British Journal of Political Science


Roles and Reasons in Foreign Policy Decision Making

Martin Hollis* and Steve Smith*

Explaining the foreign policy behaviour of states has proved a particularly difficult task for theorists of international relations. For centuries it relied on an analogy between states and individuals in the state of nature, so that an endemic tendency to international anarchy resulted from states having ‘interests’; systemic, determinist theories could therefore explain foreign policy by appealing to such notions as national interest and power maximization. The elusive, contestable character of these notions later led many analysts to focus on the empirical decision-making process for explanations of foreign policy behaviour. Yet these attempts have run into a fundamental problem: the proper weight to be attached to the perceptions and reasons of the actors. Some of the literature takes the actors very seriously and relies either on a psychology of perception or on a decision-theoretic model of individual choice. Some of it, on the other hand, by-passes the actors altogether and concentrates on such structural features as bureaucratic position. In this article we shall argue the case for a concept of role, requiring a less mechanical view of action than the standard approaches allow, both separately and in combination.


* School of Economic and Social Studies. University of East Anglia. We would like to thank Anthony King. David Miller and the Journal's referees for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.