The System is Always More than the Sum of its Parts

 The System is Always More than the Sum of its Parts


By Joseph Tawney

Submitted on 5/8/2017



            In this essay I intend to argue that a unified theory of international relations, foreign policy, or any other discipline, whether or not it belongs to the social sciences, must be both non-exclusionary and non-simplistic. A unified theory should not only explain and predict, but also must be capable of digesting every combination of possible inputs to produce an output that can be or will be observed in the real world. Yet no theory to date, and potentially no theory ever, can achieve this level of accuracy. The problem is not the researchers who develop these theories, but the unmanageable complexity that rules our world. The characteristics and contours of this system are what makes understanding it such a tricky—if not impossible—feat. Complex systems are constantly changing, highly irreversible, subject to unpredictable variation, and sensitive to their initial conditions.[1] Thus, any theory claiming to predict human behavior must be equally complex. Decision-making is one component of human behavior that is ripe for analysis. Foreign policy decision-making is a sub-component of this and will be the subject of the following essay. Within this minimally explained framework, I will provide a review of prominent theories of decision making and “rank” them from the simplest and most exclusionary to the most complex and inclusive.

There is nothing simple about the decision-making process of a human being. For the purposes of this essay, complexity is operationalized as the volume of input one single theory can handle. A complex theory assesses the maximum number of variables (i.e. inputs) and allows for an analysis of the relationship between and among these variables. These theories will be grouped into two categories. The first fails to incorporate the complexity of decision-making by reducing it to a mechanistic process. The second category successfully, albeit far from completely, reflects on these complexities.

Two assumptions are used to make this argument. First, the ideal theory is one that predicts, not just explains. Using this as a barometer for success, none of the following theories hold up. This does not mean that they are failed theories, but that they do not reach the same level of complexity as their human subjects. Second, I assume that no human being is rational. We can attempt to act rationally, and even convince ourselves that we are rational, but our biases, our cognitive limitations, and the forces of our unconscious minds make genuine rationality a myth. Taking these two assumptions as the starting point, the following essay will be divided into two general parts. Part A theories interpret an ideal, unattainable world by explaining how things are via a rational, logical approach. Part B theories acknowledge the limited capability of humans to act rationally or logically.


Part A: A Machine Could Do This Job

            The theories discussed in Part A are the rational actor model (RAM), bureaucratic politics model (BPM), domestic politics theory, and diversionary theory. The first theory, RAM, is commonly discussed in foreign policy and suggests an overly simplistic interpretation of decision-making. Inspired by political realism, RAM suggests that a decision-maker’s sole focus is to advance the state’s national interests. RAM argues that this interest is power, defined as the state’s ability to maintain its sovereignty relative to other states.[2] It proposes that decision-makers develop their policies and make decisions following a logical sequence of steps. They first determine their goals and objectives, then consider the pathways for achieving those objectives. After which, the potential consequences of each alternative is studied, followed by a selection of the most rational choice. Often these decisions are made by “historic precedent rather than abstract principle.”[3]

The simplicity of this model speaks for itself, especially when compared to the cognitive theories in Part B. RAM is purposely divorced from the world of color, laying residence in a black and white universe that is devoid of subjectivity, biases, and the infinite nuances of the human experience. RAM predicts what is ideally predictable, and nothing more. Any deviations from the norm are incompatible.[4] The authors who write about the theory, both those in favor and those offering a critique, acknowledge its myopic fallibility. Hans Morgenthau writes that a realist theory of international politics “avoids the other popular fallacy of equating the foreign policies of a statesman with his philosophical or political sympathies.”[5] Steve Yetiv hints at the idea of cognitive limitations by illustrating that decision-makers “seek” the best possible outcome “under conditions of incomplete information,” thus moving the theory away from strict rationality to “relaxed rationality.”4 He acknowledges the theory’s failure to consider the complexities of “risk propensity, misperception, and uncertainty.”[6] Allison and Zelikow characterize RAM as “imperfectly and one-sidedly” parochial in scope because of its innate lack of depth.[7] According to RAM, “actors seek to [make decisions] without concern for what others are expected to do,” another indication of its simplicity.[8] The vacuousness of this theory is impractical and is indicative of why RAM is such an exclusionary model. The next few Part A theories incorporate more layers of complexity while still omitting human experience as an input. Unlike RAM, these theories represent an expansion in scope because they consider the decision-maker’s decisions relative to other players.

Secondly, the bureaucratic politics model (BPM) describes “state behavior that appears too irrational and/or complex” by RAM.[9] The axiom “You stand where you sit” is a common phrase used to describe BPM. This implies that decision-making is a product where the decision-maker works, not the decision-maker themselves. A representative from the State Department will champion diplomacy, while a representative from the Department of Defense may favor a hawkish approach. The theory rescinds the decision-makers’ responsibilities by suggesting that it is impossible for them to control the “organizational web” surrounding them.[10] The government is not one individual, but rather a “conglomerate of loosely allied organizations, each with a substantial life of its own.”5 The outputs are not the result of a deliberate cost-benefit analysis, but rather “outputs of large organizations functioning according to standard patterns of behavior.”5 Unlike national interest being deliberated by a unified decision-maker, “multiple players holding differing conceptions of the national interest struggle, compete, and bargain over both the nature and conduct of policy.”[11] Thus, the interest of the individual bureaucracies are included as points of input because “decision-makers are affected by and act as advocates for their particular bureaucracies.”[12] The resulting decisions can be attributed to “conflict, confusion, bargaining, and compromise among individuals.”[13] One facet of the BPM that ties it closely to RAM is that the “individual players are viewed as rational,” although the outcomes of their interactions are not.[14] The BPM is more inclusive than RAM because it considers the decisions of multiple people, as well as the interactions between their opinions. The next theory expands on this by reaching outside of the government to incorporate the attitudes of the state’s constituents.

The third theory of Part A is the domestic politics theory. Domestic politics theory is a broad concept that is comprised of sub-components that exhibit significant overlap. These theories are more complex and inclusive because they emphasize the will of the constituency, as opposed to a state-centric focus. Domestic politics theory suggests that “generic observations of national and international affairs are somehow ‘linked.’”[15] A “spillover” from domestic politics seeps into the field of foreign policy.[16] Yetiv comments, “Decision-makers place a high premium on domestic-level goals,” especially a domestically-focused president.[17] These goals range from enhancing personal image to promoting a piece of legislation, and decision-makers “see the construction of international issues as useful” in achieving these goals.[18]

Domestic opinion, therefore, plays a role in foreign policy decision-making in two ways. First, the “president can seek to ensure a close alignment between domestic opinion and their own policy preferences,” and second, “presidents respond to potential or actual gaps by adjusting policies to match public expectations.”[19] The main crux of this argument is that foreign policy decisions stem from their “domestic acceptability.”[20] Domestic politics theory introduces a new web of questions: Is it an election year? Is the country prospering economically? Is the country engaged in a war? Are the President’s approval ratings low? This last question opens the door to the next theory.

The fourth theory, diversionary theory, is the first to introduce the possibility that heads of state and bureaucracies may make decisions for reasons other than national interest, power, or their legislative priorities. Unlike the domestic politics theory, which by definition suggests that decision-making represents a reaction to internal political pressures, the diversionary theory proposes that the decision-maker acts with the purpose of steering the conversation, not responding to it. Although not explicit, one cannot apply this theory without peering into the psyche of the decision-maker. The diversionary hypothesis suggests that “presidents occasionally use force to distract the public from the president’s own domestic political troubles.”[21] The use of force abroad often inspires people to ‘rally around the flag’, which in turn has the effect of boosting the leader’s approval ratings, a useful advantage if even for a short period of time.


Part B: For Humans Only

Part B theories are more multifaceted and provide no clear line of causality between two points. The inputs refer back to the decision-makers’ own unique perspective of their external world, where judgment is informed by biases, personal experiences, individual personalities, and cognitive limitations. Explaining and predicting human behavior from a psychological perspective, which I would argue is true realism, is a nearly impossible challenge and one that requires an infinite number of data points. The theories to be discussed in Part B attempt to account for some of these factors and include conflict theory, prospect theory, the three cognitive approaches, groupthink, and poliheuristic theory.

First, conflict theory most clearly differentiates Part A from Part B. It accepts that “human beings, programmed as they are with emotions and unconscious motives as well as cognitive abilities, seldom can approximate a state of detached affectlessness when making decisions that implicate their own vital interest of those of their organizations or nations.”[22] As robust as this sounds, the theory is lacking in substance because the only independent variable it considers is stress. The theory includes five propositions that describe the relationship between stress and decision-making, all of which seek to “specify the contrasting conditions that determine whether the stress engendered by decisional conflict will facilitate or interfere with vigilant information processing.”22 Human behavior is guided by much more than stress, and the next few theories make a greater effort to include these other variables.

Second, prospect theory describes how decision-makers behave in “high risk” situations. It suggests that “individuals tend to be risk-averse in a domain of gains, or when things are going well, and relatively risk seeking in a domain of losses, like in the midst of a crisis.”[23] This intuitively makes sense. ‘Losses loom larger than gains’ implies that the pain of loss is worse than the joys of gain. It is uncharacteristic for a decision-maker to part with their earnings or good fortune, especially when the chances of continued prosperity are high.[24] Allowing for the effects of stress on the decision-making process, as detailed in conflict theory, it makes sense that judgment is clouded in precarious situations. Conflict theory and prospect theory are natural allies because “prospect theory is based on psychophysical models.”[25] Stress is a psychological reaction to an unpleasant environment like a high-risk situation, and the physiological release of hormones and the uptick in heart rate and blood pressure all contribute to a diminishment of cognitive abilities. Since stress affects judgment, and decisions are based on judgment, high-stress situations likely compromise sound judgment. Prospect theory allows for greater complexity than conflict theory because it allows for the establishment a contextual foundation and discusses how it interacts with human behavior.

The next group of theories makes a concentrated effort to fully engage with the human experience. Despite their differences, they are lumped together because of one important commonality: their approach is cognitive, not rational. Human behavior is unpredictable and dependent on myriad factors, many of which are difficult to detect. The three theories that make up the cognitive approach try to identify and elucidate these subconscious influences. They overlap significantly, so the order in which they are presented is irrelevant. In fact, it is more useful to discuss them as one unified theory. These three sub-disciplines are: the study of heuristics and biases, the study perception and misperception, and the application of analogical thinking.

The first sub-discipline I will investigate is the study of heuristics and biases, which suggests that people are incapable of seeing the world through any lens other than their own. This principle is well-known and could easily fill volumes of material. As a result of this myopic outlook, the tendency to jump to conclusions is a natural response to uncertainty. The human brain is unqualified to scrutinize every possible alternative and consequence of a decision in an objective manner. This phenomenon has been studied widely by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.[26] They illustrated with significant probability the propensity for people to fall into the trap of their own biases and heuristics. Tversky and Kahneman write that “our predilection for causal thinking exposes us to serious mistakes in evaluating the randomness of truly random events.”14 This tendency has the adverse effect of hiding reality right before our eyes, eroding the possibility of correctly predicting the outcome of an uncertain event based on “heuristic principles which reduce the complex tasks of assessing probabilities and predicting values to simpler judgmental operations.”[27] This “subjective assessment of probability” is impossibly fixed in the schema of the observer, which could be entirely different from one person to the next.[28]

The second sub-discipline explores perception and misperception in cognition. Jervis argues that people’s irrationality is a product of their misperceptions, in which misperception is defined as “the gaps between the world as it actually exists and the world as it exists in the mind of the perceiver.”[29] Central to this idea is the tendency for decision-makers “…being too wedded to the established view and too closed to new information.”[30] Jervis uses the term “consistency” to describe the proclivity for people to “see what they expect to see and to assimilate incoming information to pre-existing images.”[31] For instance, one may be more likely to forgive their favorite celebrity for making a mistake that, had it been committed by a stranger or a person that is perceived neutrally, would otherwise be considered unforgivable. In foreign relations, this tendency can drastically alter one’s judgment, and the consequent decision may reflect this false assumption. Another result of misperception is that “discrepant information simply is not noticed.”18 Once a decision is made it is unlikely to change, even if contradictory information is staring us right in the face. These pre-existing schemas are often born from past experiences.

The third sub-discipline, offered by Khong, argues that decision-makers frequently misuse “analogical explanations” in foreign policy.[32] An event today that appears similar to one from the past will easily convince the observer to use the past event’s outcome to guide decisions in the present. Khong argues that analogies help to “explain a new situation to use in terms we are familiar with” and “prescribe a strategy to get from ‘what is’ to ‘what ought to be,’” which “suggest[s] what is likely to occur in the future.”[33] The mischaracterization arises when our misperceptions hinder the clarity needed to see the differences between the two. Our brains seek normalcy and patterns, creating the illusion that the past is repeating itself. Persistent interventions in South America during the Cold War demonstrate how decision-makers are vulnerable to analogies. American decision-makers constantly interpreted revolution in South America as the encroachment of communism, even though there were many instances in which this was not the case (consider the 1954 Guatemalan coup d ‘état and the forced deposition of Jacobo Árbenz) . The methodology was to intervene and thwart the revolution, even when this approach failed. The problem is obvious. No two events are alike, and the mental shortcut that decision-makers use to compare two events can have profound effects on the outcome. All of the limitations that have been discussed so far are magnified by the next theory.

Groupthink is the third Part B theory and it describes the decision-making process as a reflection of group interactions. Once a group has formed and grown together, the cohesion of the group becomes paramount and as a result nonconformity and outside opinions are discouraged. This point is more eloquently stated in the “symptoms” of the theory. The signs of the groupthink phenomenon are an “illusion of invulnerability,” “collective rationalization,” and a “belief in inherent morality.”[34] One manifestation of these forces is to “protect the group” through cohesion over “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.”[35] The origin of this behavior stems from the heuristics, biases, and misperceptions of the individual players. This theory is highly complex because one must consider all of the cognitive limitations that affect the single decision-maker and then apply this understanding to the group’s interactions, broadening the scope of complexity and exclusivity that can be assessed. Each player brings with him or her their own explanation of the world, and the outcome of what the group produces inevitably ends up being a mix of all of these explanations. The specific behavior and decision-making of each individual, how they interact with each other, who is accepted as a member of the “in-group” and who is pushed to the “out-group,” and how the decision reaches the ultimate decision-maker are all influenced by these forces.

The last theory is hard to place. It does not belong at the end of the continuum, nor does it belong at the beginning. Mintz’s poliheuristic theory splits the decision-making process into two stages. The decision-maker “eliminates options by the use of one or more heuristics” and the “remaining alternatives are then evaluated in an attempt to minimize risks and maximize benefits.”[36] The combination of the cognitive and rational aspects of this theory has two competing effects. It can either strengthen the theory because it accepts the cognitive approach, or it reduces the theory to rhetoric because it relies on the rational actor to make the final decision. One could argue that even the most motivated attempt to achieve rationality will fall short because of our cognitive limitations. The concepts of national interest, power, and other ostensibly rational concepts are really value-statements, subject to interpretation and cultural persuasion. Not all states agree that power is their ultimate objective, or even agree on what power is. The introduction of realism or a rational actor makes any theory less dependable for real world application.

Perhaps the construction of a truly unified theory is impossible, but the quest should not end just because it is difficult. Instead, every theory should have a place for competing ideas. No theory can stand on its own. None are capable of accounting for every possible input or every bit of randomness, uncertainty, or past experiences. The complexity of human behavior makes such a thing nearly impossible.



Appendix A

[1] Andrei Popa, Lecture, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, March 15, 2015.

[2] Kenneth Waltz, “Anarchic Orders and Balances of Power,” in American Foreign Policy: Theoretical Essays, ed. G. John Ikenberry and Peter L. Trubowitz, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 55.

[3] Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics among Nations (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1948), 20.

[4] Steve A. Yetiv, “The Rational Actor Model,” in Explaining Foreign Policy: U.S. Decision-Making & The Persian Gulf War (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2004), 30.

[5] Morgenthau, Politics among Nations, 25.

[6] Yetiv, “The Rational Actor Model,” 32.

[7] Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision, ed. 2, (New York: Longman, 1999) 1-33, 77-129.

[8] Morgenthau, Politics among Nations, 43.

[9] Yetiv, “The Rational Actor Model,” 121.

[10] Stephen Krasner, “Are Bureaucracies Important? (Or Allison Wonderland),” Foreign Policy 7, (1972): 159-179.

[11] Christopher M. Jones, “American Prewar Technology Sales to Iraq: A Bureaucratic Politics Explanation,” in Domestic Sources of American Foreign Policy, eds. Eugene R. Wittkopf and James M. McCormick (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 280.

[12] Yetiv, “The Rational Actor Model,” 122.

[13] Ibid, 123.

[14] Ibid, 123.

[15] Robert D. Putnam, “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games,” International Organization 42, no.3 (1988), 430.

[16] Ibid, 431.

[17] Yetiv, “The Rational Actor Model,” 30.

[18] Ibid.

[19] David G. Skidmore, “Between Leadership and Retreat: Foreign Policy and Domestic Opinion,” International Studies Notes 24, no.2 (1999).

[20] Ryan Hendrickson, “Clinton’s Military Force in 1998: Diversionary Uses of Force?” Armed Forces and Society 28, no.2 (2002): 309-332.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Irvin Janis, Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment (1977), 45-75.

[23] Rose McDermott, Risk Taking in International Politics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 4.

[24] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 156.

[25] McDermott, Risk Taking in International Politics, 18.

[26] Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases”, Science 185, no. 4157 (1974), 1124-1131.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Charles A. Duelfer and Stephen Benedict Dyson, “Chronic Misperception and International Conflict: The U.S.-Iraq Experience” International Security 36, no. 1 (2011), 73-100.

[30] Robert Jervis, “Hypotheses on Misperception”, World Politics 20, no. 3 (1968), 454-479.

[31] Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1976), 117.

[32] Yuen Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phy, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 75.

[33] Yuen Khong, “Seduction by Analogy in Vietnam: The Malaya and Korea Analogies,” in American Foreign Policy: Theoretical Essays, Seventh Edition, ed, G. John Ikenberry and Peter L. Trubowitz, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 551-559.

[34] Irving Janis, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (Boston: Wadsworth, 1982), 174.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Alex Mintz, “How Do Leaders Make Decisions? A Poliheuristic Perspective”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution 48, no. 1 ( 2004) 3-13.

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