No. 17




The Measurability Problem in Foreign Policy Decision-making Models

18 June 2008


RiTo No. 17, 2008

  • Hendrik Lõbu

    Hendrik Lõbu

    master’s degree candidate in internationalrelations, University of Tartu

Foreign policy theory describes and explains the foreign-policy decision-making process – how decisions are reached and carried out. Decision-making mechanisms are ordinarily depicted and analyzed with the help of a rational and bureaucratic model.

These are two parallel intellectual methods of approach, which, just like the sides of the same coin, do not exclude each other, as most foreign-policy decision-making processes can be explained simultaneously from both sides. The models provide a good overview of the adoption of foreign policy decisions and enable us to better understand what is going on in international relations. Could the models have another purpose besides their descriptive value; for example, could they be used to derive formulas and schemes for developing a more efficient decision-making system? For this purpose we would need to have a knowledge of the models and assign quantitative value to variables which could in turn allow us to make comparative analyses regarding the foreign policy of states. It is here that we collide with a difficulty that is a general characteristic of foreign-policy theory, namely the measurability problem, which impedes operationalization. Operationalization is the bridge between theory and observation. It is a process in the course of which we find suitable measurable observable indicators for abstract terms.
Even though most of the variables in both the rational and the bureaucratic model are quantifiable, we cannot in this manner give the theory noteworthy value added. For one thing, the operationalization of variables involves conditions that would make the conceptual level much more complicated, without increasing the trustworthiness and applicability of the theory, yet simultaneously decreasing its descriptive value. Secondly, both the rational and bureaucratic model contain nuances that cannot be translated into the language of numbers; taking these nuances into account however depends largely on the subjective opinions of the researcher.

On the basis of the above discussion, it can be asserted that the operationalization of the bureaucratic and rational models of the decision-making process is not expedient, although it may be possible on certain conditions. The theory would lose more in terms of practical value than it would gain.

Full article in Estonian