Foreign Policy. The term “foreign policy” is a nineteenth-century expansion of the idea of “policy,” which had been in use since Chaucer to denote a government’s conduct of affairs. The phrase “foreign affairs” was increasingly common from the seventeenth century, as the growing volume of state business began to compel a clearer organizational distinction between home and abroad in the secretariats of royal households. But the idea of a coherent set of positions towards the outside world, or a “foreign policy,” seems to have been a product of the bureaucracy and systematization of the industrial age.
For modern observers, foreign policy is at once a phenomenon, a concept, and a major area of study. No definition can do full justice to all three of these aspects of the term, but it is still possible to establish a starting point from which the arguments about interpretation can develop. For there are almost as many views of foreign policy as there are different schools of thought on international relations, or types of political ideology in the world.
Foreign policy, then, can be characterized as the sum of official external relations conducted by an independent actor (usually a state) in international relations. Such a definition is short enough to be of practical use, while retaining sufficient flexibility to incorporate the changes that have occurred and continue to occur in the nature of modern international politics. To take the components of the definition: “international relations” refers to the web of transactions across state boundaries by all kinds of groups and individuals, and “external relations” to the same activities from the point of view of these actors as they move outside their own society into dealings with others. Neither is restricted to “politics” in the narrow sense, as almost any act can be political if it relates to fundamental issues like the distribution of power or the setting of social values and priorities. On the other hand relations must be “official” to qualify as foreign policy because otherwise all transactions could be included and there would be no inherent sense of agency or purposive action, which is what the term “policy” always implies. In this sense all external relations conducted by the legitimate officeholders of the entity express and contribute to foreign policy: defense ministers, foreign trade ministers, and environment ministers may be almost as involved as their colleagues in charge of the diplomatic service. To the extent that senior bureaucrats also take part directly in high-level international transactions, they too will be conducting foreign policy, although their margin of maneuver will vary enormously from state to state and issue to issue. At the extremes, bureaucratic and political competition sometimes means that a state is running several foreign policies simultaneously.
The “sum” of external relations is important because although we talk properly about a country’s specific foreign policy towards this state or that, the use of the term tout court must always be holistic—it represents the entire package of actions and attitudes towards the outside world. Lastly, it is important to define foreign policy as issuing from “independent actors” rather than the more conventional restrictive definition, so as to avoid chaining ourselves to the state in an era when it is evident both that foreign and domestic policy often blur into each other, and that non-state actors are major participants in international relations. So although it has to be admitted that the great majority of foreign policies belong to states, which still monopolize the business of global politics, there is no intrinsic reason why other actors, such as churches or political groups, which transcend on a transnational basis much of the control theoretically exercised by states, should not be deemed to have “foreign” policies. For they, like nation-states, naturally distinguish between their internal character and the international system. We may need to qualify their actions as “private foreign policies,” but they can be analyzed in ways not dissimilar to states.
Most non-state entities, however, have neither the reach nor the motivation to go beyond mere external relations into foreign policy proper. The average sporting federation or municipality can rarely defy government-to-government structures. While some companies, regions, and governments-in-exile do have the resources to achieve a high profile in international politics it is particular entities, like the African National Congress or the Anglican Church, rather than whole categories that qualify as foreign policy actors.
Economic interdependence has increased the number of transnational entities and their opportunities for independent action, although here too variable patterns of development and liberalization make it a more patchy process than is often assumed. While there may be relatively few enterprises capable of challenging states frontally, as Rupert Murdoch’s News International has done, many others have complicated the foreign policies of governments. The disputes over extraterritoriality, for example, between the European Union and the United States, only arise because of the existence of companies that operate internationally, and in the first instance on the basis of the market, regardless of national security policies.
Governments have also had to contend increasingly with international non-governmental organizations as participants capable themselves of shaping international politics. Although nominally based in one country, organizations like Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and Médecins sans Frontières have increasingly taken on a transnational quality and operate on the basis of specified values unrelated to those of any particular national interest. For their part governments do not stand on the sidelines observing. They have developed ways of coping with such actors, and of using them. As a result, both foreign policy and international politics are more subtle and complicated processes than in the Cold War era.
The literature that has burgeoned on foreign policy since 1960 provides us with the means to understand both the underlying forces which shape a country’s foreign policy, and the evolution of the phenomenon itself. This literature constitutes what is now a major subarea of international relations, known variously as foreign policy analysis (FPA) or comparative foreign policy (CFP). It takes the micro, or actor-perspective on international relations, as opposed to the macro, or system-perspective in which patterns are identified without going into the motivations of the actors who produce them. Views differ on what can be achieved at the micro level of analysis. The CFP school, which became well established in the United States, has preferred a behavioral methodology, and has operated on the assumption that it should be possible to generalize about the behavior of states and foreign policies, as classes of phenomena, once sufficient data has been generated by rigorously scientific methods. This positivist approach did not catch on in most European or Commonwealth universities, or in the more traditionalist American faculties. There are also now signs that after the expenditure of considerable effort, money, and ingenuity, some of the main proponents of the school have come to realize its limitations. Quite apart from the general debate about positivism, foreign policy is an insufficiently discrete phenomenon to be able to bear the weight of extensive cross-cultural comparisons and generalizations.
This is to say that because foreign policy as an activity is not sharply different from other kinds of public policy, it cannot generate an exclusive theory of behavior to fit it; also, that the variations over countries and time periods are large enough to enforce damaging qualifications on attempts to derive general laws. More than a wholly distinctive universe of human behavior, foreign policy represents an arena in which various forms of explanation may be brought together, enabling us to say a great deal about the nature of foreign policy, its making, its interaction with domestic politics, and its place in our understanding of international politics as a whole.
This more eclectic approach, which has established itself as the most fruitful way to study foreign policy, employs the dialectical approach of critically testing generalizations and case studies against each other. It uses theory without being enslaved to it, in the sense of concentrating on what are known as “middle-range theories.” At one end of the spectrum this means rigorously constructed hypotheses about closely defined particular aspects of foreign policy (or “structured empiricism” in Michael Brecher’s words), of which the best example is Brecher’s own work on decisions under conditions of crisis. At the other end of the same scale of middle-range theories are sets of insights, more loosely organized but not less valuable for that, on such matters as the tendency of decision makers to lean on historical analogies, or the impact of geopolitical and other environmental constraints on choice. In the middle is a good deal of impressive work on the domestic sources of foreign policy, perception and misperception, bureaucratic politics, and the problems attending the notion of rational conduct in the context of foreign policy. The dominant position of rational choice approaches in political science has failed to catch on in foreign policy analysis for this very reason: the limitations of the “rational actor” model had been fully exposed by the mid-1970s.
The comparative spirit informs most of this writing, even if a tendency towards the case-study method sometimes obscures that fact. Indeed, the foreign policy characteristics of certain types and groups of states have attracted a good deal of attention from those wishing to link the study of foreign policy making to the broader patterns of international relations. Small states, middle-range powers, developing countries, Islamic states, and west European states all fall into this category. In this sense “comparative foreign policy” is often conducted along traditionalist lines and is not to be associated exclusively with the behavioral school referred to above.
The study of foreign policy has thus evolved over more than thirty years. Despite continuing differences over methodology and scope, it deals in essence with the content of policy on the one hand and the process of foreign policy making on the other. Most often, however, it focuses on the interactions between the two, starting from the premise that what is done will be partially determined by how it is done, and allowing for the possibility of human beings asserting their existential rights to choice, even in the most constricted circumstances. Moreover the environments in which action takes place are to be regarded as crucial but not given; the interplay of domestic and international factors is an endlessly varied and elastic process.
For the most part the contemporary analysis of foreign policy has been driven by a dispassionate desire to open up previously neglected questions. But the spirit of scientific inquiry should not be allowed to obscure the points of connection between the concerns of policy analysis with rationality and perception, and that long-standing normative approach which dwells on such subjects as the extent to which law or morality should affect diplomacy, and the tension between short-term and long-term considerations in foreign policy. Realism, with its black-boxing of the state and its reductionist emphasis on interests as the basis of foreign policy, cannot match foreign policy analysis in this respect as a meeting place for the empirical and philosophical aspects of states’ activities towards each other. Indeed, recent poststructuralist work on discourse and identity has tended to argue that no such distinction can be made; the very concept of “foreign” policy is constituted in its familiar way as the result of a dominant discourse which should be deconstructed so as to reveal its narrowing assumptions about both identity and values. Poststructuralists have revived theoretical interest in foreign policy by examining language and the various worldviews thereby revealed.
Yet the study of foreign policy still faces an important challenge for the future. For the very need to define foreign policy broadly enough so as to cater to a wider range of actions than those encompassed by traditional diplomacy, shows how it is becoming difficult to distinguish the aspects of public policy which are directed towards foreigners from those which are primarily in the domestic domain. The problems of migration and criminality which are high on the “new” agenda of post–Cold War international politics require, by definition, strategies which are both internally and externally directed. If such a distinction becomes increasingly unsustainable, the study of foreign policy will merge with that of comparative politics to form a new, broader focus on the politics and policies of states (or whatever systems for mobilizing decisions may replace states) within the complex web of global interdependence. The disappearance of foreign policy that this would represent, however, is still many decades into the future. Even then the concept would probably need reinventing under another name, given the inherent tendency of human collectivities to perceive inside as different from outside. Whenever foreign policy seems on the point of losing its contemporary relevance, it has the habit of bouncing back to the center of our concerns, whoever and wherever we are.