Traditions in Foreign Policy Analysis

What are the main differences between the rational actor and the bureaucratic politics model of foreign policy?

The traditional Rational Analysis Model (RAM) reads the actors of foreign policy, sovereign states, as unitary forces, whose output vis-à-vis other states is all that matters. While the actors are read at face value as rational units in this model, the bureaucratic politics model, comprising the Organizational Behavioural Model (OBM) and the Government Politics Model (GPM), “directs attention to intra-national games” (Putnam 1988: 431). In these games, bureaucratic organizational characteristics in their asymmetries and patterns are recognized as also being central in foreign policy-making.
In practice this means that in the case of the OBM, behaviour is explained in terms of organizational purposes and practices common to the members of the organization. Similarly GPM looks inside the “black box” of the state but focuses instead on the non-linear bargain occurring between diverging factions within the organization. These two contrast with the RAM proposal for analysing foreign policy as the latter personifies the state into a generic model.
The RAM’s actions are taken as being directly defined by the government while in the bureaucratic models choice is actually seen as processed through the organizational mechanisms inside the state machine before it is actually administered.
Bureaucratic models improve on the RAM analysis in that, the routines and patterns of behaviour become more nuanced. More than denying all the basic premises of RAM, the bureaucratic models accept the notions of rationality and choice but are more effective in explaining patterns of behaviour and to a certain degree their uncertainty. Their explanation for action lies with the mechanics, rules and practices that define each government as a specific organization in the case of OBM and each government as an arena where asymmetric actors bargain in the case of GPM.

The RAM is easier to apply when information is abundant and of good quality. The less comprehensive information on the actors and the environment is the more likely the RAM is of running into trouble. These types of analysis constantly ask for the actors’ rationality to be determined and re-determined. This informational problem brings about the challenge of uncertainty (Allison & Zelikow 1999: 23) which is better understood in the more complex theories of the bureaucratic models.
There is a sort of trade-off between parsimony and depth in choosing the models as frameworks. Consequently, when modelling state behaviour and analysing foreign policy, scholars and decision-makers frequently evaluate this trade-off and search for the specific model that better suits their objectives. For instance, RAM is extremely useful for quick and broad analysis of foreign policy that encompass long webs of causality, a wide range of state and regional actors and an extensive geographical scope. The bureaucratic models on the other hand, where analysts breakdown the layered process of decision-making, seem to be ideal for a more comprehensive analysis of the broad foreign policy of single state actors or of a small number of states (great for looking at bilateral inter-state relations!). Their analyses appear to be more fruitful the more time and geographically focused they are. These also seem to be the models par excellence for political scientists that specialize in comparative politics and then go on to apply their knowledge in foreign policy analysis.

What are the key elements of Putnam’s analysis of foreign policy-making? Do you think his analysis is more suited to specific spheres, issue areas or types of foreign policy? If so, which? Motivate your answer and provide examples.

Putnam reflects about the popular view in international relations th-at one cannot understand the full workings of domestic politics without looking at international factors and that international effects have frequently a domestic face to them (Putnam 1988: 430). He expresses a wish to go deeper into this view, conceptualise and finally model it into what he calls the two-level game. In practice, Putnam does not seek to determine which level determines which but to understand “when” and “how” one of the levels assumes prevalence at particular times while accounting “for areas of entanglement between the two spheres” (Putnam 1988: 427,433).
Putnam’s analysis is more suitable to the macro-economic sphere and to issues of an inter-state nature in an international system where institutional arrangements do matter. The game-theory model presented breaks down the nature of the interaction on what remains a state-centric analysis and uses a bureaucratic model. It fits well with theories of International Relations in the lines of Keohane and Nye’s Liberal Institutionalism. Putnam begins with rational actor and state-centric realist premises but makes them more nuanced. To realpolitik he adds the notions of reverberation, restructuring, kinky win-sets and synergistic linkages as having a central influence on the minds, perceptions and opportunities for domestic coalitions as well as on their negotiator’s bargaining position at the international level. It goes beyond the over-reliance of the RAM on relative gains and also explores windows of opportunity for absolute gains and how these can come about. Considering it as a bureaucratic model, my view on the type of foreign policy analysis that better suits Putnam’s model is motivated by the previous characterization of the bureaucratic model as layered and comprehensive. Putnam’s two-level analysis is therefore seen as better suited for analysis of bilateral foreign policy or the foreign policy relations between a small number of actors and for making evident, on a case-by-case basis, the interaction between internal and external tensions that negotiators go through while forming their negotiation stance. This is made evident by the examples Putnam (1988: 427;433;438;443) uses in his text: the Bonn summit conference, the Tokyo Round, the Anglo-Argentinean negotiations over the Falkland islands, the SALT talks, the Panama Canal treaty, the Arab-Israeli conflict, US-EU relations about agricultural policy, IMF-Italy negotiations. Putnam selectively chose to analyse cases of foreign policy relations where three or less actors were involved and the case is more often not that he looks at bilateral relations, perhaps evidence that the more focused the application of the bureaucratic model is the more insights into the negotiation process it can provide.


Allison. G. & Zelikow, P. 1999 Essence of decision: explaining the Cuban missile crisis (2nd edition) New York: Longman
Putnam, R. 1988 “Diplomacy and domestic politics: The logic of the two-level games” International Organization, 42: 427-469

Allison& Zelikow – Essence of decision

Rational actor model (I)

• focuses on goals and objectives of the nation or government
• shows “how the nation or government could have chosen to act as it did, given the strategic problems it faced.”
• “predictions about what a nation will do or would have done are generated by calculating the rational thing to do in a certain situation, given specified objectives.” (5)
• Trademark of rational actor model - “the attempt to explain international events by recounting the aims and calculations of nations or governments” (13)
• Foreign policy is seen as an intelligible, rational continuum (Morgenthau in p.14)
• Schelling – intelligent and conscious calculation of advantages, based on a consistent value system
• Assumes that the actor is a national government
• Aims to show what the goal of the government was and how the choice was reasonable. Rationality adds consistency, behaviour appropriate to specified goals in the context of a given situation (15)
• Government action as choice
• Assumption of human purposiveness (17)
• RAM links purpose and action (49)
• Value judgements, reality and instrumental calculations converge in the rational actor paradigm(52)
• Unitary actors with specified objectives, maximizing value. (53)

Organizational Behaviour model (II)
• Model I “acts” and “choices” are thought of as outputs of large organizations functioning according to regular patterns of behaviour. (5)
• “a government is not an individual” (143)
• Aims “to perform and to make regular judgements, organizations adopt rules, norms, or routines” (152)
• Looks to “provide models for defining identity, classifying a situation, and applying the appropriate rule.” (155)
• Reliance on associated routines, institutions shape preferences and power (159).
• Institutions provide superior capacity for coping with new strategic circumstances.
• Basic unit of analysis: governmental action as organizational output
• Focuses on what organizations can or cannot do, meaning the capabilities and constrains of organizations

Five points on organizations (145):
1. collection of human beings arranged for action
2. create capabilities to perform otherwise impossible tasks
3. constrain behaviour
4. creates an organizational culture
5. organizations are analogous to a bundle of technologies

Governmental Politics Model (III)

• Focuses on politics of a government – not unitary choice or organizational output but resultant of bargaining games among players in the national government.
• “too much information and analysis can produce ‘analysis paralysis’ that yields worse judgements or inaction”
• political bargaining among players with different interests (386)
• Main questions: Who plays? What factors shape each player? What factors affect each player’s impact? What is the “action channel”? (390)

Putnam’s two-level model

Two game boards:
• national levels: domestic groups pursue interests by pressuring government; politicians construct coalitions among these groups
• international level: government seek to maximize ability to satisfy domestic politics; minimize adverse consequences of foreign developments

Negotiation process divided into two (436):
• negotiation phase
• ratification phase

There is a need for overlapping winning sets (438) that successfully overcome voluntary and involuntary defections. (439) “Involuntary defection can only be understood within the framework of a two-level game”.

Circumstances that affect win-set size:

1. Power, preferences and coalitions among level II.
• “Negotiator’s main problem in a homogeneous conflict is to manage the discrepancy between his constituents’ expectations and the negotiable outcome.” (444)
• Heterogeneous conflict – “domestic divisions may improve the prospects for international cooperation” This is so because positions on the conflict cut across the two levels.

2. Size of win-set depends on political institutions in level II
• voting procedures (is two thirds required?)
• “the greater the autonomy of central decision-makers from constituency, the larger their win set and thus the likelihood of achieving international agreement” (449)

3. Size of win-set depends on negotiator’s strategies at level I
• political standing of negotiator
• “diplomats are acting rationally, not merely symbolically, when they refuse to negotiate with a counterpart of inferior rank” (452)

Using uncertainty: Kinky win-sets – “proposed deal is certain to be ratified, but a deal slightly more favourable to the opponent is unlikely to be ratified” (453)

Restructuring – “bargaining situation involves attempts by the players to restructure the game and to alter one another’s perceptions of the costs of no-agreement and the benefits of proposed agreements.” (454)

Reverberation – “messages from abroad can change minds, move the undecided, and hearten those in the domestic minority” (455) “international pressure expands domestic win-set and facilitates agreement”

Chief negotiator – is the “only formal link between level I and level II” (456)

“In this ‘Janus’ model of domestic-international interactions, transnational politics are less prominent than in some theories of interdependence” (459)


• “Unlike state-centric theories, the two-level approach recognizes the inevitability of domestic conflict about what the “national interest” requires”
• “decision-makers strive to reconcile domestic and international imperatives simultaneously” (460)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much !