by / Thursday, 30 April 2015 / Published in Blog
The foreign affairs bureaucracy has many layers and is composed of many (sometimes competing) departments, which are bureaucratic in nature. Basically, that means that the departments involved engage in groupthink, they are slow to change, they look out for their own best interests, and they emphasize the importance of their own departments in order to receive recognition. This unintended outcome of separating government into many different departments is unfortunate and often means information isn’t shared with other government agencies when it needs to be.

Here we’ll look at three major components of the bureaucracy involved in formulating and influencing foreign policy. Those are the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Intelligence Community.


The State Department is headed by the Secretary of State (in this administration that is Condoleezza Rice). Diplomats are appointed to foreign-service positions. Embassies basically run their own daily operations independently, while providing updated information on the political situations of the countries in which they are located back to the State Department. Various sub-departments of the State Department are concerned with issues of political nature (i.e. European Affairs, African Affairs, etc., specializing in various areas of the world). Other sub-departments are concerned with economic affairs around the world (agriculture, business, etc). Still others are concerned with looking at the security situations of various parts of the world (international political-military concerns). Diplomats may be specialists in other areas like human rights, refugee and migration issues.

During the 1950s Senator McCarthy alleged that many State Department personnel were communists. This lead to an increased vigilance among personnel to conform to accepted department norms and ideas. Basically, the safest route for State Department employees was to tow the company line, and stick to the status quo. This cautious nature also influenced the department’s hiring practices. Thus the bureaucracy is now slow to act, its personnel like to conform, and diplomacy, therefore, may be rather predictable and traditional.

Since the end of the Cold War, but more specifically, in the face of more rapidly advancing globalization, the US has and will inevitably continue to rethink certain alliances and form new ones based on changing political situations (i.e. the various changes in eastern Europe since the collapse of USSR, issues like NATO’s expanding membership, etc). Since September 11, 2001, the new focus has been on terrorism rather than communism. The State Department will naturally continue to compete against the Defense Department for influence and input into policy decisions.


The Defense Department is made up of the Departments of the Army, Navy and Air force. Each has a civilian chair appointed by the President and a military chief-of staff.

Personnel engaged in field activities and defense agencies report to the Secretary of Defense (in this administration Robert Gates). An example of a field activity agency falling under the Defense umbrella is the American Forces Information Service, and an example of a defense agency is the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. The Secretary of Defense advises the President on military issues.

The breakdown of the Defense Department into various military and civilian components is an attempt to provide some kind of balance to the Department, and in effect the goal seems to have originally been to ensure civilian control over the department, to keep the military in check. Although, some experts seem to feel the military element (the Joint Chiefs of Staff) has had more influence than the civilian element.

Obviously since the end of the Cold War, the Defense Department’s priorities have changed. Communism is no longer the biggest threat: September 11 brought about a mission to eradicate terrorism, and the State and Defense Departments no doubt compete over influence and argue over the best course of action (the State Department may argue for diplomacy, the Defense Department for military action). Additionally, the Defense Department is often criticized for acting more like a Department of Offense (by engaging in preemptive military actions more often than they focus on protecting borders).


The Intelligence Community is composed of intelligence departments from many areas of Federal government, including the Departments of Transportation, Treasury, and State, among many others, and includes the National Security Agency, the FBI, and many others, which report to the Director of Central Intelligence. DCI works through the National Foreign Intelligence Board and National Intelligence Council. There is a certain level of secrecy to the Intelligence Community, obviously. They report directly to the President and increasingly have access to advanced technology with which to gather information related to national security and other issues. They analyze information, which is available to the public, and gather information, which is often classified, from a variety of sources, conducting field operations, human contacts, etc.

Some criticize the CIA for not anticipating the collapse of the USSR adequately. The logical extension of this criticism is that if the CIA could not anticipate change and was so reliant on information gathered during the Cold War, perhaps they did not have the tools and/or knowledge to comprehend the terrorist threats leading up to September 11. But as we’ve all seen there is much dispute surrounding such allegations, and dispute over who knew what when and who knew how much. We heard many people criticizing the FBI and CIA for not predicting September 11, but then many rumors circulated that the information was available, but perhaps not taken seriously, or that there was simply too much information to go through. In response to September 11 the Department of Homeland Security was established. Some critics say this shouldn’t have been necessary, considering that there are already numerous agencies who should be providing security to the people of the U.S.


Foreign policy makers rely on information that is available to them to come to decisions, after narrowing down the possible choices, looking at history, and based on their own preferences and personal experiences and perceptions.

The “cognitive model” of understanding policy decisions states that one must remember policies are made by people, at the core, so some understanding of psychology may be helpful. The individuals formulating policies use “Cognitive shortcuts”. For example, when buying a house, consumers automatically narrow their searches based on certain criteria, such as, financial resources, location, the number of rooms, and other considerations. The natural process of selecting certain options from the countless options actually available happens. The individual considering the best foreign policy decision may refer to past policies used in similar situations, and may him/herself prefer diplomatic, rather than military efforts. He or she may also defer to a framework and a certain timeframe that has been accepted by colleagues and forebears as normal. This system may result in that individual failing to conceive of alternate methods.

Individuals have a “perceptual system”. That is, they establish ways of thinking based on exposure to certain events and ideas while growing up, which they have judged and evaluated and stored as information about the world. When new information is presented to them, which challenges that worldview, they feel uncomfortable and may be unsure how to react (this is known as cognitive dissonance). If an idea or concept, such as news regarding a situation in the world, fits into the individual’s framework of the world and how it operates, he or she will generally accept that information as true and feel somewhat comfortable accepting it. Events the individual experiences, either personal or collective (the death of a family member or abuse in the family, or collective experience such as a major event like WWII), may shape the individual’s perceptions of the world and justify certain reactions (emotional or otherwise).

Generally foreign policymakers judge policies as being good policies if they produced the exact desired outcomes, and bad if they did not produce the expected desired outcome, within a certain time frame, in the way expected, etc.

As we’ve seen there are many psychological factors that can affect the study, analysis and execution of foreign policy decisions.