Cognitive and Psychological Factors in Foreign Policy Making


Foreign policymaking is a complex process that demands considering a number of factors, including psychological and cognitive factors. The current international system is complicated implying that foreign decision-makers should take into consideration the interests of all actors before coming up with policies. In many states, policymakers are involved in the information processing and framing of existing policies. This shows that cognitive factors should be analyzed when evaluating the quality of decisions made by policymakers. It is established that psychological and cognitive factors such as the personality of the leader, the belief system, the style of leadership, feelings, images, cognitive consistency, and interpretation of analogies affect the quality of policies made by foreign decision-makers (Clarken & White 1989, p. 78). However, studies show that the factors can only be understood through the application of the rational model. In foreign policymaking, actors are not considered irrational, but instead, they are forced to come up with irrational decisions to suit the prevailing conditions. This means that the tenets of rational theory are not incorporated fully into the foreign policy decision-making process. In this piece of writing, it is argued that certain factors force policymakers to abandon the tenets of the rational model. In this case, they tend to make cognitive-based decisions.

In government, a small group of individuals makes foreign policies. Such individuals are usually powerful personalities in government. Cognitive factors tend to affect the quality of policies that these individuals make. Some scholars observe that foreign policies are affected largely when decisions are made during a crisis. Moreover, cognitive factors tend to affect the quality of foreign policies in dictatorial governments. In countries facing political reforms, cognitive factors tend to affect the decisions made (Dumbrell & Schäfer 2009, p. 21). For instance, cognitive factors affected the reasoning of Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis because he relied on members of EXCOM on making major decisions. In this case, the belief system affected his decision-making process.

Beliefs and Foreign Policy

Scholars have established through research that a relationship between belief systems and the working of the human mind exists. Since the development of psychology as a field of study, scholars have engaged in extensive research to establish how cognitive factors may influence decision-making processes. In 1930, scholars tried to establish the relationship between war and cognitive factors. Much attention was given to national stereotypes, attitudes, and public opinion. Scholars rejected the behavioral approach to the study of foreign policy formulation because human actions alone cannot determine the outcome of decisions made at the international level. In this case, they analyzed the role of the human mind in making decisions. They found out that the thought process has a role to play in formulating policies. In foreign policymaking, early scholars observed that rationality was the main course of action (Hill 2003, p. 3). However, scholars were forced to change the course after realizing that rationality cannot hold in some circumstances. In reality, foreign policymakers rarely conform to the provisions of the rational theory. The human mind is limited because it cannot come up with solutions always. Moreover, the rational choice model is difficult to apply, given its interpretation difficulty.

Through cognitive psychology, policymakers are now able to make realistic decisions based on judgment, estimation, and belief systems. Studies show that human beings are used to simplicity implying that they would not prefer using complex models that would confuse them at the implementation stage. Moreover, studies show that human beings fear uncertainty meaning that they are used to consistency. Policymakers are used to taking risks. In other words, leaders misunderstand the real meaning of probability, which makes them poor estimators of events. Since they are averse to losses, they rarely come up with strategies that would be gainful. These factors compromise the quality of decisions made at the international level (Neack 2003, p. 16).

When making foreign policies, leaders are advised to interpret the environment. In other words, they have to understand the existing international system before coming up with policies. Interpretation of the international environment would make foreign policy formulation simpler. In the process of interpretation, policymakers tend to neglect the established frameworks implying that they apply their own systems of beliefs. For instance, leaders interpret the current events using historical events familiar to them. In 1991, Bush senior termed Saddam as another Hitler. He forgot that many things had happened in the world. In reality, the two leaders could not be the same because Hitler operated in a different environment. During Hitler’s time, the international system was characterized by multi-polarity whereby power was distributed among various states. During Saddam’s reign, the international system was characterized by uni-polarity since USSR was no more. The two leaders cannot be similar given the fact that the environments they operated on were different. Bush’s reasoning was based on analogy. This gave him a reason to invade Iraq because Iraq was the enemy of the whole world, just like Germany in 1938. The perception of leaders towards certain groups shapes the policy-making process. In 2005, foreign policymakers in a number of countries viewed the activities of Al Qaeda from a terrorist perspective. It was believed that Afghanistan was harboring terrorists who would be a menace to the whole world. In this regard, policymakers in the NATO supporting states took over the responsibility of flushing out terrorists in Afghanistan from the US (Parmar 2009, p. 67).

The foreign policymakers observed that terrorists were a threat to the national interests of their countries. It was believed that terrorists could take over control of Southern Afghanistan, which would be problematic to many states. Policymakers hold a strong belief that Afghanistan is the hub of warlords and terrorists in the world. Psychological factors play a big role because they shape the decisions of policymakers. In Afghanistan, narcotic trade, weak government, and cultural beliefs fuel insecurity. However, policymakers in various western states do not take into consideration these factors. They only assume that warlords are the major cause of insecurity in the country. All western governments intervened in Afghanistan because they had a general belief that the country had been taken over by terrorists. This was not true because other factors such as illegal trade contributed to instabilities. Other factors were not considered meaning that foreign policy decisions are based on cognitive and psychological factors. This example shows that policymakers engage in simplistic interpretation in solving problems affecting their states (Smith, Hadfield & Dunne 2008, p. 33)

Foreign policy scholars have conducted research in the field of cognitive psychology. Their studies show that policymakers tender to be consistent in their decision-making processes. Since policymakers are used to the consistency, they would probably disown information that would compromise their beliefs. Since they are concerned with consistency, their beliefs tend to interfere with estimation and judgment. Disowning inconsistent information shows that policymakers value their beliefs and principles. In fact, studies show that policymakers hold on to their beliefs whenever there is a crisis. The study of the belief system shows that policymakers tend to be conservative. They are resistant to change because they believe their policy formulation mechanisms are consistent with the culture of their country.

In 2003, some proponents of change in Iraq argued that they supported the activities of the US, but they could not act because of the rigidity of the Iraqi populace. Some reformers noted that supported the invasion but they were unaware of the incompetency of the Bush administration. In this case, no group was willing to back off because they all upheld strong beliefs. Psychology scholars conduct their experiments in laboratories, which means that they cannot be applied directly to the study of foreign policy. In many countries, there is a higher likelihood that foreign policymakers will support ideas believed to conform to their cultural beliefs and expectations (Webber & Smith 2002, p. 89). In the US, conservative foreign policymakers accused the Iraqis of not using the invasion opportunity to initiate reforms. There was a general belief among foreign policymakers that the removal of the tyrannical regime would pave way for democracy. However, conservative foreign policymakers were concerned with the type of leaders that would rule Iraq after the war. NATO officials had a different view because they believed that reforms in Iraq could take years to materialize.

Wishful Thinking and Application of Heuristic Devices

policymakers tend to justify their decisions by convincing themselves that whatever they do will succeed. For instance, Saddam Hussein opted to engage the US troops in war yet he knew that he could not make it. He had an option of running away to safety and leaving the leadership of the country to individuals who would allow Americans to search terrorists. Some of his foreign advisors observed that Saddam could survive the American heat. Foreign policymakers could not learn that the US had emerged winner in 1992. Some policymakers argued that the US won in 1992 because of technical mistakes committed by the Saddam administration. Before the invasion, Saddam knew that the US had sent strong troops as compared to the ones sent in 1992. Saddam argued that his army decided to withdraw from Kuwait because of safety reasons, but he was not defeated.

Just like other policymakers, foreign policymakers employ heuristic devices in dealing with cognitive limitations. Heuristic devices refer to mental shortcuts, which help individuals in making decisions easily. The devices allow policymakers to avoid the process of information gathering analysis. Under heuristic devices, there are a number of types. One of the types is stereotyping. The American justice department uses this device to tolerate the limited torture of Muslims. One of the American policymakers observed that Islam is a religion, which states that God sends a human being to die on behalf of others while Christianity states that God sent his Son to die on behalf of human beings (Hillman 2006, p. 112). This statement is stereotypic in nature because it brands Muslims as people who are ready to die while executing terrorism. In this regard, the US justice department allows the torturing of Muslims to give information. The use of analogy, as earlier explained, is another heuristic devise employed by foreign policymakers. policymakers apply the device in understanding new events and occurrences.

This device entails the mental connection of events. French and British policymakers decided to appease the Nazi regime in Germany when it made threats to Czechoslovakia. However, the appeasement strategy did not work. From this experience, policymakers knew that negotiating with dictators serves to strengthen them. In the modern international system, western countries no longer negotiate with dictators because they know that it would not serve the purpose. Currently, policymakers refer to the Munich analogy when making decisions regarding the restoration of democracy and promoting peace in the world. It was upon this analogy that the US secretary of defense Rumsfeld advised the president to declare war on Iraq. The secretary justified his decision by noting that millions of people died during the Second World War because there was no clear evidence that Germany was preparing for war. In this regard, he urged the US government to take action against Iraqi dictators, even though there was no evidence that Iraq was engaging in destructive plans. On the other side, those opposed to the Iraqi war quoted the Vietnam analogy by claiming that the government used to promise that the war would be done before extra troops could be killed.

Psychological Factors and Foreign Policy

Human beings have distinct psychological traits that differentiate their reasoning. However, it should be understood that psychological factors affect the decision-making process in foreign policy formulation. In this case, human actions are usually irrational because of differences in psychological traits. People understand things differently. Similarly, foreign policymakers would interpret things differently. All these are influenced by psychological factors. Scholars of foreign policy borrow the theory of frustration-aggression from psychologists (Art & Jervis 2011, p. 19). The theory posits that an individual would be aggressive in case he or she is frustrated. However, some individuals are capable of dealing with stress and frustration as compared to some. In foreign policymaking, actors might be frustrated by an issue, which impedes their decision-making process. After the 9/11 attack, the president wondered why terrorists hate Americans. Without hesitating, the president argued that terrorists hate Americans because they are democratic and peace-loving citizens. This shows that terrorists frustrated the president, which made him aggressive. He decided to invade Iraq without seeking support from other countries such as Britain and France, which are America’s longest friends.

In one of the studies conducted by foreign policy scholars in the Arabic countries, it was found that Muslims believe Americans are not good people because they are aggressive, ruthless, violent, conceited, and arrogant. Moreover, they are always biased when it comes to making decisions regarding Arabs. However, the reality of the matter is that Muslims were frustrated by the United Nations’ decision to create Israel in the land believed to belong to Palestinians. In fact, Muslim scholars observe that they did not take part in forming the problems affecting Israelis in the current international system. Israelites were persecuted by the Nazi regime with the support of other western powers yet Palestine was forced to bear the burden. This shows that Muslims all over the world are frustrated to an extent of becoming aggressive. Their anger is expressed to the US because it supported the creation of Israel (Hughes 2004, p. 12).

List of References

Art, M & Jervis, R 2011, International politics: Enduring Concepts and Contemporary Issue, Longman, Boston.

Clarke, M & White, B 1989, Understanding foreign policy: the foreign policy systems approach, Hants, Aldershot.

Dumbrell, J & Schäfer, A 2009, America’s ‘special relationships’, Routledge, New York.

Hill, C 2003, The changing politics of foreign policy, Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

Hillman, B 2006, “New Elections, Old Politics,” Far Eastern Economic Review, Vol. 26, no. 9, pp 16-57.

Hughes, J 2004, “Indonesia: Islam, Democracy Do Mix,” Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 28, no. 2, pp 12-18.

Neack, L 2003, The new foreign policy of US and comparative foreign policy in the 21st century, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham.

Parmar, I 2009, Soft power and hegemony in US foreign affairs: textbook, Routledge, London.

Smith, S, Hadfield, A & Dunne, A 2008, Foreign policy: theories, actors, cases, Oxford University Press, New York.

Webber, M & Smith, M 2002, Foreign policy in a transformed world, Prentice Hall Harlow.

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