Key Points in Foreign Policy Analysis

The analysis of policy is a complicated matter, and foreign policy, which involves both the domestic and international arenas, presents a number of challenges when the aim is neutrality and accuracy. Below are a number of factors I take into consideration when I analyze a foreign policy on World Blank.

Official sources of policy

Analysis should be done of the primary sources of policy not secondary sources (e.g. news articles). Looking carefully at primary sources is important for getting a complete, unadulterated understanding of the effects and the rhetoric embedded in the policy. It is also important for avoiding the bias that can come from secondary sources. Primary sources of foreign policy include:

  • Executive orders (e.g. from the White House official website)
  • Legislation (e.g. from the US Congress’s official website)
  • International treaties and trade agreements (e.g. from the US State Department official website)

However, it is a good idea to do a quick review of secondary sources, because they can be helpful for thinking about different perspectives, grasping public opinion on an issue, or giving details/updates about a policy’s practical implementation that weren’t specified in the primary source.

Real effects vs. rhetoric

A policy has two distinct components: form and substance. The rhetoric that expresses the policy is its form while the actual effects and implications are its substance. When looking at a foreign policy it is crucial to be able to identify what is rhetoric and what is real. Rhetoric is  used primarily to communicate the intentions and justifications behind a policy. Care should be taken here, because there is ample historical evidence that governments often communicate one intention/justification in order to mask their real intentions or to create legitimacy for something controversial. One thing about rhetoric is certain: it will always put the government and the country in a positive light. You will never find a government stating that it is doing or has done something bad or immoral. This just does not happen.

Without a doubt, rhetoric can be used in order to deceive both the domestic and international audiences, but make no mistake, it is sometimes a matter of national security to mislead both foreign governments and one’s own people. However, when analyzing we must make sure that we are a knowing (or at least suspecting) observer of the possible deception and not a subject of it. This is why most of our attention should go to understanding the real effects of a policy.

The analysis of real effects has two parts: a baseline and an effect. Without presenting a baseline, we can’t judge the extent of the real effects, so some research is usually required to identify it beforehand.

Intended vs. unintended effects

Every policy has a limited set of goals, but its real effects usually branch out much wider. Every action has several reactions and often set in motion a chain of events. The effects of a policy that achieve its goals are the intended effects. When looking at a policy we have to identify its possible effects in total and rate each one in terms of its scope and intensity. A policy will have effects outside of the scope of its goals, and some of these will be unintended, which can be either positive, or negative. It is important to weigh the intended and unintended effects against each other to determine whether the policy does a good job of achieving its  stated (and unstated) goals, and secures the country’s national interests.

Historical precedent

Rather than focusing only on the present day, it can be enlightening to examine the history of a certain issue and its past policies. This can give insight into a policy’s degree of novelty of (Is it a major departure from the country’s tradition? Is it a return to a past policy?) and the direction of the country’s policies in general (Is the policy a signal of a return to an old definition of national interest, for example isolationism or imperialism?). We can also compare a policy with past and present policies  in other countries to approximate its chances of success and the government’s overall direction.

One policy as a stepping stone in a coherent grand strategy

Foreign policies are announced on different issues at different times, but it would be a mistake to assume that they are not part of a coherent whole. A country’s grand strategy is the means by which a government plans to secure its national interests, and each policy is a single unit of that grand strategy. We should keep the wider implications of a policy in mind, and try to understand how this policy will create the circumstances needed for other policies, which in the end culminate in the full execution of the grand strategy.

The domestic scene

The domestic scene is crucial in foreign policy analysis, especially in democracies where the citizens hold power over elected officials. We should be aware of the pressure felt by policy makers (from the public and other interest groups) and their perceptions of the public, because these factors may affect what policies they adopt, the timing of those policies and the way they communicate and justify their policies to obtain the maximum amount of positive reception. This includes:

  • Setting policies in the run up to an election that are taken to boost a leader’s image
  • Fear mongering towards the public in order to build support for an aggressive policy
  • Expressing policies that are ruthless and based on power politics in rhetoric that allows the public to believe the policy is morally justifiable.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s