US Foreign Policy and the Rational Policy Paradigm

By: Armend Topllari

In the field of International Relations, there are multiple theoretical approaches that attempt to predict the actions that states will undertake in order to gain and/or maintain their power in the international system. Many of these theories are structured around the idea that states are considered rational actors; that meaning that their approaches are consistent with their goals as a state, along with choosing actions that are deemed the best out of alternatives. This consideration of rationality is present in Graham Allison’s piece Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In it, Allison presents three models, or theories, in order to attempt to explain how the United States operates in regards to foreign policy; he then uses these models to try and explain the steps the US took to tackle the Cuban Missile Crisis. This paper will explain Allison’s first model, the Rational Policy Paradigm, and use the dropping of the atomic bomb of Japan as an example to test the theory.

To begin, a basic explanation of the Rational Policy model is needed. Allison uses the metaphor of a chess game; he states that foreign policy is like a sequence of moves, where one is limited to only hypothesizing of the enemies moves, leading to make actions based on what will lead to the best benefit with the least amount of cost in order to win the game. This is a less than perfect explanation, but it creates a good starting point to explain the Rational Policy model. To start, a game of chess has only two players, so the assumption is that individuals are the ones making the moves in the game. This is the first part of the Rational Policy model; the state/nation/national government is assumed to be a unitary actor that will choose an action that tries to amplify strategic aims. The action, however, cannot happen unless there is a problem present that an actor is facing. This problem is solved, not using a large amount of partial solutions that come in a stream, but rather as one, solid and steady solution that comes from the relevant representatives of a government; Allison calls this process “Static Selection” (pp. 694). This process is important as it represents the coalescing of individual suggestions into a number of solutions that can be used to respond to a problem, as opposed to a bunch of representatives bickering and offering a step-by-step progression towards solving a problem. While the step-by-step process might offer more options, this approach would lead to inaction due to the bickering of different representatives trying to create a layered solution.

After discussing potential solutions, the next step would be to determine what solutions can present the best outcome. In regards to weighing these potential solutions, Allison states that “National security and national interests are the principal categories in which strategic goals are conceived. Nations seek security and a range of further objectives” In the layman’s terms, this comes out to simple cost-benefit analysis. The nation, a unitary actor, will need to lay out the options present in order to respond to a problem. In order to find out the best option, that lines up with their goals and objectives as a nation, they will need to identify the consequences present with each choice. Using the chess example, if a player values their queen above all other pieces, they might be hesitant to take an opposing piece if it puts the queen in a poor position; a player needs to be conscious of present playing field in order to make the best move, even if it is a safe one. In the case of the United States, they need to weigh out potential costs of each move, as sometimes a benefit is worthless if the loss or cost is too great. Allison gives a specific example of the US preforming a cost benefit analysis in its Deterrence policy towards the Soviet Union; while building a nuclear arsenal is expensive and seems particularly aggressive towards neutral nations, it reduces the chance of nuclear warfare through mutually assured destruction, along with allowing “limited war” between Soviet backed and Western backed nations without the chance of nuclear warheads being involved The presence of casual variables is limited in this approach, as there is one prime variable present within the system; the existence of a nation. This variable is difficult to change, especially in a stable nation such as the United States, due to the structure and stability that is present within the government. While the elected positions might change, the balance of power and appointed/hired officials will roughly stay the same (barring some extreme revolution). The presence of this stability helps this theory as it further demonstrates the nation as a secure, unitary actor.

Allison closes his explanation of the Rational Policy model with presenting variants of the theory, as the one he originally puts forward is a “pure” model, and the variants exist because others might shift the model to better fit their predictions and logic, even if the major parts of the model remain unchanged. The first variant involves focusing on one actor and their choice in a situation, leading to analysis of a narrowed set of goals, choices, and consequences; this leads to a type of “stereotyping” for certain actors. Allison uses the Soviet deployment of anti-ballistic missile as an example, stating that this solution was an example of the defensive mindedness of the Soviets, or an instance of action in the “Bolshevik operational code”. The second variant focuses on an individual leader or group as the unitary actor, whose characteristics and preferences shape the goals and solutions of foreign policy. The third variant is complex compared to the original model, as it recognizes factions that might be present within a government and attempts to explain outcomes and solutions by using objectives that the victorious faction holds.  Looking at the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, the variant to be used will be the original, as Allison does not go as in depth with the variants as he does on the original Rational Policy model.

To start, an explanation of the policy is in order. President Truman was notified of the and success of the Manhattan project after the ending of the European Theater of World War Two. This was the project that was working on a new superweapon that was 1500 times more explosive than TNT; to say this was destructive would be an understatement. The Pacific theater was ongoing due to the resilience of Imperial Japan and their troops, and several decisions had to be made. The decision made was to use the atomic bomb twice on Japan in order to force an unconditional surrender. The bombing was seen as incredibly destructive and gruesome in scope, but it was the only option that was viable for the US as it involved losing the smallest number of troops as possible, along with posturing towards the Soviets, highlighting the starting of the Cold War.

Using the rational policy model, the assumption is that using these bombs was probably not the United States’ first choice; they most likely had different options lined up, but saw that the bombs were the best bet. A good question using this model would be “Did the US have other plans for Japan?”, in order to investigate if the US participated in a cost-benefit analysis.  Good evidence to support the rational policy model would be to look for those other options presented in order to confirm this idea. Such evidence would include cabinet discussions (as the National Security Council did not exist at this point), discussions between the President and the Secretary of War, Secretary of State, and other heads of state, and lastly, any personal notes left behind by Truman about the bombing. This evidence could prove the model correct as it might highlight other choices that were talked about before the bombing. However, they could also prove the model wrong, as it might highlight infighting between departments within the executive or general standard operating procedure, which are shades of Allison’s other theories.

If it is found that there were other options considered in regards to the Pacific theater and Japan, the next step would be to do a cost-benefit analysis of the options discovered in order to see if the atomic bomb was the most optimal option presented to the nation. If it is found that this was the best option, then Allison’s Rational Policy model is proven correct in this case. However, if it is found that there was a more viable option given and that Truman just used the bombs due to some unfettered hatred towards the Japanese, or due to some other irrational, hateful, or petty reason, the Rational Policy model is disproven in the situation, as there was no rationality in choice of outcome.

Looking at Allison’s Rational Policy model through the lens of a historical event, it is made much easier to understand and unpack, as Allison’s writing tends to be slightly heavy-handed and definitely targeted towards those with a good grasp of the field of International Relations rather than a novice or intermediate in the field. However, this is necessary as this writing is here for scholars to unpack and reinterpreted in order to grasp the piece for themselves, as opposed to trying to echo exactly what Allison writes in his piece. I personally feel that this prompt helped me understand Allison way better than just reading his paper over and over again.

Image Credit: Victor Gillam, Arkell Publishing Company

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