Foreign policy can be understood as general objectives that guide the activities and relationships of one state in its interactions with other states. The development of foreign policy is greatly influenced by domestic considerations, the policies or workings of other states, the personality of leaders, or plans to advance specific geopolitical designs. Foreign policy has four aspects – political, internal and external security-related, economic including commercial, and societal.

A successful conduct of foreign policy protects and advances our national interests, simultaneously contributing to the preservation and enhancement of our status and power, without being unduly detrimental to national interests, power and status of others1. Such successful conduct, aims at avoiding conflicts and; where this is not possible; to minimize the likely damage to our national interests, power and status. Foreign policy decision making is a highly bureaucratic process where leadership plays a major role in determining the direction and conclusion of the process. However, the impact of leadership on bureaucratic politics, how policy decisions are formulated and which actors are highly significant for influencing foreign policy decisions. I begin by describing briefly what foreign policy is and the various factors that influence the development of sound foreign policy. I proceed to introduce the two prominently used methods of foreign policy decision making; namely the Rational Model and the Bureaucratic Model and will further describe the factors influencing both decision making models. After a brief lead into the general ideology  in this case foreign policy decision making; I then go on to talk about the specifics in two parts firstly, the role of leadership in foreign policy decision making and secondly, the impact and role bureaucratic politics.


In the first part the role of leadership and personality and the impact they have on decision making. Here I also examine conditions wherein the relevance of personality is highly constrained briefly look into the impact of personality on foreign policy decision making. Referencing Jensen (1982) here, I emphasize the characteristics that a leader needs to possess in order for the actor’s personality to have an optimum impact on foreign policy decision making. Then draw light to a situation of autocratic rule and how such a style of leadership can impact foreign policy decision making. Finally, by emphasizing on how a decision maker’s perception of his environment around is vital to his understanding and formulating of decisions; I draw attention to how crucial cognition is for sound decision making. With an example of Nehru and India’s foreign policy decisions with its neighbors’, I emphasize how the way in which individuals alter or avoid information leads to ‘cognitive dissonance’.

In the second part, I talk about how Realists believe that foreign policy decision making is not really leader centric and how the role of the leader does not really matter at all, because all those individuals who might come to power have roughly the same values and beliefs. In such a way the drivers of a state’s foreign policy should be found at the domestic or international level. I also talk about how bureaucratic politics is very beneficial; since the real definition of national interest has not been clearly defined as of yet and this can lead to various interpretations of priorities.

Further, I emphasize on the understanding of the extent to which bureau politics becomes a problem differs significantly across various governmental structures. It is here that I come to a conclusion as to why senior political officers should be appointed significant roles in bureaucracies. Furthermore into this essay, I go on to describe the impact leaders have on bureaucratic politics. Here, I look into three different types of leaders, based on their characteristics.

  • Participative leaders(1).
  • Autocratic leaders.
  • Laissez-faire or Non-participative leaders.

I also help substantiate this thought with examples drawn from history of foreign policy decisions taken by various presidents, past and present. Finally, I help tie up this comprehensive thought process to put across my opinion on the given essay topic. I conclude by stating that.


  • The analysis of individual psychological variables is crucial in understanding foreign policy decision making.
  • Alternative models of decision-making; including bureaucratic politics and groupthink also invariably play a role, but the extent to which personality influences foreign policy depends significantly upon the individual, his/her decision style, environmental constraints and the prevalence of information and intelligence.
  • Senior political officers should be appointed roles in bureaucracies so that they can interpret, manipulate, simplify and alter the institutional rules of foreign policy formulation (2).


Factors affecting Foreign Policy decision making

There are many factors that influence the foreign policy decision making processes of leaders and bureaucracies like political systems of the nation, diplomacy, domestic considerations, personality of leaders etc. However, analyzing the psychological environment is preliminary to understanding the dimensions of decision making and the leader’s relationship with success or failure of the decision. Political decision making is just institutions, bureaucracy framework and mechanical relations without the humans in charge of this institution and devices passion towards any decision to be made. The political decision making process varies from one country to another according to the composition of the political system of the state. The type of the political system in terms of being democratic or non-democratic regime and in terms of the body that made the decision, affect the decision-making process heavily. In democratic systems this process is subject to procedures, long consultations and discussions with many parties. Foreign Policies can only be implemented after more than one approval, and these measures lead to delayed decision making and implementation. Thus, more often than usual some decisions lose their immediate effectiveness. For example, in India capital punishment for crimes such as rape is still heavily debated in the Parliament.

As a result, the victim often doesn’t get justice for the offence inflicted against them. The situation is different in non-democratic regimes. In such regimes the decision-making process takes place in a narrow range, and limited elements participate in the process. Decision-making processes here are fast in the face of external situations, because the decision maker does not need to review the other institutions in the state in order for his decision to earn legitimacy; quite contrary to the case in democratic systems. Here, it is of key importance to note that the final decision is linked to the interests of the system associated with the character of the decision makers. In my opinion, those decision making authorities; who often derive information from the many formal or informal organizations, including embassies, intelligence services, hardware, research and study centers, international and regional conference centers, networks of information and private source; should be the key relationship between decision making bodies and the objectives of sound foreign policy formation.

“Diplomacy is the key tool of foreign policy; while war, alliances, and international trade may all be manifestations of it” As diplomacy plays a prominent role in the determination of foreign policy; decision-making in foreign policy is greatly influenced by domestic considerations, the policies or workings of other states, the personality of leaders, or plans to advance specific geopolitical designs. These factors play a stronger role than other elements such as political culture and nationalism all these factors need to be carefully considered by bureaucracies and leaders while formulating foreign policy decisions. Most often even the best of facts can lead to wrong decisions in the absence of high-quality expertise in analyzing facts and assessing their implications. Expertise can be understood as the product of institutional training, on-job experience, opportunities for interactions with other experts and first-hand knowledge of the past difficulties in implementation of foreign policies(3).


Foreign Policy decision making models

 The process of foreign policy decision making normally follows two models

  • The Rational Approach, and
  • The Bureaucratic Approach.

A common starting point for studying the decision-making process is the Rational Model. In this model, decision makers set goals, evaluate their relative importance, and calculate the costs and benefits of each possible course of action then choose the one with the highest benefits and lowest costs. The choice may be complicated by uncertainty about the costs and benefits of various actions. In such cases, decision makers must attach probabilities to each possible outcome of an action. For example, will pressuring a rival state to give ground in peace discussions work or back-fire. Some decision makers are relatively accepting of risk, whereas others are averse to risk. These factors affect the importance that decision makers place on various alternative outcomes that could result from an action. In their book Foreign Policy Analysis (2012), Alden and Aran state that- “The Foreign Policy decision-making process is a major focus of foreign policy analysis scholarship seeking to unlock and explain the complexities of state conduct in the international system. In this regard, rationality and its application to foreign policy decision making is one of the most influential approaches to understanding contemporary international politics.” An alternative to the rational model is the government bargaining or bureaucratic politics model, in which foreign policy decisions result from the bargaining process among various government agencies with somewhat divergent.

Work on the role of foreign policy and bargaining further enhances our understanding of the interdependence between human agency and bureaucracies within executive decision making-units. The Bureaucratic politics model explains foreign policy in a combination of bureaucratic organizations and political actors. Bureaucratic organizations are relevant to foreign policy as they generate outputs that structure the basis on which policy makers make decisions. Bureaucracies also tend to develop common attitudes and shared images which play a crucial role in framing how a particular issue is perceived by foreign policy makers(4).


Leadership and Foreign Policy decision making                                                             

The effect of personality on decision-making is most vital in the realm of foreign policy formulation. It plays an essential role in determining good foreign policy as in addition to being achievable. Leaders make foreign policy decisions based on many political factors and consequences. “Good foreign policy is achievable; and presumably, is a realistic source for ordering the international system through some form of balancing or trade-off mechanism.” Caitlin Smith’s article on a similar stream was very helpful in aiding me to gather substantial data about this section of my essay. The influence of leadership and personality in foreign policy comprises of subjective processes, background, individual characteristics, goals and values. Jensen(1982) talks about ‘Legal abstraction’ by stating that society assumes that decision making is the result of operations of a ‘human organization’; since it is individuals who make decisions and not states. I agree with her when she states that, although personality can be important in adding to our understanding of foreign policy behavior; its impact is highly dependent upon the compulsions imposed by the world order as well by those upon domestic legislative structures. For example, Adolf Hitler ruled the NSDAP autocratically by asserting the Führerprinzip (“Leader principle”), which relied on absolute obedience of all subordinates to their superiors; thus he viewed the government structure as a pyramid, with himself—the infallible leader—at the apex.

Rank in the party was not determined by elections—positions were filled through appointment by those of higher rank, who demanded unquestioning obedience to the will of the leader. Thus, all foreign policy decisions in Germany during Hitler’s reign of power were autocratically decided. In fact, many historians consider Hitler’s foreign policy decisions to be one of the major causes for the outbreak of World War II in Europe. Smith (2011) contends that while considering the effect of personality on foreign policy formulation, it is crucial to note the existence of certain integral conditions under which personality and individual mannerisms are unable to make a significant impact upon decision making.

In his book Explaining Foreign Policy; Jensen (1982) identifies a number of situations in which personality is likely to affect the decisional outputs of both the leader and of the fundamental environment18. He contends that for personality to have an ideal impact upon foreign policy decisions, the leader must display a high level of involvement in international affairs and must possess high decisional independence. In my opinion, the role of the individual is not always consistent. At times bureaucrats and politicians are required to perform dual roles; which can sometimes result in conflicting ideologies.


For example, when Tony Blair, discussed the possibility of the UK invading Iraq in 2002 he was not only involved as a Prime Minister but was also involved as a self-confessed churchgoer and a morally concerned human being. In looking at instances personality is the major determinant behind policy decisions, it is ideal to look at regions where politics is highly autocratic and unimpeded by bureaucracy. The UAE region serves as an optimum condition for observing such an avatar of personality in foreign policy decision. In such regimes, the leader tends to operate according to personal desires and according to personal interests; unconstrained by bureaucratic constraints or opposition forces. This can be exemplified during King Fahd’s rule in Saudi Arabia; during which the royal family’s lavish spending of the country’s wealth reached its height. In addition, the biggest and most controversial military contract of the century, the Al-Yam amah arms deal was signed on the king’s watch; which cost the Saudi treasury more than $90 billion(5).

Hikmatullah ZIA


(1) Alden, C and Aran, A. Foreign Policy Analysis. (London: Routledge, 2012)

(2) Dr. Ahmed Aref AL Kafarneh. ‘Decision-making in foreign policy’. Journal of Law, Policy and Globalization. Vol. 10. (2013). ISSN 2224-3259 (Online).

(3) Smith, C. Personality in foreign policy decision-making. University of Leeds.                                          Retrieved from:

(4) Jensen, L. Explaining Foreign Policy. (London: Prentice-Hall, 1982)

(5) Merriam-Webster (online). Definition of foreign policy.                                                                              Retrieved from:


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