics 20.3 (1968): 454–479.

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    Later developed into a book, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, this article is a foundational work of political psychology as applied to foreign policy. Jervis emphasizes ways the decision-makers systematically deviate from rational decision-making, focusing on the ways that existing belief structures bias decision-making and cause misperceptions.

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  • Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Paperback ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

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    Written for a general audience, this book summarizes four decades of research in behavioral economics and the psychology of decision-making, much of it conducted by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the founders of prospect theory. Kahneman distinguishes between two stylized modes of decision-making: System 1, the brain’s more intuitive decision-making system that relies on heuristics to make quick decisions, and System 2, which is responsible for slower, more deliberative decisions.

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  • Levy, Jack S. “Prospect Theory, Rational Choice, and International Relations.” International Studies Quarterly 41 (1997): 87–112.

    DOI: 10.1111/0020-8833.00034Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article reviews the theoretical and methodological literatures on the applicability of prospect theory to international relations. Levy argues that the validity of its hypothesis in the real world is uncertain, suggesting areas for future research.

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  • Mintz, Alex. “How Do Leaders Make Decisions? A Poliheuristic Perspective.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 48.1 (2004): 3–13.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002703261056Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article proposes a new “poliheuristic theory” of decision-making that bridges rational and cognitive approaches. Mintz hypothesizes a two-stage process: in the first stage, decision-makers apply a non-compensatory approach, ruling out options that violate a particular (usually political) constraint; in the second stage, they use something closer to a rational cost-benefit analysis to choose among remaining options.

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  • Simon, Herbert A. Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organizations. 4th ed. New York: Free Press, 1997.

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    While much of the book (originally published in 1945) focuses on organizational behavior, Simon bases his theory heavily on human cognitive constraints. He introduces the concept of satisficing—selecting the first option that is “good enough”—as an alternative to optimizing.

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  • Sylvan, Donald A., and James F. Voss, eds. Problem Representation in Foreign Policy Decision Making. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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    This edited volume examines how foreign policy problems are framed and how this affects decision-making. The contributors are scholars of political psychology and international relations. The chapters consider both individual cognitive processes and social processes and group dynamics. In addition to a strong focus on the theory of problem representation, the book includes empirical analyses ranging from laboratory experiments to analysis of presidential speeches, Senate hearings, and Parliamentary debates.

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  • Thaler, Richard H., and Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Rev. and expanded ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.

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    This book, written for a general audience, focuses on human biases in decision-making and how decision environments can exploit these biases to make certain decisions more or less likely. Policy applications are primarily domestically focused—interventions to sway decision-making on investment, health, education, etc.—but the principles can easily be extended to foreign policy decision-making.

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Conceptual Models in the Study of Decision-Making

Studies of foreign policy decision-making are often distinguished by which “level of analysis” they focus on—systemic, state, or individual. This idea was first introduced by Waltz 2001 (originally 1954). Allison and Zelikow 1999 (originally 1971) popularized the idea of making conceptual models explicit, and pushed analysts to move beyond state-centric perspectives to consider organizational factors. A number of more recent scholars have reconsidered and added to Allison’s originals, as seen in Kellerman 1983; Houghton 2013; and Gvosdev, et al. 2019. Four subcategories of conceptual models—state, individual, group, and organization—are discussed in more depth in separate subsections.

  • Allison, Graham T., and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1999.

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    Originally a 1969 American Political Science Review article by Allison titled “Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” and subsequently a 1971 book that was significantly revised—both theory and historical analysis—with Zelikow in 1999. It highlights the importance of conceptual models; introduces the canonical rational actor, organizational behavior, and governmental politics models; and applies them to American and Soviet decision-making during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

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  • Gvosdev, Nikolas K., Jessica D. Blankshain, and David A. Cooper. Decision-Making in American Foreign Policy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108566742Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The core of the textbook centers around six analytical perspectives for understanding foreign policy decision-making: the unitary state, cognitive, organizational process, bureaucratic politics, palace politics, and sub-bureaucratic politics.

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  • Houghton, David Patrick. The Decision Point: Six Cases in U.S. Foreign Policy Decision Making. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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    Houghton introduces the Homo economicus, Homo bureaucraticus, Homo sociologicus, and Homo psychologicus models. He then uses these conceptual models to study six cases of American foreign policy decision-making: the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Johnson administration’s escalation of the conflict in Vietnam, the Carter administration’s response to the Iran Hostage Crisis, NATO intervention in Kosovo, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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  • Kellerman, Barbara. “Allison Redux: Three More Decision-Making Models.” Polity 15.3 (1983): 351–367.

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    Kellerman introduces three new models of foreign policy decision-making focused at the small group and individual level, and discusses approaches to considering when each model is likely to be most explanatory. She considers group dynamics, the role of the leader, and the effects of cognitive processes. In keeping with Allison, she demonstrates these models by applying them to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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  • Waltz, Kenneth N. Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

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    This book, originally published in 1954, introduces three “images” that can be used to explain conflict. The first focuses on causes of conflict related to human behavior, the second on causes related to the structure of states, and the third on causes related to the international system. These three images are now widely used in the foreign policy decision-making literature as the “levels of analysis” framework.

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The Rational Unitary State

These studies of foreign policy decision-making model states as unitary rational actors, who make decisions based on a coherent set of interests using optimization, or cost-benefit analysis. Allison and Zelikow 1999 (originally 1971) frames this approach explicitly as a conceptual model. Schelling 1980 (originally 1960) is a classic, serving as the foundation for much of the application of game theory to international relations and foreign policy. Bueno De Mesquita 1988 and Fearon 1995 focus on the degree to which such rationalist, state-centric models explain empirical phenomena.

  • Allison, Graham T., and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1999.

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    This book introduces the rational actor model, a conceptual model that explicitly considers the unitary state as the primary actor in foreign policy decision-making and optimization as the decision-making process. The second edition includes a discussion of how such a model differs from those focused on the cognition and personalities of individual leaders.

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  • Bueno De Mesquita, Bruce. “The Contribution of Expected Utility Theory to the Study of International Conflict.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18.4 (1988): 629–652.

    DOI: 10.2307/204818Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article applies expected utility theory (including formal models) to the context of international conflict. Bueno De Mesquita argues that the expected utility model has significant predictive power compared to rival theories, and that an expected utility approach can encompass other approaches to understanding decision-making in international conflict, including theories about alliances and balance of power.

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  • Fearon, James D. “Rationalist Explanations for War.” International Organization 49.3 (1995): 379–414.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020818300033324Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In this classic article, Fearon argues that rationalist explanations can explain why states fight costly wars by incorporating private information/incentives to misrepresent information and commitment problems.

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  • Schelling, Thomas C. The Strategy of Conflict. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

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    Originally published in 1960, this is a classic collection of Schelling’s essays on strategy, bargaining, and conflict. It represents a crucial development in the application of game theory to international relations.

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Individual Decision-Makers, Psychology, and Cognition

The individual-focused approach to decision-making emphasizes that decisions are made by actual human beings, and that human decisions are influenced by both common constraints on human cognition and individual factors such as personality, worldview, and experience. McDermott 2004 provides a solid overview of the use of political psychology in the study of foreign policy decision-making. George 1980 sets a strong foundation for the analysis of images and beliefs as shapers of foreign policy decisions. Renshon 2008 extends this approach by analyzing the operational code of President George W. Bush. Neustadt and May 1988, Khong 1992, and Breuning 2003 focus on how decision-makers use historical analogies in foreign policy decision-making. Crawford 2000 focuses on the role of emotion in foreign policy decision-making. Horowitz, et al. 2015 conducts an empirical analysis of the extent to which individual characteristics influence the conflict-proneness of leaders in a predictable manner. Bar-Joseph and McDermott 2008 apply cognitive theories to intelligence reform.

  • Bar-Joseph, Uri, and Rose McDermott. “Change the Analyst and Not the System: A Different Approach to Intelligence Reform.” Foreign Policy Analysis 4.2 (2008): 127–145.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1743-8594.2007.00061.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article argues that intelligence failures, which lead to policy failures, are often the result of analysts falling victim to confirmation bias, and that susceptibility to confirmation bias can be predicted by personality traits. The authors conclude that attention to these key personality characteristics—primarily openness and tolerance for ambiguity—in hiring and promotion would have a stronger effect than solutions that focus on organizational reform or structured decision-making processes.

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  • Breuning, Marijke. “The Role of Analogies and Abstract Reasoning in Decision-Making: Evidence from the Debate over Truman’s Proposal for Development Assistance.” International Studies Quarterly 47.2 (2003): 229–245.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-2478.4702004Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article seeks empirical evidence of whether policymakers actually employ analogical reasoning in their decision-making process. Breuning analyzes Senate hearings over the Truman administration’s proposal for the first US development aid program. She argues that public rhetoric and reasoning process are related in important ways. She finds that in this case, senators were more likely to rely on explanation-based reasoning rather than analogical reasoning.

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  • Crawford, Neta C. “The Passion of World Politics: Propositions on Emotion and Emotional Relationships.” International Security 24.4 (2000): 116–156.

    DOI: 10.1162/016228800560327Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Crawford argues for the importance of understanding emotion in analyzing international relations and foreign policy decision-making. The article provides a strong review of the literature on emotion and foreign policy decision-making, and lays foundations for future theory development.

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  • George, Alexander L. Presidential Decisionmaking in Foreign Policy: The Effective Use of Information and Advice. Westview Special Studies in International Relations. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1980.

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    A classic work focused on American presidents. George considers both individual factors, such as cognitive constraints and beliefs and images, and group and organizational influences. The book considers both the sources of impediments to information processing (and good decision-making) and ways to reduce these impediments. While widely cited in the academic literature, the book was intended to be readable by a non-academic audience focused on practical advice.

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  • Horowitz, Michael, Allan C. Stam, and Cali M. Ellis. Why Leaders Fight. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139149334Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This book brings new empirical evidence to the question of which leaders are most likely to take their states to war. The authors use a database of 2,400 world leaders from 1875 to 2004 to examine which attributes and experiences—including educational background, military service, occupation, family, age, and gender—predict conflict-prone leaders. The work is a promising development in testing generalizable hypotheses about individual-level factors that affect foreign policy decision-making.

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  • Khong, Yuen Foong. Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965. Princeton Paperbacks. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

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    A foundational work on historical analogies and foreign policy decision-making. Khong focuses first on whether and how the analogies policymakers use affect the policy options chosen, and secondarily on whether policymakers use analogies well.

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  • McDermott, Rose. Political Psychology in International Relations. Analytical Perspectives on Politics. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.10847Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This book provides an introduction to the field of political psychology—both theory and methodology—as relevant to the study of international relations. It covers cognition, behavior, and emotion, as well as psychobiography (focusing on an individual’s past experiences to understand their current and future behavior), leadership, and group processes.

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  • Neustadt, Richard E., and Ernest R. May. Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. Paperback ed. New York: Free Press, 1988.

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    A classic work on analogical thinking and how decision-makers use history to guide their decisions. The cases analyzed are primarily US and foreign policy focused—including the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, and the Mayaguez Rescue. While primarily focused on individual decision-makers and the history of particular issues, the book does include a chapter on organizations and how their history might affect governmental decision-making.

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  • Renshon, Jonathan. “Stability and Change in Belief Systems: The Operational Code of George W. Bush.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 52.6 (2008): 820–849.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002708323669Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article provides a good summary of the role of beliefs and operational code in foreign policy decision-making. The author then applies these theories to President George W. Bush in an attempt to understand whether operational codes are stable or shift over time. He finds that instrumental beliefs are stable, while philosophical beliefs respond to “lessons learned” from events, such as 9/11.

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Small Group Decision-Making

This approach to the study of foreign policy decision-making emphasizes small-group dynamics. Garrison 2003 provides a good overview of the evolution of this approach. Janis 1982 (originally 1972) is one of the most well-known works on group decision-making, introducing groupthink syndrome. Mintz and Wayne 2016 proposes an opposite end of the spectrum to groupthink (focused on conformity), which the authors term polythink (focused on conflict). George and Stern 2002 examines two potential solutions to the tension between conformity and conflict—devil’s advocate and multiple advocacy. Gvosdev 2017 and Saunders 2017 examine group advisory dynamics in recent US administrations.

  • Garrison, Jean A. “Foreign Policymaking and Group Dynamics: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going.” International Studies Review 5.2 (2003): 177–202.

    DOI: 10.1111/1521-9488.5020015Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This review notes that newer strands of the group decision-making literature—which developed from Janis 1982 and Allison and Zelikow 1999 (originally 1971, cited under Conceptual Models in the Study of Decision-Making and Organizational Models)—focus on the growing literature on political psychology and how groups aggregate individual preferences and biases. Garrison focuses on three main factors as important for predicting and explaining group decision-making dynamics: group member interactions, the level of openness in the group, and the role of the leader.

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  • George, Alexander L., and Eric K. Stern. “Harnessing Conflict in Foreign Policy Making: From Devil’s to Multiple Advocacy.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 32.3 (2002): 484–505.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-5705.2002.tb00003.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article examines two approaches to improving group decision-making in the context of presidential advisory groups—devil’s advocate and multiple advocacy. The authors note competing tensions groups face: too much conformity and/or conflict can lead to poor group decision-making. This article also provides a good summary of studies on group conformity and devil’s advocacy through the late 1990s, and lays out a clear description of multiple advocacy.

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  • Gvosdev, Nikolas K. “How US National Security Decisions Are Made.” Orbis 61.1 (2017): 27–33.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.orbis.2016.12.005Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Gvosdev discusses a “palace politics” perspective on policymaking, focusing on the small group of advisors around the president. Rather than focusing on formal positions and action channels, as bureaucratic politics does, this model focuses on personal relationships, access, and influence. Gvosdev argues that the influence of this inner circle, compared to the bureaucracy, has increased in recent years, and is likely to do so even further during the Trump administration.

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  • Janis, Irving L. Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.

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    A revised version of Janis’s 1972 Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, this interdisciplinary work draws on social psychology, political science, and history. Janis’s “groupthink syndrome” focuses on how certain types of groups are especially vulnerable to pressure to conform, which can lead to dysfunctional decision-making. While later empirical tests have complicated the theory, groupthink is still widely referenced in discussions of foreign policy failures.

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  • Mintz, Alex, and Carly Wayne. “The Polythink Syndrome and Elite Group Decision-Making.” Political Psychology 37 (2016): 3–21.

    DOI: 10.1111/pops.12319Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This piece introduces polythink as an alternative to groupthink. If groupthink is at one end of the decision-making spectrum, polythink is at the other. In this model, the group is driven apart by conflicting interests, which can paralyze decision-making. Ironically, the two extremes—groupthink and polythink—can sometimes lead to similar decision-making failures, particularly a reluctance to revisit decisions that have been made. For additional application, see the authors’ 2016 book The Polythink Syndrome: U.S. Foreign Policy Decisions on 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and ISIS.

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  • Saunders, Elizabeth N. “No Substitute for Experience: Presidents, Advisers, and Information in Group Decision Making.” International Organization 71.S1 (2017): S219–S247.

    DOI: 10.1017/S002081831600045XSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Saunders focuses on how leaders’ and their advisers’ experience affects decisions. She uses a principal-agent model and examines the effects of expertise on monitoring, credibility of delegation, and diversity of advice. Saunders then uses her framework to compare and contrast the 1991 and 2003 Iraq Wars, allowing the experience of the leader (George H. W. Bush vs. George W. Bush) to vary while holding many other variables relatively constant.

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  • Schafer, Mark, and Scott Crichlow. Groupthink versus High-Quality Decision Making in International Relations. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

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    This book’s examination of the link between decision-making processes—particularly the interaction of group processes and individual psychological factors—and outcomes is both descriptive and prescriptive. The authors use qualitative and quantitative methods to study decades of American foreign policy decision-making, and provide recommendations for improving the decision-making process.

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Organizational Models

Another set of decision-making models focuses on organizations (usually bureaucratic government organizations) as the key actors in foreign policy decision-making. Allison and Zelikow 1999 (originally 1971) is often credited with jump-starting this literature, as applied to foreign policy, with the introduction of the organizational process and bureaucratic politics models. Allison’s original treatment generated a number of critiques, including Art 1973 and Bendor and Hammond 1992. Simon 1997 (originally 1945) and March, et al. 1993 (originally 1958) provide the foundational concepts for much of Allison’s organizational process model. Wilson 2000 (originally 1989) is a foundational examination of bureaucratic organizations generally. Halperin, et al. 2006 more fully develops the idea of bureaucratic politics. Cooper, et al. 2018 introduces a new organizational model, subordinate bureaucratic politics, to better explain behavior at lower levels of the bureaucracy. Zegart 1999 combines organizational models with domestic politics to understand the evolution of the US national security establishment.

  • Allison, Graham T., and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1999.

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    Essence of Decision introduces the classic formulation of the organizational process (organizational behavior in the second edition) and bureaucratic politics (governmental politics in the second edition) models. The models are contrasted with the rational actor model and applied to the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, using then newly declassified information about policy deliberations in Washington and Moscow.

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  • Art, Robert J. “Bureaucratic Politics and American Foreign Policy: A Critique.” Policy Sciences 4.4 (1973): 467–490.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01728472Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    One of a number of early critiques of Allison’s bureaucratic politics (or governmental politics) conceptual model. Art’s primary arguments are that the model undervalues domestic politics and shared mindsets, and is too imprecise in its predictions to be useful.

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  • Bendor, Jonathan, and Thomas H. Hammond. “Rethinking Allison’s Models.” American Political Science Review 86.2 (1992): 301–322.

    DOI: 10.2307/1964222Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This critique of Allison’s three conceptual models—published before the second edition—argues that they are not explicit enough in their assumptions, that they generate hypotheses only loosely connected to these assumptions, that some of their predictions fail, that they fail to strike the appropriate balance between simplicity and complexity, and that they misrepresent some assumptions from the underlying literatures of rational choice theory, organization theory, and bureaucratic politics.

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  • Cooper, David A., Nikolas K. Gvosdev, and Jessica D. Blankshain. “Deconstructing the ‘Deep State’: Subordinate Bureaucratic Politics in US National Security.” Orbis 62.4 (2018): 518–540.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.orbis.2018.08.009Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article, adapted from a chapter in Gvosdev, et al. 2019 (cited under Textbooks and Conceptual Models in the Study of Decision-Making) examines shortcomings of the organizational process and bureaucratic politics models in addressing the decision-making behavior of lower-level bureaucrats. The focus is on the United States, particularly the dynamics of intra-agency and trans-agency bargaining, issue-driven interest coalitions, and regional versus functional divisions.

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  • Halperin, Morton H., and Priscilla Clapp, with Arnold Kanter. Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy. 2d ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2006.

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    This work is best known for developing the concept of organizational essence—the way the people within an organization define its identity and purpose—and the ways in which essence drives organizational behavior. Despite the revised second edition, some foreign policy practitioners note that many of the examples of organizational essence and conflict are somewhat dated and do not account for significant recent changes in the US national security establishment.

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  • March, James G., and Herbert A. Simon, with Harold Guetzkow. Organizations. 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993.

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    A canonical work of organizational behavior originally published in 1958, this book explores the idea of organizations as boundedly rational actors. Although not specifically focused on foreign policy, it lays the foundations for Allison’s organizational process model, discussing such key concepts as standard operating procedures and organizational routines, satisficing, and uncertainty absorption.

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  • Simon, Herbert A. Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organizations. 4th ed. New York: Free Press, 1997.

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    While not focused specifically on foreign policy, this is a canonical work in organizational behavior, originally published in 1945. Simon focuses on administrative processes and their effect on decision-making and implementation, both facilitating specialization and coordination and conditioning individual behavior. This work is foundational to the development of Allison’s organizational process model.

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  • Wilson, James Q. Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It. New ed. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

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    A classic on how bureaucratic organizations function, originally published in 1989, focused on a wide range of US government agencies. While the book does not focus exclusively on foreign policy, it provides important insight into how US government agencies operate and why, and what this means for policymakers.

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  • Zegart, Amy B. Flawed by Design: The Evolution of the CIA, JCS, and NSC. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

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    Zegart proposes a new theory of national security agency formation, which is contrasted with realist and strict new institutionalist models and applied to the cases of the National Security Council, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Central Intelligence Agency. While not directly an analysis of foreign policy decision-making, Zegart’s discussion of how agencies evolve and the constraints they face is foundational to understanding organization-based models of foreign policy decision-making.

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Domestic Political Influences

A key aspect of the subfield of foreign policy decision-making is recognizing that domestic political factors can influence foreign policy decisions. Putnam 1988 is a foundational work in conceptualizing this interaction between foreign and domestic pressures. Cappella Zielinski 2016 explores the potential tradeoff between military and domestic political demands in the context of war financing. A number of works, including Fearon 1994, Auerswald 2000, and Risse-Kappen 1991, focus on the role of domestic institutions—particularly democratic ones—in shaping foreign policy. Kriner 2010 examines this dynamic more specifically in the context of the interaction between the American executive and legislative branches. Robinson 1999, Druckman and Jacobs 2015, and Saunders 2015 explore the extent to which foreign policy decision-makers (with an emphasis on the American president) are constrained by public opinion. Hudson 1997 explores how culture shapes foreign policy.

  • Auerswald, David P. Disarmed Democracies: Domestic Institutions and the Use of Force. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.16724Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Auerswald develops multiple hypotheses about how different institutional structures in democracies affect a state’s ability to conduct coercive diplomacy and its likelihood of initiating conflict. This comparative study focuses on the United States (presidential), United Kingdom (parliamentary), and France (premier-presidential) during the Cold War.

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  • Cappella Zielinski, Rosella. How States Pay for Wars. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016.

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    Examines the tensions leaders face as they make wartime military and economic policy while attempting to balance military and domestic imperatives. Cases examined include the American financing of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, British financing of World War II and the Crimean War, and Russian and Japanese financing of the Russo-Japanese War.

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  • Druckman, James N., and Lawrence R. Jacobs. Who Governs? Presidents, Public Opinion, and Manipulation. Chicago Studies in American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226234557.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This book examines whether and when US presidents are constrained in their decision-making by public opinion. The authors combine existing theory with new archival data from the Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan administrations to argue that presidents are more influenced by political insiders than by the general public. While not focused exclusively on foreign policy, their analysis provides important insights for foreign policy decision-making.

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  • Fearon, James D. “Domestic Political Audiences and the Escalation of International Disputes.” American Political Science Review 88.3 (1994): 577–592.

    DOI: 10.2307/2944796Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that leaders make rational decisions about backing down in a crisis based on audience costs, and that audience costs are higher in democracies than nondemocracies. This provides a potential mechanism for the prevalence of peace between democracies. This article is somewhat technical and uses formal modeling.

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  • Hudson, Valerie M., ed. Culture and Foreign Policy. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1997.

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    This edited volume explores how culture—particularly country culture—shapes foreign policy. It is aimed at scholars, including discussions of theory development and methodology for studying culture and foreign policy.

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  • Kriner, Douglas L. After the Rubicon: Congress, Presidents, and the Politics of Waging War. Chicago Series on International & Domestic Institutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226453583.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines the relationship between the American president and Congress on decisions of whether and how to use force. Kriner goes beyond discussion of the War Powers Act and initiation of conflict to examine how partisan political dynamics in Congress shape the ongoing use of force.

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  • Putnam, Robert D. “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games.” International Organization 42.3 (1988): 427–460.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020818300027697Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In this canonical article, Putnam argues that theories of foreign policy formation must account for its interaction with domestic politics. He takes a game theoretic approach, modeling foreign policy formation as a two-level game in which negotiators must both come to an agreement at the international bargaining table and have the agreement ratified domestically. The article introduces important concepts such as domestic win-sets and synergistic linkages.

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  • Risse-Kappen, Thomas. “Public Opinion, Domestic Structure, and Foreign Policy in Liberal Democracies.” World Politics 43.4 (1991): 479–512.

    DOI: 10.2307/2010534Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article examines whether mass public opinion and elite coalition-building processes affect foreign policy in liberal democracies. Risse-Kappen uses a comparative study of the United States, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, and Japan to show that differences in foreign policy that cannot be explained by the international environment can be explained by differences in political institutions, policy networks, and societal structures.

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  • Robinson, Piers. “The CNN Effect: Can the News Media Drive Foreign Policy?” Review of International Studies 25.2 (1999): 301–309.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0260210599003010Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This review article compares the “CNN effect” and “manufacturing consent” theories of media influence—does media coverage drive government decision-making, or vice versa? In particular, the author examines media effects on Western governments’ decisions about how to respond to humanitarian crises in the 1990s.

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  • Saunders, Elizabeth N. “War and the Inner Circle: Democratic Elites and the Politics of Using Force.” Security Studies 24.3 (2015): 466–501.

    DOI: 10.1080/09636412.2015.1070618Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Saunders argues that even in democracies, elite political dynamics explain war decisions better than more open, public-driven models. In particular, leaders have an incentive to “bargain with, accommodate, or co-opt” members of the elite with respect to foreign policy decisions. She illustrates these elite dynamics with the case of President Lyndon Johnson and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

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Contemporary Foreign Policy Decision-Making and Current Events

In addition to an extensive scholarly literature on foreign policy decision-making, there is an increasing amount of work applying academic theories of foreign policy decision-making to contemporary policy issues and current events in a more generally accessible format. These contributions often take the form of shorter online articles and edited volumes and readers.

Online Resources

In recent years, there has been a growing movement to “bridge the gap” between academic political science and policymaking, particularly in the context of foreign policy and national security. This has resulted in a number of new online blogs and journals that aim to connect scholars and practitioners by publishing articles that take a rigorous analytical approach to current events. The Monkey Cage blog approaches this gap most explicitly, having academic authors apply the academic literature on a topic (often their own most recent studies) to ongoing real-world events and issues. Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy both host active websites with a variety of articles focused on current-events that do not appear in the print versions of these journals. The Texas National Security Review takes a new approach, keeping many aspects of a traditional peer-reviewed academic journal, but publishing more policy-relevant work with a shorter turn-around time.

Edited Volumes on US Foreign Policy Decision-Making

A number of new and recently updated edited volumes examine the current state of foreign policy decision-making in the United States. George and Rishikof 2017 focuses primarily on describing key players, with much of the writing done by practitioners who have worked within these organizations and institutions. McCormick 2018 and Gvosdev, et al. 2019 showcase scholars analyzing the actors and influences involved in US foreign policy decision-making. Adams and Murray 2014 focuses on the influence wielded by the Department of Defense.

  • Adams, Gordon, and Shoon Kathleen Murray, eds. Mission Creep: The Militarization of US Foreign Policy? Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014.

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    This book argues that US foreign policy—including diplomacy, aid, and development policy—has been militarized since the end of the Cold War, and particularly since 9/11. Part One focuses on causes of increasing DoD and military influence, while the second and third parts examine the manifestation and consequences of this increased influence. The volume’s contributors reflect its target audience, a mix of foreign policy scholars and practitioners.

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  • George, Roger Z., and Harvey Rishikof, eds. The National Security Enterprise: Navigating the Labyrinth. 2d ed. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2017.

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    Now in its second edition, this volume explores the key players involved in making national security policy in the United States. This text focuses on describing the policymaking process as it actually works, rather than on theory. The chapter authors are themselves practitioners with experience inside the policymaking process. Chapters cover key agencies that make up the executive branch, the legislative and judicial branches, and other domestic players.

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  • McCormick, James M., ed. The Domestic Sources of American Foreign Policy: Insights and Evidence. 7th ed. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

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    This US foreign policy reader is now in its seventh edition. The collection of essays, written by a combination of academics and practitioners, focuses on domestic factors that affect US foreign policy decision-making, both societal and institutional. The book includes a variety of case studies covering US foreign policy, from Vietnam through the Obama administration, including NATO expansion, humanitarian interventions in Somalia and Bosnia, and the invasion of Iraq.

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  • Reveron, Derek S., Nikolas K. Gvosdev, and John A. Cloud, eds. The Oxford Handbook of U.S. National Security. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

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    This handbook emphasizes “bridging the gap” between academic study and policy practice. It focuses on contemporary national security issues, broadly defined to encompass military, political, economic, and social dimensions of national power. The first part examines different approaches to studying American foreign policy. The second part focuses on key institutional players, while the third part analyzes tools available to policymakers. The final part examines particular contemporary challenges.

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