Tools of the Trade – A Manual for Foreign Policy Analysis


Alex Mintz and Karl DeRouen Jr.,Understanding Foreign Policy Decision-Making
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 208 pp.


More than a decade since the Decisionmaking on War and Peace[1] was published, and after a string of books and articles meant to develop the model of foreign policy analysis from a decision-making perspective, Mintz and DeRouen Jr. partner to develop this manual aiming to bring together and deliver to students and scholars an ambitious framework consisting of the theories, models and concepts used in Foreign Policy Decision Making (FPDM), along with illustrative case studies and theoretical exercises. The FPDM model rests on the theories derived from political psychology and, as such, is an alternative to the rational actor model of decision making. It is by comparison and contrast with the established models and theories that Mintz and DeRouen Jr. explain and test their model.

Alex Mintz is a reputed advocate for the use of political psychology, especially the polyheuristic theory, in foreign policy analysis. Karl DeRouen Jr. is another prominent scholar of international relations with an interest in political psychology. The main purpose behind Mintz and DeRouen’s endeavor is „to explain not only outcomes of decisions but also the processes that lead to decisions and the decision dynamics” (p. i). The objective of such a comprehensive undertaking is the holy grail of political scientific pursuit: „If we can understand how decisions are made, we can better understand and, perhaps more important, predict outcomes in the international arena.” (p. 4).

In order to satisfy such an ambitious undertaking, Mintz and DeRouen structure their analysis on four main components: the decision environment; models of decision making; determinants of foreign policy decision making; marketing foreign policy, each to be examined as part of a self-standing chapter of the book. Furthermore, the authors employ various case studies in order to test the strengths, as well as the biases and limitations of each theoretical assertion.

In the introductory chapter, Mintz and DeRouen clarify the general subject of their inquiry: „Foreign policy decision making (FPDM) refers to the choices individuals, groups, and coalitions make that affect a nation’s actions on the international stage” (p. 3). In order to understand such choices, the FPDM model takes into account psychological, environmental, international, and domestic factors that shape the way in which foreign policy decisions are made.

Here Mintz and DeRouen identify the first point of departure between FPDM and international relations (IR) theory – according to their assertions, „many international relations theories apply specifically to great powers. An FPDM approach, in contrast, can speak to issues that affect all nations” (p. 6). To further strengthen this point, throughout the book Mintz and DeRouen employ subjects for their case-studies as varied as the United States, New Zealand, Iraq, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Argentina, the United Kingdom, Bolivia or Iceland.

Another point of difference between FPDM and IR theory resides with the level of analysis – whereas the IR theory operates with individual, the state, and the international system as the main units of analysis, FPDM concentrates on individual decision makers and their respective forms of congregation, namely groups and coalitions. Concentrating on individuals, and on groups and coalitions, respectively, is a result of the psychological approach to foreign policy analysis. Another consequence of the cognitive approach is the reliance of FPDM theory on domestic politics as „the essence of decision” (p. 78).

The decision environment facing the political leaders is amply elaborated by Mintz and DeRouen to take into account, besides the level of analysis, topics as diverse as the types of decisions, the role of advisory groups, information search patterns or decision rules. Part three of the book – containing models of decision making – is the most elaborate section. It comprises of a two-fold analysis of the rational actor model, on the one hand, and its alternatives (cybernetic model, bureaucratic politics, organizational politics, prospect theory, poliheuristic theory, and applied decision analysis) on the other.

It is here that the authors reveal their theory of choice for foreign policy analysis, a model Mintz developed by combining rational and cognitive paradigms to form the poliheuristic decision model. It rests on the priority given to domestic politics as key determinant for foreign decision making and seeks to overcome the constraints on rational behavior as a means to explain why leaders often resort to „sub-optimal” or „satisficing” policy choices.

To further compound the issue, part four of the book – determinants of foreign policy decision making – seeks to offer a comprehensive enumeration of the factors that affect the foreign policy decision: international, domestic, psychological and cultural factors. For example, the psychological factors constitute a further challenge to the explanatory power of the rational actor model and the relevance for employing them into the foreign policy analysis rests with the fact that decision makers are not necessarily „irrational” but rather limited in their access to relevant information and their ability to conduct comprehensive mental processing under time constraints.

The last part of the book examines the marketing of foreign policy, i.e. the relevance and impact of the ways in which foreign policy decisions are presented to the public as a means of manipulating the facts in order to influence the audience. In order to achieve this, leaders employ various framing, marketing and media tactics.

True to its pedagogical purpose, as a means of conclusion, the ending part of the book is a case study of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq taken through the lenses of the various concepts, models and theories examined in the previous chapters. What is revealing is the authors’ acknowledgement that most of the decision models would have predicted the same outcome – the decision of the Bush administration to invade Iraq (p. 175).

With such a conclusion, Mintz and DeRouen’s book cannot be viewed as an innovative endeavor to foreign policy analysis. Its strength lies with the exhaustive manner in which the authors seek to reveal and examine the various concepts, models and theories employed in the analysis of foreign decisions. Furthermore, the impressive number of case studies employed in the book serves its pedagogical purpose.

The revelation of both the strengths and weaknesses of the rational actor model and its alternatives has led Mintz and DeRouen to attempt to bridge the rational and cognitive schools. Consequently, this book offers more testing ground for the poliheuristic theory.

Valentin-Gabriel Budău
[The University of Bucharest]


[1] Nehemia Geva and Alex Mintz (eds.), Decisionmaking on War and Peace: The Cognitive-Rational Debate (Advances in Foreign Policy Analysis), Boulder, CO: Lynne Riener, 1997.


VALENTIN-GABRIEL BUDĂU este PhD student, Political Science Faculty, University of Bucharest.




Sfera Politicii