Collin Powel said about US foreign policy “We are selling a product”, implying that FP making is a complex task whose analysis entails the necessity of an inclusive nexus of causes that reconciles economic needs, geopolitical imperatives, domestic opinion, and state capabilities. At all times, forces in the international system are at work, eroding established interests and summoning nations to embrace new ones. Foreign policies, or “the use of political influence in order to induce other states to exercise their law-making power in a manner desired by the state concerned” are affected by this restless configuration of world-wide power. Anarchy is, in this context of “governance without government”, a key feature that finally determines, but does not monopolize states’ FPs. This will be demonstrated through an analysis of the nature of the anarchical system; the main relevant theories; the nature of the decisions in FP, and finally studying how the restless reconfiguration of the international situation has affected the relevance of anarchy for FP analysis.

The foreign policy arena is characterized by a competitive system of relations among sovereign “corporate-trust”4 states, in which the cardinal rule is “Do whatever you must in order to win”. Countries have many objectives, what trigger numerous conflicts of interest; however self-preservation6 is their primary common goal, determining a situation of no automatic harmony. As there is not a supreme authority, disputes can eventually be settled with the use of force, generating insecurity and a struggle for power. To achieve a favourable outcome from such conflict a state has to rely on self-help, as the gains of one state are at the expense of others. This zero-sum game makes impossible the reliance on others for security through a system of automatic sanction: departure from the rational model imperils the survival of the state. In the Middle East anarchy appears in big evidence: because it was imposed on a pre-existing cultural unity that still persists, there is a duality between raison de la nation (Pan-Arabism) and raison d’etat (sovereignty) in foreign policymaking. The latter imposes itself in the several conflicts existent in the region, such as the Syrian-Lebanese, the Arab-Israeli and the Gulf, that point at power accumulation and balancing as keys to regional order.

If moving from the Hobbesian “state of nature” to a “civil state” represents a material gain and the maximization of state’s rewards through collaboration9, the election of the short-term reward is exemplified in Rousseau’s “stag hunt case”. Nevertheless, cases such as the UK’s four “Cod Wars” against Iceland, Rhodesia’s decolonization process under Thatcher’s government or US traditional proclamation of the absence of “selfish interests” in its FP, induces to think on the possibility of other factors also affecting state policies, and to take into account Waltz’s first and second images.

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The conditioning effects of anarchy on the international system belong to the state-centric Neo-Realist Theory13 that identifies national interest -sovereignty and independence- as its core values. Security and national survival become the priority of FP, and states behave minimising their vulnerabilities and maximises opportunities, according with the “rational-actor model”14. However aggressive behaviour is constrained by the distribution of capabilities within the international system and other elements that help maintaining order, reflected in the UN resolution after the Hostage Crisis in the US embassy in Teheran in 1979.

The Pluralist-Interdependence Model is focused on new global trends which have reduced the insulation of national governments and societies transforming old international issues into domestic populations’ concerns. This “complex interdependence” has augmented the links between governments, raising new areas of cooperation. Through new forms of international organisation such as cross-departmental and cross-national activities, a range of “private” organisations have become involved in FP making16. States are still important, but their decisions cannot be removed from the interests of these groups. Interdependence implies “mutual dependence”17 and the reciprocal ability to harm each other by not fulfilling those needs, increasing the vulnerability of the states. National power is no longer measured in military strength and the use of force becomes obsolete due to the increased costs of war.

Marxist-inspired Structuralists focus on the world capitalist system and its hierarchy built on the structures of the former colonies. The function of the state is to serve the interests of international capital, and the ruling elites of the new states maintain an economic dependency that decapitalizes the countries and makes them dependent on the core, constraining their sovereignty. In sustaining regional subordination, a series of paternalistic leverages are used20, and whenever radical movements try to gain control, military interventions might be launched. The dependency perspective concludes that less-developed countries have few realistic policy choices, their processes are characterized by a lack of stable structures and the implementation of FP is “a matter of reflexes” to core demands.

Several criticisms can be made on the three approaches: the realist geographic-determinism does not always work, as Japan’s shift from a Japanese-centred East Asia “Co-prosperity Sphere” in the 1930s to military dependence upon the USA, aggressive export-led growth and investment after WWII. Against pluralist expectations, relative democratization does not necessarily lead to less risky or more status quo FPs, as the actions of Nasser, Khadaffi, Iran under the clerics, and Saddam Hussein show, contradicting also the realist assumption that lack of great capabilities inhibit a regime from pursuing broad revolutionary objectives. At the same time, the economic liberalization of the region has led the internationalist-minded elites in power to attempt a demobilization of masses susceptible to revisionist ideology; however, its “penetrated system” is yet stubbornly resistant to subordination.

Considering the possible natures of the international system, it is important to understand what factors affect state leaders when deciding policies. A country’s ethos influences its tendency towards FP, and in some occasions a dilemma between high principles and self-interest may also arise, being eventually solved through a hierarchy of vital interests28. However it seems like certain countries hesitate between possession and milieu goals29 when defining national interest, while others do not: Power is the key to discriminate between FPs -in terms of characteristics and prospective success-. The distinction between great powers, middle powers and small states indicates the scope, responsibilities and potential of action and success of a country’s FP. Great powers’ superior capabilities and power imply a more diverse set of goals, including more freedom to acknowledge ideologies. The top and bottom ends of the hierarchy of power and influence are fixed over the short to medium-term; however in the middle the possession of certain resources and geographic position determine a temporary advantage, what creates considerable fluctuations. The relative situations of the different states explain the use of “double standards” by post-modern states and their seemingly broader freedom of choice. However, it is often only a short or medium-term goal that has been adapted from the flexible long-term national interest due to the interaction of internal and external pressures on the state. In many cases policy makers are constrained both by a “two-level game” between internal and external developments, and by other sources of internal disagreement on policy, arisen from the country’s governmental structures, what may affect the FP outcomes.

Finally, the relevance of the changes on the nature of the environment that policy makers have faced in the last decades was brought by the end of the Cold War and the consequent proliferation of new states and patterns of cooperation and conflict. The historical linkage between FP and national security represented by the “national security state” during the Cold War has suffered radical changes: With the end of the bipolar power structure, the US stopped organizing the defence of the non-communist world, forcing each country to confront its perils form its own national perspective. Assuming greater responsibility for their own security, the post-Cold War states have moved the system toward the equilibrium in the military field, even though collaboration is the continuing pattern. However, the emphasis on security has decreased as developments in military technology have made it less accessible, and the leakage of military capabilities to non-state groupings -such as terrorist organisations- have led to the erosion of the military “trump card” in FP.

Secondly, since the 1980’s processes of regionalisation, transnationalism and globalisation40 have accelerated. The FP agenda has given priority to more immediate and challenging economic and social issues -historically overridden by the primacy of security-, partially due to the new emphasis of the political system on the power of constituencies and the media world, that put a premium on emotion and the mood of the moment, increasing the importance of “soft power”.

In conclusion, as stated by neo-realist theory, anarchy is a principle of the society of states whose influence cannot be denied. Through the study of other perspectives, such as liberalism or structuralism, some aspects of a country’s FP and the nature of some regional subsystems of states can be better explained. However, it is undeniable that, in long-run policy making, the survival of a state is the primary goal of its leaders. It is true that in the last decades, processes of regional economic and political integration, and the emergence of major transnational policy issues are reducing the major role that security used to have, however this shift on the balance between warfare and welfare is only possible due to the secure and stable nature of the general international system, in which the survival of the states is not being challenged.


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1 When Colin Powell appointed Charlotte Beers as assistant secretary of state, he said: “I wanted one of the world’s greatest advertising experts, because what are we doing? We’re selling. We’re selling a product”.

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