The Foreign Policy Decision Making Approaches and Their Applications

RESEARCH ARTICLE                                           the rest volume 9, number 2, summer 2019

 The Foreign Policy Decision Making Approaches and Their Applications

Case Study: Bush, Obama and Trump’s Decision Making towards Afghanistan and the Region

Sharifullah Dorani*

* Dr Sharifullah Dorani is South Asian Studies Editor of Political Reflection Magazine.



Foreign Policy Analysis
IR vs. FPA
Foreign Policy Decision-Making Approach
Psycho-Social Milieu Approach
Bureaucratic Politics Approach
Decision-Making at the Bush, Obama and Trump Administrations


Received 25 December 2018
Revised 7 April 2019
Accepted 29 April 2019

Students of International Relations (IR) and Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) have been confused as to what factors influence foreign policy. FPA focuses mostly on human decision-makers. However, generally speaking, IR theories, realism in particular, instead have focused mostly on the nation-state as the level of analysis to explain foreign policy or foreign policy behaviour. Both fields have found shortcomings within each other. The author of this article, however, applied a number of decision-making approaches from FPA to inform his study of George W. Bush, Barrack Obama and Donald Trump Administrations’ decision-making towards Afghanistan and the broader region and found the discipline of FPA to be extremely helpful. Based on the personal experience of the author, this article attempts to provide a comprehensive introduction to FPA with the aim that students of IR and FPA learn answers to the following questions: What is FPA? How is FPA different from IR? How can decision-making approaches from FPA be employed to inform a foreign policy choice? What (and how) methods can be used to access primary and secondary sources? What are the weaknesses of FPA and is it applicable as an analytical framework outside of the United States (US) or the West (in a country like Afghanistan)? The main objective is to make it easier for students to learn how to apply approaches from FPA as analytical frameworks to analyse a foreign policy decision.



This essay is made up of four sections. Section one offers an overview of what FPA is. It defines actors and structures, as well as provides an explanation of what dependent and independent variables of FPA are. The section further states a critique of FPA by the IR discipline, especially realism, and points out what FPA, in its defence, puts forward. However, the author has employed FPA to his book, America in Afghanistan, and found it extremely useful.  To illustrate the point, section two studies three decision-making approaches from FPA, namely, the Foreign Policy Decision-Making (FPDM) Approach, the Psycho-Social Milieu (PSM) Approach, and the Bureaucratic Politics (BP) Approach. It, firstly, provides an explanation of the three approaches and, secondly, applies them to a number of the Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations’ decisions regarding Afghanistan and the larger region.

Section three defines the term ‘process’ and it details how many phases it can be divided into. In addition to stating the conceptual questions the three approaches ask, this section also provides an explanation of how to obtain the reading materials (methodology) when applying the four approaches to a foreign policy decision. Section four briefly deals with the limitations of FPA and examines whether it can be applied as an analytical framework to explain a non-US or non-Western foreign policy choice. It uses Afghanistan as a non-Western country. The essay ends with some concluding remarks.

Using more than a hundred primary and secondary sources, this article hopes to contribute in five major ways. Firstly, and most importantly, it shows in practice how decision-making approaches from FPA can be employed as analytical frameworks to inform a contemporary foreign policy choice. It defines different terms and concepts and states clearly how to access primary and secondary materials. As a student of IR and FPA, I found the application of approaches/theories difficult, so it is hoped that this article makes it easier for students.  Secondly, it provides an account of foreign policy (or decision) implementation (in Afghanistan and the region), which, in the words of Chris Alden and Amnon Aran (2017), most FPA studies ‘neglect’ to cover. Thirdly, it examines whether FPA is as useful as an analytical framework in a country like Afghanistan as it is within the US.  Fourthly, in addition to providing a comprehensive introduction to FPA, it discusses why IR theory critiques FPA and what defence FPA offers in response; this is something that many studies on FPA fail to offer. Finally, the article is a detailed study of the decision-making approaches and, in conjunction with the book by the author, will contribute hugely to the field of FPA.  

An Overview of FPA

While many IR theories focus mostly on the nation-state as the level of analysis to explain foreign policy or foreign policy behaviour, FPA focuses on the study of dealing with human decision-makers, ‘acting singly or within groups’, as well as those factors that influence the policymakers when making foreign policy. Put differently, for FPA, foreign policy is the product of certain actors and structures, both domestic and international (Smith et al., 2008: 12).

Although FPA is mainly interested in those actors, who are in a position of authority and responsible for taking decisions in foreign policy, it can also, as Valerie M. Hudson in her must-read book (and others) claim, consider those, whether domestic or non-domestic, who do not have formal responsibility. As long as their actions and words can be demonstrated to have influenced the decision-making process and hence the resulting policy, they are relevant to the analysis of policymaking. Actors, or what Graham Allison has called ‘players’, are considered to include the President, career diplomats at the State Department, the military at the Pentagon, intelligence services, political aides or advisors, political parties, political action groups, powerful/influential individuals, such as the Senate Majority Leader or chairman of one of the committees in Congress, members of the media and press, and area experts or opinion-makers from domestic interest groups/lobbying firms/think-tanks (Hudson, 2007: 4, 127–28; Jackson and Sørensen, 2016: 251–72, especially 252–56; Hill, 2003: 52; Allison and Zelikow, 1999: 296).

Structures are omnipresent in societies, and they include ‘political, cultural, psychological, economic, national, regional, global, technological, ideational, cognitive, and normative in type, to name just some of the most important’ (Smith et al., 2008: 86). Cultural structures, as Brian Ripley in his article found (Ripley, 1995: 89), had an impact upon foreign policy, as cultural perspectives were shown to have influenced the way institutions, such as bureaucracies, were structured and run (Smith et al., 2008: 22); the process of policymaking was demonstrated to have been different from one culture to another (Sampson and Martin, 1986: 387). Equally, the organisational process as a structural factor was proved to have had implications for foreign policy choices (Allison and Zelikow, 1999: 143–85, 153, 177; Hudson, 2007: 77; Wittkopf et al., 2002: 476–82). The constraints imposed by the international system constitute other structural factors. They are covered below.

Numerous approaches/models have been developed in FPA, differing in their focus on ‘explanandum’ of foreign policy (what is to be explained/units or objects of analysis/or dependent variable); some are focused on the process of policymaking, while others on the policy itself. The same has been even more the case in relation to the application of ‘explanans’ of foreign policy (how to be explained/causal factors/or independent variables) in order to account for foreign policy decisions (Hudson, 2007: 28; Jackson and Sørensen, 2016: 253). In FPA, the explanans are multifactorial and derived from multilevels, from all three levels of analysis – individual, state and international – as all of them are of interest to the analyst as long as they affect the decision-making process (Neack et al., 1995: 11, 17).

The three levels of analysis, incidentally, were ‘introduced’ in Kenneth Waltz’s book of Man, the State, and War, in which he studied whether causes of war could be best explained at individual level (are human beings aggressive by nature?), state level (do some states seek more conflict than others?), or the structure of international system (do conditions at international system compel states to go to war?) (For more on levels of analysis, see Jackson and Sørensen, 2016: 256–65; Smith et al., 2008: 4–5; Hudson, 2007: 37–164.) Sources or ‘explanans’ involving the decision-making process, psychological factors, domestic politics and opposition, small group effects, and bureaucratic politics are all micro-level theories of foreign policy decision-making that fall within the individual level of analysis. There are numerous studies that have examined forces at the macro level: state and international. Macro-level causal factors are mostly considered by IR theory. Natural resources, geography, population characteristics, size, military and economic capabilities and many other resources are elements (or attributes) of the power of a nation state, and studies have been conducted to show they have had direct relevance to, and effect upon, foreign policy choices (Neack et al., 1995: 21). The macro level also includes the system level of analysis, which examines the nature of the (international) system consisting of all the nation states.

While FPA accepts that system (and other sources considered at the state level) do affect foreign policy, its acceptance is conditional: systemic forces (and national attributes) are relevant so long as they are shown to have affected policymakers while making decisions, because states only act through individual actors. FPA only allows a bottom-up analysis (from unit to system) as opposed to a top-down one (from system to unit). There is a ground (‘the conceptualisation of the foundational level’ at which phenomena in the field occur) for every theoretical discipline. In IR, states are the unitary actors and are the ground of IR, but in FPA the ground is human decision-makers, acting singly or as a group, who cannot be classified as unitary rational actors, and who are not the same as the states; a state is a ‘metaphysical abstraction’ and hence cannot be realistically conceptualised as a ground of IR. Unlike IR and organisational behaviour, FPA refuses to ‘black box’ actors. On the contrary, the agent-orientated or an actor-specific theory of FPA puts emphasis on the agent or agency (i.e. the actor) as opposed to the state. It is the actor who has agency, not the state, as the state is an ‘abstraction’ (Hudson, 2007: 3, 4, 13).

Since the causal factors in FPA are ‘multifactorial’, multilevelled, and ‘multidisciplinary’, as it derives insights from ‘all intellectual disciplines’, such as psychology, sociology, and organisational behaviour (Hudson, 2007: 4, 6, 11; Snyder et al., 1962: 85–86; Smith et al., 2008: 89; Hermann et al., 1986: 205; Sprout and Sprout, 1965: 203), the critiques of the FPA, IR in particular, have argued that it has been impossible to trace all influences (and to measure their impact) on a given foreign policy choice, or even on decision-making in the abstract. Herbert McClosky’s quotation demonstrates the point very well:

‘[the] inordinate complexity [of FPA] as it has so far been outlined is unquestionably its greatest shortcoming, one which in the end may prove its undoing…. A research design that requires an investigator to collect detailed information about such diverse matters as the social system, the economy, the foreign situation, the actors, the perceptions, the motivations, the values, the goals, the communication problems, the personality—in short, that asks him to account for a decision-making event virtually in its totality—places a back-breaking burden upon him, one that he could never adequately accomplish even if he were willing to invest an exorbitant effort. If the mere magnitude of the task does not frighten him off, he is likely to be discouraged by the unrewarding prospect of having to collect data about a great number of variables whose relative importance he can only guess at and whose influence he cannot easily measure in any event’(Hudson, 2007: 5).

Other experts have claimed that analysing ‘such diverse matters’ also strikes analysts as an undue concern with ‘ephemeral eddies in a larger current’, adding that not just the information costs of tracking the ‘eddies’ are too high, but also the ‘danger of distraction from the real picture is too great’(Allison and Zelikow,1999: 387).

As explained above, the split between the FPA and IR is on the unit of analysis (Beneš, 2011). Since FPA has an ‘actor-based perspective’, focusing largely on ‘individual motivation and cognition’ (a subjective perspective) at the expense of systematic factors (e.g. the nature and operation of the international system) and unique state-level factors, the discipline of IR has criticised the FPA (Mintz and DeRouen, 2010: 10). FPA forgets, argue IR theorists, that foreign policy is not only about the inner experience of the state elites, but also about wider (national, international, and even global) structural sources (Beneš, 2011). By an ‘allegedly excessive concern with the domestic processes of foreign policymaking and the inner workings of the state’ (White, 2008: 38), and by leaving out systematic factors, the FPA has limited itself as an analytical approach. Unlike in the FPA, in IR, individual actors are treated as ‘rational’; they and their personal characteristics are treated as irrelevant to the analysis of foreign policy, and are consequently black-boxed. Robert J. Art argues that ‘we need the systematic perspective in order to avoid the opposite dangers that an uncritical acceptance of the paradigm would bring—looking for things that are not there and seeing things that we should overlook’(Art, 1997: 41).

The most widely accepted theory from IR is realism. It has been realism from which much of the critique against the FPA has emanated. Realists claim that states are motivated by the concept of power, and the numerous schools in realism give a different account of state motivation. But what is the motivation that states pursue in FPA? Being silent on motivation has been seen as another major limitation of FPA. One would not understand foreign policy if one has no ‘clear sense of what it is that states are motivated by, what their function is, how they work’. FPA provides a ‘state-centric’ account of the world, but fails to offer a clear theory of the state (or account for factors relating to globalisation). In fact, the FPA has not developed a ‘general theory of foreign policy’. It was and has remained a ‘sterile field which has been devoid of innovation’. Most of ‘the work being done takes the form of empirical case studies which shuffle and reshuffle a small number of ideas rather than create new theories’. For all of the above reasons, FPA is said to not ‘fit neatly within the existing theoretical paradigms’. The IR theorists have tried to distance themselves from the FPA, as the latter’s restricted focus on decision-making and its increasing distance to the diplomat’s world would equally turn IR into a ‘behaviourist science’ (For different schools of realism and for their criticism of FPA –and the quotes – and for an in-depth discussion of the relationship between the two disciplines, see White, 2008: 38; Keukeleire and Schunz, 2011; Rynning and Guzzini, 2002. See also Alden  and Aran, 2017: 155; Cox and Stokes, 2008: 12–13; Sterling-Folker, 2013:15–66; Wilkinson, 2007: 2–4; Jackson and Sørensen, 2016: 61–95; Baylis and Smith, 2001: 141–61; Smith et al., 2008: 31–46; Hollis and Smith, 1990:10, 25–6; Brown and Ainley, 2005: 40–48).

Hudson and numerous other scholars in turn highlight numerous shortcomings in IR theories, including realism, adding that the field of IR failed to predict the end of the Cold War, which took place due to the efforts/choices made by individual policymakers, most notably US President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. IR is not adequate, Hudson and Christopher S. Vore claim, to understand the world of today where the Cold War bipolar system ceased to exist. What is needed is a theory of human choice. FPA provides such a theory, in which the focus is on how and why policy is made, and assumes that human beings are the source of much behaviour and most change in international politics. It is time to take FPA to the study of IR since ‘[o]ur inherited tools [from IR] and ways of describing the international arena seem not to work as well as they once did. It is time to reevaluate the theories and concepts that compromise the IR tool kit, saving those that have proven useful, changing or discarding those that have not, and addressing the gaps that have arisen’. Hudson and Vore believe that FPA fills those gaps (Hudson and Vore, 1995; Hudson, 2007: 4–5, 8, 10–17; Allison and Zelikow, 1999: 404; Smith et al., 2008: 26–27).

Perhaps, one can claim that one element FPA borrows from IR is the division of levels of analyses explained above, and FPA has given decision-making as a unit of analysis to IR. Therefore, for many prominent experts – including Steve Smith, Amelia Hadfield, Tim Dunne, Laura Neack, Hudson, Alden and Aran – FPA and IR theory are ‘incommensurable’. They see FPA as a ‘distant cousin’/‘subfield’ of, or ‘a separate area of enquiry’ within IR, as both fields attempt to explain the foreign behaviour of a state. However, all experts, including Alden and Aran in their important book, agree with many of the above shortcomings within FPA and call for ‘change’ (Hudson, 2007: 6–14; Smith et al., 2008: 4–6; Alden and Aran, 2017: chapter 7).

If one avoided an approach or a theory because it has been subject to criticism, then there would be no approach or theory left to employ, as every single theory or approach, in one way or another, has been criticised. Furthermore, the theoretical debate between scholars of IR and FPA has been going on for decades, and ‘[t]hough no final resolution will ever be accepted, as this is a perennial philosophical conundrum’, what is accepted is that the subfield of FPA has been widely recognised and used to understand and explain foreign policy choices (Hudson, 2007: 8, 13–14; Hudson and Vore, 1995; Smith et al., 2008:  1–3; Neack et al., 1995: 1–15; Wittkopf et al., 2002: 14–15). It is so because, in the real world, both actors and structures influence foreign policy decision-making. The section below both explains and employs the three decision-making approaches stated in the introduction to inform a number of decisions made by the Bush, Obama and Trump Administrations for their wars against terrorism, especially in Afghanistan.

Three Decision-Making Approaches of FPA and Their Applications to Foreign Policy Decisions

One of the most important approaches has been the FPDM Approach. The focus in this approach is on the actors themselves and the process of decision-making. For Richard C. Snyder and his colleagues, arguably the founders of the approach, the studying of decision-making included the investigation of the three determinants: the competence of the actors involved, their motivations, and the communication during the decision-making process (Snyder et al., 1962: 86–92). For them, the analysis of the decision-making process provided a way of ‘organising the determinants of action around those officials who acted for the political society’ (Snyder et al., 1962: 86–92; Smith et al., 2008: 13). Since their approach focused centrally on the foreign policy decision-making process, as opposed to foreign policy outcomes, it became known as Foreign Policy Decision-Making Approach.

For process, the analyst focuses on what the foreign policy decision-makers are really doing, as by so doing they are participating in the dynamic process of decision-making (Smith et al., 2008: 88; Hudson, 2007: 165). The conceptualisation of decision-making (Snyder, 1962: 33) as a unit of analysis provides answers for foreign policy behaviours; behaviours include intentions, statements, actions, inactions, decisions, indecisions – in fact, any ‘resultant’ of policymakers during the decision-making process, and the response of other actors to these intentions, statements, actions, inactions, decisions and indecisions (Neack et al., 1995: 18; Smith et al., 2008: 88). If one wishes ‘to probe the “why” questions relating to foreign policy behaviours, then decision-making analysis is certainly necessary. We should go as far as to say that the “why” questions cannot be answered without analysis of decision-making’ (Snyder, 1962: 33). Laura Neack, like Snyder and Hudson, emphasises that it is essential that the study of foreign policy considers ‘how certain goals arise and why certain behaviours result’ (Smith et al., 2008: 88).

To answer these questions, the study should highlight factors that are shown to have impacted the process ‘by which policy (statements and behaviours) is made’ (Smith et al., 2008: 88). Indeed, in decision-making, unrelated ‘internal and external causal factors’ (including some that were treated as irrelevant in mainstream IR) become relevant provided they are shown to have influenced the actors and consequently the policymaking process and thus the resultant policy (Snyder,1962: 85–86). One way to determine these factors is to scrutinise reasons given by policymakers for a foreign policy choice or behaviour, as reasons could reveal their motives (Snyder, 1962: 85–86; Hollis and Smith, 1990: 145). Reasons would answer the question of why actors see the world in a certain way and what causes their perceptions; their perceptions can be caused by personal characteristics, societal, cultural, historical or other factors, including the international system (Hollis and Smith, 1990: 145).

Therefore, decision-making is viewed as ‘operating in a dual-aspect setting’: the decision-makers and their internal domestic environment and the external factors shaping their choices. For Snyder and his colleagues, it is not the laws of power maximisation, but rather how the individual decision-makers define the situation; the FPDM Approach has a subjective outlook, as it tries to understand the perceptions of those who are involved in policymaking, and tries to re-create their ‘definition of the situation’ (Hollis and Smith, 1990: 144–45). Snyder and his colleagues make it clear that ‘All attempts to describe and explain human behaviour require what has already transpired to be recaptured—not in all its original detail, but selectively according to a scheme employed by the reporter or observer’ (Snyder,1962: 22).

As has been touched upon in the previous subsection, some scholars see individual actors as important in terms of explaining a given foreign policy, whereas others give priority to structures or structural factors (Hill, 2003: 19–24). Others combine both, seeking to integrate different levels of analysis. However, the FPDM Approach takes ‘all possible factors which may play a role in the general activity of foreign policy decision-making’ (Smith et al., 2008: 96) in order to recapture what has ‘already transpired’. As mentioned above, structural factors play an important part in the FPDM Approach, only in so long as they have a direct or indirect effect on policymakers when they make foreign policy. In short, the FPDM Approach is ‘rich, detailed, multifactorial, multilevel, multidisciplinary’ (Hudson, 2007: 165), and focused on foreign policy decision-making as it is carried out by human beings.

Another vital model has been the PSM Approach. Founded by Harold and Margaret Sprout, this approach claims that foreign policy can be explained by referring to the psychosocial milieu (‘the psychological, situational, political, and social’ contexts or environments) of those who are involved in decision-making (Sprout and Sprout, 1965: 1–18, 203–25, especially, 11, 203–04, 224; Smith et al., 2008: 14; Hill, 2003: 109–16).

For the psychological aspect of the PSM Approach, the analyst focuses on the decision-makers’ minds (that is, what happened in the minds of policymakers during the decision), as ‘mind’ contains personalities, ‘beliefs, attitudes, values, experiences, emotions, style, memory, national and self-conception’(Rosati, 1995: 13, 64; Powell et al., 1986: 206). Especially under certain conditions – notably, high stress, high uncertainty, war, crisis, or the dominant position of the head of the state (Smith et al., 2008: 20) – individual characteristics are claimed to play an important part in terms of understanding why certain policies were made. Individual characteristics are considered to be the ‘integral aspect’ of the decision-making process (Smith et al., 2008: 20).

One of the most focused causal factors has been the belief system and images of policymakers, because beliefs ‘are major sources of behaviour and, therefore, explain and predict human action’ (Rosati, 1995: 64). The belief system and images reveal how a policymaker perceives, interprets, and processes information on a particular decision. While ‘belief system’ means one’s conviction or even ideology, ‘images’ here refer to the images of others (e.g. of the Taliban or Al Qaeda in Afghanistan) held by individual policymakers (e.g. Presidents Bush or Obama) (Rosati, 1995: 60–64).

Beliefs and images develop over years. Personal experience plays a crucial part in the development. Wayne writes:

‘As people become aware of the world around them and seek to understand it, they formulate views that frame the mindset from which their judgments are made. Their views and beliefs also shape their perceptions of reality; they are guides to decision making’ (Wayne, 2011: 293).

 Those ‘mind-related’ studies challenge the assumption that policymakers always act rationally.

For the ‘social’ aspect of the PSM Approach, FPA concentrates on how societal and national characteristics (societal and national context or national attributes) can shape the environment in which policymakers operate, and how then the environment influences the policymakers (Sprout and Sprout, 1965: 52, 205). These attributes include culture, national role conception, history, geography, economy, political institutions and military power (Smith et al. 2008: 23; Hill, 2003: 117).

The milieu of decision-making also includes domestic politics or domestic influences (Hagan, 1995:117–43). Policymakers are said to be engaged in a two-level game, domestic and international. The domestic game includes pressures from domestic political factors/actors, which policymakers constantly cope with (together with pressures from the international environment). Domestic political factors, or what this essay would term ‘domestic influences’, can ‘constrain, prevent, change, or even facilitate foreign policy change’ (Neack et al., 1995:120; Dorani, 2018a), or, at times, even pose a threat to the very survival of the government. Domestic pressure could emanate from a variety of actors or societal groups, including Congress (through its ratification and fund allocations authorities), media, area experts and ordinary Americans. They all have the ability to influence the foreign policy atmosphere and to shape public debate. These external actors’ contributions have been shown to have affected governmental foreign policy decision-making (Dahl, 1973: 1–25; Hagan, 1986: 339, 343, 348–49; Holsti, 1967: 422–23; Cox and Stokes, 2008: 164–66; Hudson, 2007: 133; Leffler, 2017: 1–27).

The Sprouts refer to this broad (psychosocial) context as the milieu of decision-making. The milieu is the operational environment or context as it is perceived and interpreted by decision-makers. It is policymakers’ perceptions and reactions to the milieu, not the milieu as it is, or as someone else perceives or interprets it (Sprout and Sprout, 1965: 48, 52, 83, 207, 224; Zinnes, 1972: 210). Thus, like the FPDM Approach, it, too, is a subjective approach, as the analyst is to discern how the policymakers perceived and responded in a particular milieu, or in other words, how policymakers defined the situation in which they made the decision. Like the FPDM Approach, it is a decision-making model, and hence the analysis of the influence of environmental factors upon policymakers while making a particular foreign policy is a must (Sprout et al., 1972: 210). Like the FPDM Approach, multilevel analysis, both from the most micro to the most macro, is required. Like the FPDM Approach, it is important to know the particularities of human decision-makers and the context in which they make the decision.

Put differently, part of the understanding of the subjective situation lies in the explanation of policymakers’ personal attributes, values, perceptions, belief systems and images, personality, and emotional traits (Neack et al., 2008: 19). Another part of it can include variables or sources of foreign policy such as cultural perspectives, national role conception, and domestic influences.

Another very popular approach involves the effect of bureaucratic politics on foreign policy. It is called the BP Approach, which, due to its importance, the author has covered it in great detail in another essay (Dorani, 2018b). However, the model is applied below as a conceptual approach to analyse US anti-terrorism wars. 

The author’s research found that the elements that influenced the Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations’ decision-making for their antiterrorism wars in Afghanistan and the larger region were not some systematic elements or pursuit of power/ulterior interests, but rather individual characteristics of policymakers, domestic influences, bureaucratic politics and personal ties, and ‘false policy assumptions’ or the impact of policy implementation. It was these variables that explain what, why and how US policy on Afghanistan and the region took its different forms over the course of the past 17 years – why the US intervened in Afghanistan in late-2001 (and in Iraq in 2003), why a decade later wanted to exit, why in 2017 it decided to stay engaged, and why in early-2019 Trump decided to withdraw half of US troops from the country (and all troops from Syria).

Personal beliefs and images of policymakers, the three Presidents in particular, were instrumental in the foreign policy decision-making towards Afghanistan and the region. Had it not been for the aggressive views of President Bush, for his decision-making style that refused his instinctive views to be questioned, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) might have never been launched in Afghanistan and beyond. Had Obama been the President when 9/11 took place, he might have adopted a deliberate, highly analytical and all-inclusive decision-making approach and consequently avoided launching the US into war, or at least into such a broad war with an enemy that included numerous states and terrorist organisations.

But Bush was not Obama. Bush’s beliefs and images of terrorism and the role of America in the world differed from those of Obama. Bush saw himself and the US as ‘good’ and terrorist groups and states supporting terrorists as ‘evil’ with the ability to defeat big nations. So he believed he was the man and America the country to go after the wicked terrorism to destroy it in all five continents and spread freedom and democracy instead. Fortunately for Bush, the views and beliefs of Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, as well as the ideology of the neoconservatives turned out to be consistent with those of Bush. The result was evident: launching a broad war with the objective to defeat terrorism worldwide without thoroughly debating the practicality of the Bush Doctrines or the viability of the GWOT (For the impact of belief systems of policymakers on decision-making in the Bush Administration and Bush’s operating style, as well as the Bush Doctrines, see Dorani, 2019, chapters 1, 3, and 5, especially chapter 1. See also Woodward, 2002: 20, 30–1, 38; Rumsfeld, 2011: 32–4, 205, 231–2; Leffler, 2011;  Pfiffner, 2008; Pfiffner, 2011: 256; Bush, 2010: 396–7; Dobriansky, 2003; Dobbins, 2007; Rashid, 2009: XLI, XLII, XLVI–XLVII; Marshall, 2003; Gates, 2014: 49, 589; Clinton, 2014: 135; Saikal, 2014: 5–8, 15–59, 143–77; Hurst, 2009: 7, 182–223; Cheney and Cheney, 2011: 333, 374–7; Dumbrell, 2008: 33, 35).

Obama, on the other hand, saw engagement and diplomacy with partners and Muslim countries as a solution to his war of ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ rather than military means. Obama did his best to avoid involving US ground forces in conflicts deeply. When allies pressurised him to do something, for example, in Libya, Iraq (against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL) and, to a lesser extent, Syria, Obama made use of US air power. For him, solutions to violent extremism were investment in homeland security and strengthening American values.

Obama pursued an analytical decision-making style, and it was the result of such a style when Vice-President Joseph Biden and his camp (certain closer advisors) and the President’s trusted advisors were able to challenge Obama’s long-held beliefs and images of the Afghanistan War, that is, the Afghanistan War was a good war and deserved more troops and resources. Consequently, he did not see the Afghanistan War as necessary and believed it to be no longer winnable in the way the military assumed, so he wanted to bring a responsible end to it by establishing a good enough state that protected only US interests. By 2011, he managed to pave the way for such an Afghanistan. He might not have approved the surge in 2009 had he not faced the strong beliefs of the military camp: the Afghanistan War was winnable if the US applied a counter-insurgency strategy; if Obama refused the surge, however, the US would lose the war. While one set of beliefs was pushing the US into Afghanistan, the other was pulling it away. In the Af-Pak review in 2009, the former won the day, but in 2011 the latter succeeded (For the impact of belief systems of policymakers on decision-making in the Obama Administration and Obama’s operating style, see Dorani, 2019: chapters 7, 8, 10 and 11.  See also Obama, 2007; Obama, 2009a; Obama, 2009b; Obama, 2009c; O’Hanlon, 2011; Woodward, 2010: 160, 163, 167–9, 189–90, 207, 216–17, 280, 319–21; Chandrasekaran, 2012: 119–21; Gates, 2014: 96, 349–50, 362, 376, 557; Cox, 2011;  Singh, 2012: 86; Petraeus, 2007;  White, 2016; Mann, 2004: 117; Baker, 2009; Klein, 2011; Clinton, 2008; Kerry, 2010).

Different accounts of what operating style Trump follows are reported, so it is not clear what decision-making style he pursues. But what is clear is that if Trump followed his nationalistic populist ideals, it might be catastrophic, as predicted by many foreign policy experts, for both America and the world. He, nevertheless, has acted upon those populist ideas. Despite the opposing pieces of advice he received from his military advisors, he has decided to (almost) end US military presence in Syria. Furthermore, the continuation of the controversial immigration orders, withdrawing from the Paris Agreement/Iran Deal, launching the ‘Buy American, Hire American’ doctrine, adhering to the America First doctrine (the US to primarily and unilaterally pursue its national interests), imposing tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from China and Europe, repealing and replacing Obama Health Care, cutting tax on the middle class considerably and removing regulations were other examples to demonstrate that Trump’s populist views impacted his administration’s immigration, economy, climate change, health care and (certain aspects of) foreign policies (For the impact of Trump and his closer advisors’ personal beliefs on policymaking, see Dorani, 2019: chapters 12 and 13; Rushe, 2018; Kestler-D’Amours, 2018;  Trump, 2017).

Domestic influences likewise significantly impacted the decision-making and the resulting decisions on anti-terrorism war. As part of domestic influences, the contribution of Congress, the media and the area experts were considered. These actors, together with US economic conditions, had an indirect role: constituting a policy atmosphere by contributing to public debate. Indeed, the Bush Doctrines and the GWOT were the product of their time and people. Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks took the lives of 2997 Americans and caused, putting all costs together, an economic damage of hundreds of billions of US dollars. Both ordinary Americans and policymakers feared more attacks, especially those involving some form of chemical or biological weapons, which could potentially take the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and cause serious damage to US economic power. Under tremendous pressure, and feeling guilty due to 9/11 taking place under his stewardship, Bush and his advisors saw intervention in Afghanistan as the only solution to defuse the threat of further attacks and bring back some normality to both the country and the administration.

Bush’s aggressive doctrines received overwhelming support from Congress, the media and the general American public. The international community, including most Muslim countries, equally showed their tremendous support for Bush’s GWOT in Afghanistan. The support turned Bush into a bold president, vowing to ‘root out’ terrorism. To destroy terrorism, the administration gave terrorism a broad definition and kept the GWOT broad and open, resulting in the intervention in Iraq.  Indeed, the same domestic support carried on during the decision-making for the Iraq invasion.

However, once the domestic support was lost due to the failures of the GWOT in Afghanistan and Iraq, practically all the above actors turned against Bush and his GWOT strategy, forcing him to privately back away from his doctrines. The domestic support for a counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan was likewise instrumental in making the Bush Administration take the first step towards the strategy in the Afghanistan War in 2008 (For the impact of domestic factors on decision-making during the Bush Administration, see Dorani S, 2019: chapters 1, 4 and 5. See also Bush, 2001; Bush, 2010: 134, 139, 148–9; Cheney and Cheney, 2011: 1, 10, 329–30, 337, 339; Bird and Marshall, 2011: 53–5; Woodward, 2002: 96, 145, 150, 168, 171, 206–7; Leffler, 2011; Rice, 2011:  80, 88; Tenet and Harlow, 2007: 26, 261, 393–6, 339, 402–4, 408, 413–14, 425–7; Gates, 2014: 93; Nye and Joseph, 2006; Rumsfeld, 2011: 33, 335–6; Dumbrell, 2008; Paltrow and  Cloud, 2004; Post-ABC Poll, 2001).

But by the time of the decision to surge by the Obama Administration in 2009, the Afghanistan War was no longer considered necessary by many in Congress, the media and area experts. There was a divide among the actors, forcing Obama to reach a compromise. Equally, the loss of public support for the Iraq War was one important factor Obama went for a hasty withdrawal of US troops from Iraq after he became President. However, by 2011, the sway in public debate was more towards a swift withdrawal due to the lack of success in Afghanistan and the dire US economic conditions. By 2011, the GWOT in Afghanistan and Iraq had reportedly cost more than $5 trillion, and had taken the lives of 6,234 troops; twice the number killed in the 9/11 terrorist acts. So the loss of public support for the Afghanistan War enabled Obama to approve a drastic drawdown rather than that recommended by the military (For the impact of domestic factors on decision-making during the Obama Administration, see Dorani, 2019: chapters 6, 7, 10 and 11.  Woodward, 2010: 157–9, 172–7, 197, 194, 206, 247, 311; Baker, 2009; Mann, 2012: xx–xxi, 46, 68–9, 71, 75, 82–3, 132–4, 141–3, 211, 214, 310–13, 316–19, 323; Dodge and Redman, 2011: 50–2, 61; Singh, 2012: 3, 17, 73–5, 83; Langer, 2009; O’Hanlon, 2011; Chandrasekaran, 2012: 118, 324; Sanger and Schmitt, 2011; Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 2010; Biden, 2008; Freedman, 2009).

But public opinion in 2017 did not favour a rapid US withdrawal from Afghanistan due to the rise of ISIL, and hence partly enabled the Trump Administration to remain engaged in Afghanistan. But since Americans are tired of endless wars in the ‘Greater Middle East’ (and since Trump’s surge in 2017 has not produced a great deal), Trump ordered to withdraw all US troops (about 2,000) from Syria and at least half from Afghanistan.

More than 120 Republican experts did not support Trump’s radical views and declared Trump unfit for presidency. The mainstream media press, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and CNN, were critical to the extent that made Trump believe there was a ‘witch-hunt’ against him. The cultural left apparently vowed to oppose any Trump policy derived from his Alt-Right perspective. Low-rank US officials equally appeared to oppose his views and leaked confidential information to hurt Trump and his senior advisors. The American people (and many outside the US) staged numerous protests to show their opposition to Trump’s radical viewpoints/policies. Trump got ‘the lowest approval rating of any incoming president in modern history’. His base (the far-right supporters) continues to support his populist ideals. This domestic opposition has had its impact. For example, due to pressure from area experts, Trump in late February 2019 agreed to leave 400 troops in Syria. Furthermore, he has not yet ordered to bring home half of America troops from Afghanistan (Dorani, 2019: chapters 12 and 13. See also Landler and Cooper, 2019; Eliot, 2017; Eliot, 2018; Rosenberg et al., 2017; The National Interests, 2016).

Penultimately, the role of bureaucratic pulling and hauling was prominent within all three administrations. The Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, supported by the unprecedentedly powerful Vice-President Richard Cheney, largely managed to shape the GWOT policy and its derivative, the counterterrorism policy, in the way that put the Pentagon at the centre of policymaking. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s advice was often ignored because he had neither the trust of Bush nor the backing of Cheney. However, in the second term of the Bush Administration, both Cheney and Rumsfeld had lost their bureaucratic muscle, owing to their mistaken beliefs and the assumptions they carried, and their policy ideas were ignored during decision-making. When Rumsfeld disagreed with the Iraq surge and continued to insist on a counterterrorism strategy, Bush fired him and instead employed Robert Gates. Gates, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, General David Petraeus and Condoleezza Rice, who had built up confidence as a Secretary of State, were now influential in decision-making, pushing US Afghan policy towards a counter-insurgency strategy (For the impact of bureaucratic politics on policymaking during the Bush Administration, see Dorani, 2019: chapter 3. See also Rashid, 2009:  XLV, 356; Mann, 2009: x, 197, 238–9, 255, 276; Cheney and Cheney, 2011: 49, 70–1, 140–2, 151, 153, 185–8, 242, 298, 305–6, 381–2, 443; Rumsfeld, 2011: 320, 322–4; Bird and Marshall, 2011: 69–70; Daalder and Lindsay, 2003:1–18; O’Hanlon, 2002; Dickerson, 2005; Ware, 2011; Feith, 2008: 34;  Desch, 2007).

In the Obama Administration, the role of bureaucratic politics was even more visible. Petraeus and McChrystal were merely two commanders, but the White House was so afraid of their resignations that it eventually had to give in to their requests for more troops in Afghanistan, though with some limitations. The Head of US Central Command Petraeus was feared because he was a prestigious commander who had prevented US defeat in Iraq. With all the ideological and personal proximity, the inner circle (Obama’s trusted advisors) and the Biden camp had to Obama, and with all of  Biden camp and Obama’s trusted advisors’ pulling and hauling, they were unable to persuade Petraeus to drop his demands. The weighing of Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen in support of McChrystal’s strategy gave additional strength to Petraeus, making it considerably difficult for Obama, even though he was the principal strategist of his administration, to refuse the military’s requests for a counter-insurgency strategy.

However, once Petraeus’s magic wand failed to produce the intended results in Afghanistan by 2011, his demands were easily declined by Obama, who managed to redirect the strategy towards beginning to end US presence in Afghanistan. Had there been a bureaucratically strong Petraeus of 2009 in 2011 or a bureaucratically weak Petraeus of 2011 in 2009, both resulting decisions could have been very different. Due to this infighting within the three administrations, ordinary Afghans often heard conflicting messages: for example, the military leaders during the Obama Administration described the Taliban as terrorists, but the civilian camp saw them as non-terrorists (For the impact of bureaucratic politics on policymaking during the Obama Administration, see Dorani, 2019: chapters 6, 7, 10. See also Woodward, 2010: 37, 71–2, 102, 126–7, 131–2, 137–40, 157–61,  166–9, 173–7, 188–9, 194, 197–8, 206, 235–8, 254–5, 319; Gates, 2014: 41, 44, 290–2 336–7, 360, 370, 376–7, 384–5, 587; Rosenberg, 2013; Hastings, 2010; McGurk, 2011; Crowley, 2009; Chandrasekaran, 2012: 118, 126, 127–8, 221, 224–5; Gerson, 2009; Mann, 2012: xx–xxi, 3–5, 9–11, 14–17, 43, 46, 68–9, 71, 75, 82–3, 105,  132–5, 141–4, 211–15, 224–5, 310–13, 316–19, 323; Baker, 2009; Spiegel and Dreazen, 2009; Clinton, 2014; Washington Post, 2009).

As for the Trump Administration, there now appears to be tension between the ‘pragmatists’ and the ideologically driven ‘intimates’ (populists) on the one hand, and Trump’s ‘children’ and some of Trump’s immediate advisors on the other hand. The schism has already led to unprecedented number of dismissals/resignations, many bad decisions and plenty of conflicting messages. Bureaucratic politics (and domestic opposition) is one important factor that US foreign policy – including Afghan (and Syrian) strategies – has confused many foreign policy analysts: that is, they do not know what exactly US foreign policy is and who is in charge of making it (Dorani, 2019: chapter 12;  Graham, 2018; Cillizza, 2018; Mann, 2016).

Finally, and most importantly, the impact of foreign policy implementation, or what the author terms in his book as ‘false policy assumptions’, upon decision-making and the resulting policies were greatly visible. It was the effect of the false policy assumptions that weakened the bureaucratic locations of the defence hawks and the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration. If the GWOT continued to be as successful in the second term of the Bush Administration in Iraq and Afghanistan as it had been during 2002 and early 2003, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the neoconservatives would have most likely remained the driving force in decision-making. Public opinion would have in all likelihood continued to be on their side. Their beliefs – the declaration of war and the four Bush Doctrines – would have applied to Iran, Syria and other rogue states. But the opposite happened once their policy assumptions failed at the implementation phase. The same was the case regarding the military camp in the Obama Administration. If Petraeus managed to prove his assumptions correct in relation to the Afghanistan War, he might have been able to persuade Obama (and Congress) to continue with his strategy for a few more years.

The difference between the Bush and Obama Administrations regarding the policy assumptions was Obama, who, due to his deliberate and analytical operating style, knew that the military assumptions would most likely prove false, but Bush, due to his hasty, secret and emotion-based decision-making approach, was certain the policy assumptions would prove accurate. As seen, most of these assumptions, especially those regarding the GWOT, were based on ideologies or beliefs that were American-born and ignorant of the realities in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their failures greatly triggered changes in the GWOT strategy in Afghanistan (and Iraq) over the course of the 17 years, and hence the Afghans (and Iraqis) saw changes in US foreign policy.

The penultimate change took place in mid-2016 once Obama’s assumption that a good enough Afghan Government would be able to fight the Taliban proved false, as the Taliban and other insurgent groups, including the ISIL, began to pose a serious existential threat to the National Unity Government. (The same is the case in relation to Iraq once ISIL post-2014 began to pose a serious threat.)

The final change took place when Trump recently announced that he was considering withdrawing half of US troops from Afghanistan because the war had not been as successful as the military leaders had promised; as part of his South Asia policy, incidentally, Trump had deployed some 4,000 more US troops to Afghanistan in August 2017 (For a thorough analysis of decision implementation by the Bush, Obama and Trump Administrations, see Dorani, 2019: chapters 4, 5, 9, 10, 11 and 13).

The Process, the Organising Concepts and the Methods of Accessing Reading Materials

One element that the three approaches above (and FPA in general)  stress as essential in explaining foreign policy of a state is the importance of understanding individual policymakers, their particularities (what Snyder called “human” factors) and the context in which they operate in order to understand foreign policy choices. Put differently, the focus is on policymakers and the causal variables – including psychological and societal – that affect them during the process of making foreign policy (Snyder et al., 36; Hudson, 2007: 14).

Patrick J. Haney in his article on ‘Structure and Process in the Analysis of Foreign Policy Crises’ (Neack et sl., 1995: 106) defines the term ‘process’ as ‘the steps and tasks performed by a group that lead to a decision or policy choice being made’. In plain language, the term ‘process’ means the way a decision was formed, that is, who said what, how and why when the policy was made. In the FPDM Approach (and FPA), the process of foreign policy decision-making is seen as important, if not more important, as foreign policy as an output. The substance of this message continues to be the ‘hardcore’ (Smith et al., 2008: 16) of the FPDM Approach (and, of course, of the other two decision-making approaches).

In his article, ‘Conclusion: reaching foreign policy cases’ (Smith et al., 2008: 377–87), Steven L. Lamy gives an ideal framework for learning about the process of foreign policy decision-making. He divides the process into four phases: articulation/initiation, formulation, implementation, and evaluation. In the first phase, initiation, the analyst focuses on those players – such as national-interest groups, media, civil society, or even public debate/pressure, to name a few – who bring the issues to the attention of the policymakers. This stage gives an understanding of who the key players are, why they push a particular recommendation/proposal/view, and how they do so. In the formulation phase, a phase when the policy is made/formulated, the analyst learns about how and why the policy was made – who said what, how and why.

The third phase, implementation, is about what happens after the policy is formed: that is, what happened after the policy was translated into action at domestic and international levels. Was the policy successful? If not, why not? In the final stage, the evaluation phase, the views, reviews and recommendations of a policy (or its outcome) by the Congressional committees, watchdog groups, or special commissions, as well as other influential actors, including the media, can be considered.

‘Cases may be written about all or one of these phases of policymaking. Each phase will reveal the significance of various actors, decisions rules, procedures, practices, and habits’ (Smith et al., 2008: 383–84). Indeed, a researcher does not have to follow all four phases in chronological order to find a foreign policy explanation, as some phases might be irrelevant to a particular decision point. In the formulation phase, incidentally, the analysis is both descriptive and analytical, but when consideration is drawn from the other phases, it can also be evaluative. To have a better grasp of how a decision can be analysed at each of these four stages, refer to the author’s book (Dorani, 2019).

As for the organising concepts, they can be arranged as strands in the answers to a number of guiding (or conceptual) questions inspired by the three approaches in question. For example, the FPDM Approach provides the following questions (Smith et al., 2008: 27): who brought the issue to the attention of policymakers, and how, and why? Which policymakers were involved in the process of the decision-making? Who said what, why, and how during the processes of decision-making? How were problems/discussions/situations ‘framed’ and ‘represented’ by policymakers? How did policymakers recognise the problem? What motivated the policymakers to come to share an assumption/interpretation of the situation? And what (and how and why) motivated policymakers to change an established interpretation/assumption? Which policymakers put forward the options? How were these options then developed? What reasoning did he or she give? What were their objectives and how did they arise? What were the motivations behind the objectives and how did they arise? What internal and external factors influenced policymakers and their objectives and motivations?

The last question will allow the researcher to examine factors derived from the implementation and evaluation stages. The requirement of ‘external and internal factors’ of the FPDM Approach will also allow for considering causal psychological or social factors or independent variables covered by the PSM and BP Approaches. As stated above (and in the author’s essay on the BP Approach), the PSM and BP Approaches are an extension of the FPDM Approach (Neack et al., 1995: 13).

Nevertheless, studies relating belief systems and images have developed their own conceptual questions. The concepts could be organised as patterns in the answers to the following questions inspired by Jerel A. Rosati in ‘A Cognitive Approach to the Study of Foreign Policy’ (Neack et al., 1995: 64): What were the belief systems of the policymakers? What impact did the beliefs and images of policymakers have on foreign policymaking for a foreign policy choice? What affected the beliefs and images of policymakers over time? As for the guiding questions relating to domestic influences, the reaction of Congress, the media, the area experts and ordinary Americans can be analysed regarding a policy choice. The views of all those four actors would constitute public opinion (or debate), and the organising concept for studying public opinion is to simply to ascertain what public opinion on the making of a foreign policy decision was (Smith et al., 2008: 27).

For BP Approach, Allison and Philip Zelikow put a number of guiding questions (organising concepts) to help the researcher understand foreign policy from the point of view of a particular bureaucratic actor: ‘Who plays [Pentagon, the State Department, the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency…]? What factors shape players’ perceptions, preferences, and stands on the issue? What determines each player’s impact on the results? How does the game [that is, the decision-making process] combine players’ stands, influence, and moves to yield governmental decisions and actions?’ (Allison and Zelikow, 1999: 296) All of those questions could be combined to make one comprehensive question: to what extent did the particular bureaucratic locations of policymakers play a part in the resulting policy? (Smith et al., 2008: 227) The same question could be asked in relation to belief systems and images as well as domestic influences: to what extent did the belief systems and images (of policymakers) and domestic influences play a part in the resulting policy?

The above guidelines or concepts can be used to find out what a decision was, and how and why it was made.

Most of the approaches of FPA, especially the ones examined above, require the researcher to have a person-to-person relationship with policymakers and be physically present during the decision-making process to ascertain detailed accounts of policymakers’ characteristics, as well as what transpired during the decision-making process. Then one would be able to find out, for example, about the impact of policymakers’ bureaucratic contributions, their belief systems and images, or domestic influences upon decision-making and the resultant (decision). As Allison, Zelikow and Hudson put it, none is possible for an analyst (Hudson, 2007: 27; Allison and Zelikow, 1999: 312). To make matters worse, writing a contemporary piece of foreign policy analysis has its own limitations. Key governmental documents are still classified, and a researcher cannot enjoy the benefit of hindsight.

But since there is always a need for contemporary works, as it can still provide the literature with an original insight into contemporary events which subsequent works could build upon, these obstacles have not stopped contemporary works, including the one by the author of this article on US policy towards Afghanistan and the region (Dorani, 2019), from being undertaken. Even better is the fact that FPA has identified a clear qualitative method to help the analyst determine ‘what transpired’ during the decision-making process and identify causal variables that have affected a particular decision (Hudson, 2007: 27, 57; Allison and Zelikow, 1999: 312–13; Smith et al., 2008: 24; Neack et al., 1995:11, 59). The method requires that all official actions (such as cables, speeches, statements, memoirs by policymakers), as well as contributions by outside actors about the policy or policymakers, are examined, and, once these pieces of information are ‘stuck to the same canvas’, it would constitute governmental behaviour relevant to the issue (Allison and Zelikow, 1999: 294–95). 

A researcher can employ the same analytical and descriptive method or tool to describe, analyse and evaluate what policymakers said and wrote. For primary data, the following can be exploited. Firstly, classified documents published by WikiLeaks, which can provide classified information, but the downside is that it is time-consuming, as the student has to go through thousands of documents to find the relevant ones. 

Secondly, published memoirs by the officials from an administration (e.g. the Bush or the Obama Administrations) can prove rich primary data. The published memoirs often facilitate an insider’s insight into the decision-making, since the policymakers write about their own experiences and recollections (of a decision they have made). They shone a light on the detailed discussions, which took place during decision-making (for the decision). The disadvantage is, however, that a policymaker might try to convey only those details that he or she wants the reader to know, and that a policymaker might defend the stance he or she has taken. But that does not stop the published memoirs from being an invaluable primary source. Reading memoirs by different advisors, especially those who did not agree with each other on numerous aspects of a decision (in question), and comparing and contrasting their accounts of a given policy might enable the analyst to ascertain each advisor’s belief system, his or her stance on the decision, the role of his or her bureaucratic position in swaying the policy (and decision-making) one way or another, the role of domestic influences upon him or her and the nature of a policy. Ultimately, FPA (and the approaches discussed above) is a subjective approach, and it is crucial to know policymakers’ accounts of the decision-making. The memoirs can help a great deal in unlocking them.

The third primary source can be public records. Countless statements, interviews, speeches, policy briefs by officials from an administration can be consulted. Some of these interviews and statements are in the heat of the moment without any previous preparations. Thus they equally help shed some light on identifying the role of a given causal factor in shaping the decision in question. The White House official websites can enable the analyst to access official speeches, interviews and statements made by the president. The difficulty is that if the foreign policy behaviour the student analyses is unimportant to policymakers, policymakers might not have said a great deal about it.

Fourthly, Congress, especially the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, should be searched as it often conducts a great number of hearings that can contribute greatly to policymaking. Hearings by different Congress committees, together with opinions, statements, media interviews and policy suggestions by Congressional members, can prove a rich source of analysis in establishing the impact of Congress upon the decision-making for a foreign policy behaviour. Again, the author found that Congress tended to ignore those issues or countries less important to the American public. For example, between 1993 and 2001, there were a few hearings on the situation in Afghanistan because US forces were not present in the country. But there were dozens in the space of a few months in 2009 when Obama was considering to surge.  Finally, newspapers and magazines, especially The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, are all really helpful in figuring out what transpired in decision-making and how impactful a given variable has been. They are also invaluable in bringing to life the public debate upon a decision. The good news is that most universities provide free access to these newspapers; or else one has to pay a premium to access them, especially The Wall Street Journal.

As for secondary materials, academic articles on a foreign policy choice by scholars/journalists and those with expertise on the subject matter can be studied. Foreign Affairs can prove to be very helpful in retrieving articles relating to the topic, including articles or opinion pieces by former or would-be policymakers. Textbooks and articles on the topic can help ascertain the role the outside actors or area experts played in decision-making. The advantage of accessing secondary materials is that there are usually textbooks and articles available even if a topic is less important to US officials. These materials are often written by journalists, academics and area experts. 

All these primary and secondary sources together (as well as many others a researcher may access) can help provide a rich source of materials and assist an author to piece together what transpired during the decision-making for a particular decision or foreign policy choice. It can also enable the study to form an understanding of individual policymakers, their bureaucratic muscle, their particularities, the impact of domestic influences, or any other independent variable the researcher wishes to explore, upon the decision in question. Analysing these numerous variables can indirectly bring the context (or the milieu) to life in which the policymakers operated, which in turn will allow the analyst to provide rich-in-detail analysis for a foreign policy decision.

The Limitations and the Strengths of FPA

Some of the limitations have already been dealt with in section one. The important question that this section asks is whether FPA can be applicable to analyse a foreign policy decision made in a country with a different political system from that of the US. Using the FPDM Approach, the author has been researching for a book that attempts to explain the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the key turning points in the contemporary history (and foreign policy) of Afghanistan. The author found that it has not been as straightforward to collect information on the key turning points as it was to collect information on decisions made by the Bush or Obama Administrations regarding Afghanistan. Moreover, many of the conceptual questions asked above in relation to US decision-making towards Afghanistan and the region could not be applicable to analysing the key turning points in Afghanistan. During the pro-communist regime, for example, the separation of powers, strictly speaking, did not exist. There was no freedom of expression. Decisions were made in secrecy by a number of individuals guided by the Soviet advisors. One could, for example, hardly found published documents narrating what debates took place during the decision-making to overthrow the Mohammed Daoud Khan Republic and do the April Revolution in 1978. Alden and Aran do not overstate when they claim that these ‘culturally specific approaches [from FPA] to the task of interpreting decision-making in distant settings [‘The Third World’]’ could lead to misapplication and ‘(failed) outcomes’ (Alden and Aran, 2017: 155).

Did this stop the author from conducting research for his next book? The answer is in the negative. The question inspired by the FPDM Approach of what internal and external factors influenced policymakers and their objectives and motivations enabled the author to analyse a number of factors to come up with a possible analysis to explain what might have taken during the decision-making process and why and how that policy was made. For example, in relation to the causes of the April Revolution, the factors that the author has studied included the ideology of the Soviet Union, US containment policy, backgrounds of the Afghan policymakers, the ideology of the Afghan Mujahedeen, domestic factors and the role Afghanistan’s neighbours had played. As for reading materials, memoirs by the Afghan policymakers/the Mujahedeen, accounts written by the Westerners and Afghans, countless speeches, media interviews and many other public records by the parties involved have proved helpful. It is true that some of the accounts offered by the Afghans and Westerns might not be as accurate as, for instance, Bob Woodward’s account of a US administration; they nevertheless have offered important pieces of information. (However, it might be more difficult to employ an approach from FPA if a researcher analyses a contemporary foreign policy decision in an autocratic state, such as North Korea.) 

The conceptual questions covered in section three do not represent an exhaustive list, as many more might arise depending on the study. One of the liberating points about FPA is its potential for asking new questions (Hudson, 2007: 31–32; Hermann, 1995: 243–58; Hermann et al., 1986: 1–10). FPA is the most integrative theoretical field and its tendency not to limit itself to a particular conceptual approach (or questions), but to derive middle-range theories from other social science approaches in order to analyse a given foreign policy is its other plus point. Another liberating aspect of the FPA is, as seen above, its commitment to provide multi-explanations by committing to an analysis of all variables (if necessary) at all levels of analysis, from the most micro to the most macro, from the individual to the state to the international system, so long as they are demonstrated to have influenced policymakers. Yet another aspect of FPA is that it is more of a ‘common sense’ theory as opposed to strictly theoretical and technical (Hermann et al., 1986: 1–10; Frankel, 1963). The flexibility of PFA (and, of course, the FPDM Approach) has made it much easier for the author to manoeuvre. For example, as stated above, ‘the internal and external factors requirement’ of the FPDM Approach has enabled the author to cover any sources of foreign policy that he believed to have influenced the decisions (key turning points) in his next book.


The overall aim has been to make it easier for students to learn how to employ approaches from FPA as analytical frameworks to analyse a foreign policy choice. To do so, the article has explained key concepts in FPA, such as actors, structures, explanandum, explanans and methodology (methods of accessing reading materials). Furthermore,  three decision-making approaches – namely, the FPDM, the PSM and the BP Approaches – were applied to the Bush, Obama and Trump’s Administrations decision-making towards Afghanistan and the broader region to analyse why a foreign policy decision was made by a particular administration, and what (and how) factors influenced policymakers to make the decision. Moreover, FPA as a common sense theory further has enabled the author to ascertain why and how a particular policy failed or succeeded once it met reality in Afghanistan and the region; something IR theories, such as realism, may not be able to equip an analyst with the necessary tools to analyse decisions at the implementation phase.

The article further touched upon the idea of whether FPA can be applicable to analyse a foreign policy decision in a non-Western country like Afghanistan, and, while it admits that it is not as straightforward to apply FPA as an analytical framework to inform a foreign policy decision in Afghanistan as it is in the US, it is not impossible.

In short, as far as empirical evidence is concerned, students can utilise FPA to ascertain why a foreign policy choice was made, and what (and how) factors impacted policymakers to make the decision in both a Western state and, to some extent, non-Western countries. Furthermore, FPA can enable them to discover what happened when the policy was implemented, whether (and why) it succeed or failed, and whether the failure or success affected decision-making back in the country whose foreign policy is being analysed.


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