By William Deng, Jr.

foreign policy

Sept 1, 2019(Nyamilepedai) — The daunting task that a state does is to undertake the process of foreign policy formulation. It has become traditional for all modern states to have carefully crafted foreign policies though there are some states without documented foreign policies. This is not because they don’t like it but the process is long, hectic and very expensive. It is not always that documented foreign policies are achievable, some might be achieved and some might not be achieved. 

Nobody guesses the item in the foreign policy document that may be achieved or why not the other item in the frequency of national interests and objectives. The consequences that come with this anxiety make states identify issue areas with which state might suffer or might win over its allies in the global politics. This process aims to include all the inputs from foreign policy stakeholders by analyzing operational environment from inputs to the output stage. The aim of this article is to provide descriptive analysis of the process of foreign policy formulation. In order to continue with the discussion of what foreign policy formulation entails, let us see how it is defined:

Understanding what foreign policy means proves difficult, so the best thing one can do is to define words foreign and policy differently and then combine the meanings extracted from the two to provide definition of foreign policy. Adnan(2014) states that, “policy is a decision or guide for choosing actions for one’s goal while foreign means anything beyond state; areas the state in question doesn’t have authority over territory and people”. When these words are combined, it is a guide of choosing actions outside the state boundary for achieving goals. It could also be defined as whatever government does in dealing with foreign governments. This relates to diplomatic definition given by Wallace (1991) that “foreign policy as the general orientation of one government towards other governments: building alliances and coalitions in pursuit of defined national interests and preferred models of international order.”

This definition provides better understating of what foreign policy is, scope and domain. As states interact the defining action is that of selling the national interest to the foreign states particularly in the earnest of survival and longevity. Those who don’t act in the interests of their states fail to commit to the expectations of the people of the state they represent. This means that people or public, elites, media and institutions of government task with foreign policy formulation dictate the behavior and actions of foreign policy implementers or decision makers. Lastly, Hermann (1990) foreign policy should be an orientation towards specific goals to be achieved both in short, medium and long term plans. So in the words of Adnan( 2014 ; p659) these objectives are the “image of a future state of affairs and future conditions that governments through individual policy makers aspire to bring by wielding influence abroad and by changing or sustaining the behavior to other states.” It’s a direct link between domestic and international situations. There are three (3) categories of objectives: core objectives; middle range objectives and long range objectives. The core objectives are those issues that are permanent and must be achieved all the times; these include, sovereignty, autonomy, national interest, territorial integrity, and well-being of people. The middle range objectives are less immediate and they require cooperation from other states like economic and social development and while the long range objectives are least immediate; plans, dreams, political vision and ideology. After having identified the objectives as described above, the policy formulation begins.

Foreign policy formulation takes place in an environment highly competitive and it comprises of goals, actors of various categories, decision making structure and processes from the inputs to the outputs. This environment is like a market where goods and services are exchanged and prices being determined by forces of demand and supply and sometimes determined by the government. That the government in question may sustain or alter the flow of demand depending on the urgency of foreign policy matter. Brecher (1969) has categorized the environment where the process of foreign policy formulation takes places into inputs, communication, psychological environment, process, implementation and outputs. The officials who undertake this process particularly those who inform the process are highly qualified professionals who understand the world, neighboring states and the needs of the people of the state they are presenting. Sometimes the decision makers especially the head of state or head of government may take advice or not through constitutional prerogatives. What are these inputs, external environment, internal environment and communication?


The inputs are ideas, data or opinion of the foreign policy community that affects decision making and objectives or goals of the country and which require correct studies and tactical arrangements and consideration in foreign policy formulation. Inputs environment is divided into two parts; external and internal environment.

External environment

It refers to the conditions and interactions which exist beyond the defined boundaries of states. It has three level factors that are commonly put into consideration; global, subordinate and bilateral. Global refers to the web of relations among actors within the international system; these actors are states, blocs and organizations. People with authority of policy formulation and decision making analyze international system in terms of power. There are states that are important to be in relation with for purposes that are pertinent to one’s interests such as protection through alliances or financial or on the basis of trade. It used to be difficult because of bipolar system; international actors could rally on ideological parameters, those who would have relationship with Soviet Union and those who would have relationship with the United States of America and the superpowers relations with the Third world. A subordinate system represents intermediate interactions between global system and states. It could be relations between countries of the same group or non-membership group. For instance, for foreign policy of a state to formulate, policy makers take into consideration these groups or associations considering possibilities of gains and losses. Lastly, bilateral system involves interactions between any two states. The state in question take serious scrutiny of the state its wants to have bilateral relations with, sometimes foreign policy makers try to contrast and compare power whether on relative or absolute basis depending on the interest and strategic capabilities. All states interact at the global or bilateral systems to get favors and in such situations policy makers fear they might not pull any benefits from interactions they enter. This is because external environment is highly competitive.

Internal environment

During the formulation process after having considered external factors that could hinder state interaction among states, it is crucial to first examine the internal ability. This capability is calculated in terms of military; economic, and political capabilities, interest groups and competing elites. As noted above, a strong foreign policy depends on the hard power of the state. This considers whether the state is able to protect its territories from aggression or whether it is not strong enough to flex muscles against enemies. Considering this factor, policy makers must also know that for a state to have military capability the following characteristics must be exhibited: geography of a country, level of technology, military manpower, financial resources available for defense, and weaponry. There are countries with geography that provides tactical edge over enemies while others may not have the same power.

 A country surrounds by sea or valley or important rivers and may have military edge over others and this is why it is important for foreign makers to examine state’s military capacity before okaying or rejecting war. Today, the world is worried about anything which might trigger international war not because states are unable to fight or that interests ceased from being the source of war but because of technological advancement in warfare. States have developed nuclear weaponry, that is a war might be fought only by pressing buttons or nuke others. This has created fear because the intelligent agencies are not sure of each other’s nuclear might.

 Military manpower is an ability of a country getting people or civilians to feed the military. This manpower needs to be well trained, healthier and available on call. The other characteristics are financial resources available and weaponry; that for there is no strong military without finances, policy makers make sure this part is dealt with in order to be sure, no state is powerful with broke military or lack weaponry. Foreign policy makers do not stop thinking even if the military is relatively strong other factors are considered like leadership, training and morale of the military are determined during the formulation process.

Economic capability is all materials and human resources available to the state. It could be food, raw material for industrial and scientific development, growth domestic product, and employment and insurances benefits. Economic capability is the most permanent and a country with working economy makes strong military security. So policy makers during the formulation check the working of the economy both at micro and macro level. 

The political structure comprising political institutions as well as leadership matrix through which foreign policy takes place is put into consideration. These political institutions maybe form of government such as democracy or authoritarian regime or single party or multiparty politics country. All these elements feature in the formulation process and may influence the way foreign policy decisions are made in a country. Sometimes countries with despotic tendencies do not seek diplomatic relations with plural governments or seek relations on new diplomatic terms and conditions. Thus making foreign policy depends on internal politics of the state in question.  Furthermore, Rizwan(2009) noted that:

There is some evidence to suggest that democracies do not usually go to war against each other. As the world in general becomes more democratic, it is hoped that war will be replaced with peaceful methods of conflict resolution. However, dictatorships faced with the problem of legitimacy at home and abroad usually create issues out of non-issues in order to justify the continuation of their illegal rule. Hitler and Mussolini embarked upon the path of international conquests because they were to deliver to the masses very quickly otherwise their citizens would have been disillusioned. Saddam Hussain failing to arrest problems inside the country had to lay claims on Kuwait in 1990.

The institutions tasked to perform foreign policy formulation sometimes get bogged down by various groups, the inputs from interest groups are very paramount. No authority in its right mind could ignore them. Brecher(ibid) says that “interest groups perform two distinct functions foreign policy making: 1) that they communicate information about the environment to the elite, and 2) that they may advocate policies to those who wield power in the system.” This group exerts pressure on foreign policy makers and whether the pressure is perceived or real depends on the advocacy. 

It could be that they analyze the environment and get right answers to the questions in the formulation or through their physical influence. They are always varying groups sometimes with different interests in the policy; others may seek to influence economic patterns, or influence political discourse agenda or security. Interest groups comprise of military interest groups, associational interest group, non-associational interest groups and anomic outbursts. All these interest groups do not influence on equal measure; others have expertise influence and others do not. Political elite try to provide alternative foreign policy.

Lastly but not the least, communication means the transportation of data about the operational environment of the foreign policy formulation. As the process of policy formulation continues, media for example; press, newspapers, TV, radios, academic journals or books, rallies and formal and informal news keep the prism of foreign policy get informed. This links the external environment with internal environment of foreign policy very well and it allows the public to put its demand across. The competitive elite groups use media to expand their demands and try to influence the decision making at the administrative level. 

Policy formulation process is an intriguing exercise involving psychological environment. Everybody in foreign policy formulation or making is involved in psychological contest on pertinent issues such as ideology, historical legacy, personal predisposition and elite images about what they think is right or wrong. Stein (2007) states that “during the formulation and at the stage of decision making, a cognitive revolution starts in the brain and this shape the thoughts and choices they make, the propose idea or input might be rejected or accepted depending on value associated with such decisions.” It is a duty of decision makers to filter through a bulk information about internal environment of the state in question. 

The end of the process is like chess game; taking advantages and move in order to gain and survive. Policy makers pick from options they deem important for the survival of the state for instance military security. Priorities are given in ascending order of importance and what public believe to be the most pressing issue and if military security takes first priority, other element such as political structure or economic capability takes the next tier in the preferences depending on the recommendations. Therefore, the duty of decision making after environmental scanning and considerations of best possible options have taken place is primarily prerogative of the head of state, head of government, foreign affairs minister and maybe some specialized committees concerning the foreign affairs of the country. 

The output could be the substance of the decision taken by the authorities. It might come with reactions both positive and negative but leaders are accountable for their actions and decisions. McGowan( 1969; p269) concludes: 

The perceptions and motives of the responsible decision-makers are usually thought to be the final causes of foreign policy outputs by those who hold this viewpoint

Once the foreign policy formulation planners have articulated the problem, the group is tasked to develop responses to problem generated by the decision taken by the authorities, it could be revising the objectives of the foreign policy or it could be relooking at the issue area of foreign policy. This sometimes happen, if the model used didn’t provide right responses or poorly constructed that may have cost country negatively. The issues to be evaluated may range from military, economic or political whether to the internal and external behavior of the state, and once they are recognized, the process takes a reverse gear by starting to redefine interests and objectives, old models replaced by new models until desired results are achieved.

In conclusion, the process of foreign policy formulation is a difficult one, it takes resources of varying aspects such as material resources, manpower and time. Every good foreign policy is determined by well taken process and that is by considering all variables involve in the formulation. It starts by analyzing core competencies of the country through filtering the operational environment; the external and internal, and the psychological environment of the people formulating the policy. This process is affected by individuals who wield power and those with expertise, military, economic and political institutions, social groups and the media.

Failure to include ideas of all the stakeholders in the formulation process may cause intrigues though not all the stakeholders influence the decision making. The president, prime minister and foreign affairs minister and sometimes specialized committees take decision by means of prerogative power. The outputs is always result of the policies undertaken by a country; that is the results whether positive or negative. Foreign policy makers are tasked to undertake evaluation of the policies implemented whether they attract aggregate desires of the people or not. If not, a new process of revising objectives and models is undertaken. The aim is for the state in question to enjoy its relative or absolute position depending on the international politics. 

William Deng, Jr is a PhD student in political science at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, he can be reached at dengthiy2004@gmail.com


Adnan Mubeen (2014). Foreign Policy and Domestic Constraints: A Conceptual Account. A Research Journal of South Asian Studies Vol. 29, No.2, pp. 657-675

Brecher Michael et al (1969). A Framework for Research on Foreign Policy Behavior. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 13, No. 1. pp. 75-101: Sage Publications, Inc.

Herman,F. Charles (1990). Changing Course: When Governments Choose to Redirect Foreign Policy. International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1. pp. 3-21

McGowan, J. Patrick (1968). Africa and Non-Alignment: A Comparative Study of Foreign Policy. International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 3. pp. 262-295. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3013507

Stein Janice Gross (2007).Foreign policy decision making: rational, psychological, and neurological models

Wallace Wlliam (1991). Foreign Policy and National Identity in the United Kingdom. International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), Vol. 67, No.1. pp. 65-80.  Oxford University Press.


Leave a Reply