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History, Theories, and Perspectives of Foreign Policy

Getty Images (2018) A foreign policy illustration image of Donald Trump [Illustration]

The 21st century age of social media through Twitter and Facebook has shown increasingly less control of the information flow. Such information is guided by state interactions, voter behaviour and patterns that influence a state's domestic and foreign policy. As proven by events such as the Arab Spring of 2011, The Iranian protest, the Libya invasion in 2011, and the attack on the United State's White House in 2020 under President Donald Trump, the world is interconnected through a lens of domestic and international politics (Smith, Hadfield & Dunne, 2016). Therefore, the assumptions of Comparative Foreign Policy (CFP) are still in their infancy, and traditional practice is outlived by the current time, state, and events (Kattenburg, 1974). James Rosenau's work on CFP in 1960 encompasses the field of Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA). According to Juliet Kaarbo (2003), who calls for a ‘return of comparison’, there should be a comparative approach to foreign policy (Brummer & Oppermann, 2014).

CFP as it stands today looks into the decision-making pattern of a state and its interaction with other states. Through both governmental (state actors) and non-governmental organisations (non-state actors), state relations are studied by scholars, and theories that influence the decision-making of foreign policies are presented. In effect, this informs the comparative perspectives emerging from the state’s decisions. Such decisions are made by actors (state and non-state) through public opinion. As a result, structures and institutions decide on the behaviour of the state according to the latter's best interest (Lantis & Beasley, 2017). Lantis and Beasley use the Role theory in international relations to illustrate a comparative perspective approach toward CFP.

By using the ‘Billiard ball’ illustration, scholars have employed different theories to show how systemic foreign policies are crafted by the state on issues such as war, praxeology, sociology etc

The rise of CFP was strongly felt in the 1970s (Rosenau, 1968). Some scholars attributed this to specific actors, institutions or events exclusively acting on certain foreign policies. However, Herman (1968) criticises these scholars of foreign policy citing the disconnected effects of various political arrangements on foreign policy. Consequently, comparative foreign policy is underutilised and underdeveloped in its dynamics: the process that goes into constructing foreign policies lacks a coherent approach that combines hypotheses and institutional analyses (Herman,1968).

The framework of this article will involve the use of various theories such as the Role theory, Neorealism, Liberalism/Idealism, and Constructivism to explain state relations in CFP. A pluralistic approach will be adopted in this analysis in order to contextualise states' foreign policy. This is because the past arguments of McGowan, Shapiro, and Wilkenfeld (1973) pointed to CFP presenting only one specific area of inquiry, i.e. the study of relations between domestic and foreign conflict behaviours (Andriole, Wilkenfeld, & Hopple, 1975). The pluralistic approach will demonstrate how both government and non-government power influences the decision-making process that results in FP.

Page (2017), Chinese military troops parades training in Zhurihe, Northern China [photo] LI GANG/ ZUMA PRESS

Theories and Approach

Hans Morgenthau (1948) claims that the essence of pursuing foreign policy is to promote ‘national interest’. He argues in favour of the Weberian approach to power maximisation in international politics in making the state more powerful (Morgenthau, 1948). From this and other classical illustrations, ‘the old European classics' (Hellmann & Urrestarrazu, 2019) have been able to extract theories such as realism and the ‘Billiard ball’ illustration. Not far from it, scholars such as Aron (1966) have used different theories to show how systemic foreign policies are crafted by the state on issues such as war, praxeology, sociology, etc. He further argues that foreign policy must not be separated from systemic dynamics. Despite the elapsed time (except for the role theory), the European Classic theories, well known as the traditional theories and approaches, remain relevant in trying to explain Comparative Foreign Policy in International Relations (Hellmann & Urrestarrazu, 2019).

The Role Theory

This is among the modern theories in IR, differing from traditional ones such as realism and idealism. Brought forth by Holsti (1970) during the cold war period, it focuses on the interplay of the state's foreign policies with the international system. Through a sociological approach, the theory positions states to interact with certain social groups in the system they are placed in. They all have specific roles that they exercise through structures, domestic or international dimensions (Barnett, 1993; Harnisch,2011; Breuning, 2011). There are two main roles in the approach to the Role Theory: the ‘Ego’ and the ‘Alter’. The ‘Egos’ are the active players pursuing the role, while the ‘Alters’ respond to the role others pursue in the international system. The ‘Alter’ will always try and change the role of ‘Egos’ because of their foreign policy behaviours. The interplay between the ‘Ego’ and the ‘Alter’ indicates role socialisation, both in material and social status. Therefore, for a state’s FP to dominate and thrive in the international system, it needs both material and social status as a role (Thies, 2013).

Agencies (2022); A photo of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meeting in Kuchova base in Albania. [AA photo)

Realism Theory

This theory dominated the foreign policy in IR in the mid-20th century. Numerous scholars used it to theorise concepts and phenomena such as war. The theory presents sub-systemic variables in FP concerning the powerful effect of the state. It embraces subsections such as neoclassical realism to explain FP (Lobell 2009). Like any other theory, neoclassical realism seeks to explain the behaviour of individual states. It emphasises that material power should be first acquired by the states. Therefore, every state adopts a power-oriented perspective to formulate and implement its own domestic and international FP (Rose, 1998).

Whereas the neoclassical realists explain FP through various factors, defensive and offensive realists have focused on the structural effects of FP. However, they differ in their assumptions of state behaviour. Offensive realists argue that for the state to achieve utmost security, it needs to create its own imbalance of power in its favour. Defensive realists on the other hand claim that states should pursue balancing policies. Generally, the realism theory supports the dominance of power politics, despite different sections disagreeing on the definition of power. However, they all agree that power is pivotal in influencing domestic and foreign policy, which will depend on security in the external environment. Therefore, the bigger the external environment, the greater the power and the stronger the foreign policy and vice versa (Wivel, 2017). It is imperative to note that realism emphasises survival as the state's main objective, and thus power is functional to security.

Unknown (2019) A billiard ball model illustration used by scholars in explaining theories of Foreign policy [Illustration] British Online Archives

Constructivism/ Post-positivism Theory

The theory of constructivism in FP has shifted stances from the assumption of falsifiable and objective knowledge to the epistemological inclination of post-positivism scholars in Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA). It points out that players (actors) and rules in the international system are a ‘social construct’. Wendt (1995) explains social construct with an illustration related to nuclear weapons: less (4) North Korean nuclear weapons are perceived to be more dangerous than more (500) British nuclear weapons.

He further argues that it is never about the material structure (nuclear weapon) but the meaning attributed to such material structure by another state. The understanding of state relations (US & Britain Vs US & N. Korea) forms the basis of their interaction in social relationships (Theys, 2018). Therefore, some states are given dominance in the system, which makes them more relevant. This creates a ‘culture of anarchy’ making states see each other through the lens of friendship, enmity, or rivalry (Wendt, 1999). However, Hopf (2002) argues that in the process of this construction taking place, there are countries that try to oppose this systemic capturing by opposing the process.

Constructivism was majorly contested by scholars in international relations before it was accepted in the discipline. The theory in IR presents diffusion and dynamism by introducing new actors (citizens, state, and non-state) in the politics of foreign policies. These actors present an opposition and alternative mind in the institutes of FP through robust debates on issues such as war, airstrikes, etc. They debate on law and (inter)-national politics, and sometimes where there is hidden or unhidden teleology. As a result, constructivism through debates has demonstrated affinity with humanitarianism and enlightenment on projects of "progress", hence the name post-positivism (Kratochwil, 2017).

Srinivas & Nazeef (2020); An image of the United Nations (UN) headquarters with different flags in Geneva, Switzerland [Photo]

Liberalism Theory

Closely linked to idealism in the past two decades, liberalism theory argues that states' internal factors influence their FP. The internal system of governance of the state dictates which other states it interacts with. Doyle (1983) highlights ‘democratic peace’ as a factor in the FP process. Contrary to Doyle’s argument, Rummel (1975-1981) questions whether democracies are the only proponents (producers) of peace in the context of states' FP. Liberalism theory in FP presents a strong argument for trading states breeding less war in the international system. Also, Ikenberry (2000) and Evans et al. (1983) present liberalism as a bridge connecting the domestic and international politics for the benefit of the state. Closely linked to utopianism, which believes in a perfect government, liberalism shares its roots back to Immanuel Kant, who has been referred to as the father of utopianism (Cristol, 2019).

In his 1795 paper 'To Perpetual Peace', Kant points out three pillars of perpetual peace: commercial liberalism, democratic liberalism, and neoliberal institutionalism. He argues that democracies hardly go to war due to checks and balances from the citizens to the government, while commercial liberalism breeds peace through free trade creating interdependence. Lastly, neoliberal institutionalism highlights a sort of 'federation of free states' in which states are important as part of international institutions. In addition, liberalism embraces International law, which dictates state behaviours (Cristol, 2019).

Unlike realism which argues for state survival and claims that international organisations and institutes act on self-preservation interest, liberalism assumes that such organisations and institutes act on utmost goodwill on behalf of the people. It is also important to notice that states' interdependence and collective interests support their joint, rather than unilateral action. Therefore, as liberalism places a high moral ground on humans and on their governments, domestic politics ought to influence the ideal international politics of the state.

Al Rabadi (2020); A background image of world with illustration of hands shaking painted with state names [Illustration]

Decision-Making Approach

George (1980) illustrates the Foreign Policy Decision-Making (FPDM) approach as encompassing different psychological and theoretical approaches to organisational behaviour. Several scholars use its dynamic nature to analyse FP. Such an approach presents different stages of decision-making, from recognition to option assessment (Hudson, 2014). It studies the decision-makers according to factors such as the psychological drivers, motivation, and environment, that make them arrive at certain decisions. This theory thus adopts subjective perception when dealing with the decision-maker. It assumes limited rationale of humans and hence notices other factors of FPA linked to humans, such as cultural history, institutional conditions, etc.(Hudson, 2014).

All these factors together shape the decision-making of the individual perception leading to the formulation of foreign policy. These traits are juxtaposed to the state and on how it arrives at its FP. This shows how a state may sometimes have a perception about itself and its role in FP. Despite the theory highlighting the decision-making process of an individual, it is also noted that the FP decision is often carried out by the institutions, organisations, and bureaucratic environment rather than individual choices. (Hudson, 2014).

In conclusion, Comparative Foreign Policy (CFP) as a broad field in Political Science and International Relations targets states' Foreign Policies and power dynamics on the global stage. This series will capture the relations of various states, comparisons, and interactions using their FP. Using various theories and approaches highlighted above, but not limited to them, a state's institutions, organisations, and various actors can be studied in order to show how they exercise this FP for the state’s interests. The power dynamics in each state's foreign policy can be demonstrated through their beliefs, actions and stands on various aspects such as trade, terrorism, conflict, and war among others.

Bibliographical references

Andriole, S. J., Wilkenfeld, J., & Hopple, G. W. (1975). A Framework for the Comparative Analysis of Foreign Policy Behavior. International Studies Quarterly, 19(2), 160–198.

Aron, R. (1966). Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations. Garden City, NY: Doubleday

Barnett, M. (1993). Institutions, roles, and disorder: The case of the Arab states system. International Studies Quarterly, 37(3), 271–296

Breuning, M. (2011). Role theory research in international relations: State of the art and blind spots. In S. Harnisch, C. Frank, & H. W. Maull (Eds.), Role theory in international relations: Approaches and analyses (pp. 16–35). New York: Routledge

Brummer. K, Oppermann, K. (2014). The Comparative Analysis of Foreign Policy.

Doyle, M. (1983). “Kant, Liberal Legacies and Foreign Affairs.” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 12(1-2), 205–235.

Evans, Peter B., Harold. K, and Robert. D, . (1993). Double-Edged Diplomacy: International Bargaining and Domestic Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

George, Alexander, L. (1980). Presidential Decision-making in Foreign Policy. Boulder, CO: Westview

Harnisch, S. (2011). Role theory: Operationalization of key concepts. In S. Harnisch, C. Frank, & H. W.

Maull (Eds.), Role theory in international relations: Approaches and analyses (pp. 1–29). London: Routledge

Hermann, C. F. (1968). The Comparative Study of Foreign Policy [Review of Political Power: USA/USSR.; Foreign Policy and Democratic Politics: The British and American, by Z. Brzezinski, S. P. Huntington, & K. N. Waltz]. World Politics, 20(3), 521–534.

Holsti, K. (1970). National role conceptions in the study of foreign policy. International Studies Quarterly, 14, 233–309

Hopf, T. (2002). Social Construction of International Politics: Identities and Foreign Policies: Moscow, 1955 and 1999. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Hudson, Valerie, M. (2014). Foreign Policy Analysis: Classic and Contemporary, Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield

Ikenberry, G. (2000). After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Kattenburg, P. (1974). Comparative Foreign Policy, Teaching Political Science, 2:1, 40-64, DOI: 10.1080/00922013.1974.10740035

Lantis , J., Beasley, R. (2017). Comparative foreign policy analysis. In W R Thompson (ed.), Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Oxford University Press

Lobell, S., Ripsman, N., & Taliaferro, J. (Eds.). (2009). Neoclassical Realism, the State, and Foreign Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511811869

Morgenthau, H. (1948). Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. New York: Knopf.

Rose, G. (1998). Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy. World Politics, 51(1), 144-172. DOI:

Rosenau, J. N. (1968). Comparative Foreign Policy: Fad, Fantasy, or Field? International Studies Quarterly, 12(3), 296–329.

Rummel, R. J. (1975–1981). Understanding Conflict and War. 5 vols. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE

Thies, C. (2013). The United States, Israel, and the search for international order: Socializing states. London: Routledge

Theys, S. (2018). Introducing Constructivism in International Relations Theory

Van de Haar, E. (2009). Liberalism and International Relations Theory. In: Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory. Palgrave Macmillan History of International Thought Series. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Wendt, A. (1999). Social Theory of International Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press,

Wivel, A. (2017). Realism in Foreign Policy Analysis. Oxford Research Encyclopedias

Image References

Figure 1: Getty Images (2018) A foreign policy illustration image of Donald Trump [Illstration] Foreign Policy

Figure 2: Page, J.,(2017), Chinese military troops parades training in Zhurihe, Northern China [photo] LI GANG/ ZUMA PRESS

Figure 3: Agencies (2022); A photo of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meeting in Kuchova base in Albania. [AA photo]

Figure 4: Unknown (2019) A billiard ball model illustration used by scholars in explaining theories of Foreign policy [Illustration] British Online Archives.

Figure 5: Srinivas, J., Nazeef, M., (2020). An image of the United Nation headquarters with different flags in Geneva, Switzerland [Photo]

Figure 6: Al Rabadi, S.' (2020). A background image of the world with an illustration of hands shaking painted with state names [Photo]

Cover picture: Unknown (2020). Collage of newspapers and pictures [graphic design]. The Dallas Morning News.


Author Photo

Emmanuel Mamadi

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