The foreign policy process is a process of decision making. States take actions because people in governments—decision makers—choose those actions. Decision making is a steering process in which adjustments are made as a result of feedback from the outside world. Decisions are carried out by actions taken to change the world, and then information from the world is monitored to evaluate the effects of these actions. These evaluations—along with information about other, independent changes in the environment—go into the next round of decisions.
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, 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 talks work or backﬁre? 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. Of course, one may believe decision makers are rational, but not accept the realist assumption that states may be treated as unitary actors. Governments are made up of individuals, who may rationally pursue their goals. Yet, the goals of different individuals involved in making a decision may diverge, as may the goals of different state agencies. For example, the U.S. secretary of state may have a different goal than the secretary of defense, just as the Central Intelligence Agency may view a situation differently than the National Security Council does. The rational model of decision making is somewhat complicated by uncertainty and the multiple goals of decision makers. Thus, the rational model may imply that decision making is simpler than is actually the case. An alternative to the rational model of decision making is the organizational process model. In this model, foreign policy decision makers generally skip the labor-intensive process of identifying goals and alternative actions, relying instead for most decisions on standardized responses or standard operating procedures. For example, the U.S. State Department every day receives more than a thousand reports or inquiries from its embassies around the world and sends out more than a thousand instructions or responses to those embassies. Most of those cables are never seen by the top decision makers (the secretary of state or the president); instead, they are handled by low-level decision -makers who apply general principles—or who simply try to make the least controversial, most standardized decision. These low-level decisions may not even reﬂect the high-level policies adopted by top leaders, but rather have a life of their own. The organizational process model implies that much of foreign policy results from “management by muddling through.” Another 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 interests in the outcome.
In 1992, the Japanese government had to decide whether to allow sushi from California to be imported—a weakening of Japan’s traditional ban on importing rice (to maintain self-sufﬁciency in its staple food). The Japanese Agriculture Ministry, with an interest in the well-being of Japanese farmers, opposed the imports. The Foreign Ministry, with an interest in smooth relations with the United States, wanted to allow the imports. The final decision to allow imported sushi resulted from the tug-of-war between the ministries. Thus, according to the government bargaining model, foreign policy decisions reﬂect (a mix of) the interests of state agencies.