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Psychology of Foreign Policy Analysis
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This paper is a brief review of The "Operational Code": A Neglected Approach to the Study of Political Leaders and Decision-Making by Alexander George (1969). The author gives a strong case for the need for political psychology analyses in foreign policy analysis of countries. Using critical breakthrough from works like Nathan Leites’s(1953) A study of Bolshevism, Ole Holsti’s (1967) Cognitive Dynamics in Images of the Enemy, Anold Horelick’s (1964) The Cuban Missile: Analysis of Soviet Calculations and Behavior among other cornerstone works in relevant in the literature of intersection between psychological analysis of leaders and foreign policy analysis of the countries they aim to project to the outside world, he evaluates the evolution of the concept operational code as first proposed by Leites himself.

2.0.Central Thesis

The argument that the author aims to put across is his seminal and celebrated article is that while the concept operational code should be the starting for understanding how foreign actors create images of their opponents and behave based on the assumptions of the images of the other, the concept remains under-utilized, or if it has been utilized, it lacks a consolidated meaning as a conceptual framework of political psychology (p. 195-196). To underscore his point, he divides the article into five sections, with each section illuminating the set of political beliefs and strategies that constitute the operational code. In section I: Background, Alexander does an appreciation of the contribution of Leites’s work. He argues that this was one of the preliminary studies that sought to give solid intellectual directions to the study of politics and particularly of political leadership. The work motivated the analysis of Bolsheviks, but did, he avers, motivate similar studies external of the USSR because of the purportedly complex nature and language that Leites uses in his piece (p. 193). Leites’s The Operational Code of the Politburo, (1951), a memoir to the A Study of Bolshevism had a straight-forward connotation of the meaning of operational code: the principles of politics, tactics, and strategies of classical Bolsheviks, particularly how such were constructed in the psyches of the leaders. The rest of the section explores the multiple meanings of the term in the 1953 piece highlighting how it attempted to trace and evaluate the content of the ‘Bolshevik Character’ (p. 194), the psychology of Bolshevik politics. He identifies two main shortcomings of the Leites’s contribution to the study of behavioral politics. First, it does take seriously the psychoanalytic hypothesis, which, according to Alexander should be the main interest of political behaviorism research. Second, it does not structure or synthesize political ‘beliefs, rules, and maxim’ associated with the operational code (p. 197).

In sections II, III, and V, the author attempts to merge ideas in the Study with psychoanalysis, historical, philosophical, and sociological political analysis. Section II embeds the concept within the anti-rationalism debate, pointing to how psychoanalytic evaluation of the operational code would serve to fill the lacunas inherent in rational decisions, assuming foreign policy leaders (p. 197-201).  Section III places the analysis within a broader philosophical perspective, subsequently developing five questions which confront foreign policy decision-makers: perspectives on political life and political opponents; prospects that underlie one’s eventual realization of political beliefs; predictability and extent of the political future; perception of one’s role in moving and shaping history; and finally, the position of chance in human affairs and historical developments (p. 201-2015). The fourth section accounts for how psychological variables and philosophical orientations of leaders define their choices of means to political action. The ‘instrumental beliefs of the operational code’ of the Bolsheviks, the author argues, was based on their extreme answers to the five philosophical questions, with the conviction that ‘the party is obliged to seize all opportunities that arise from making advances’ (p. 206) (p. 205-216). Section V presents the argument that the political psychology of foreign policy decision-makers is subject to changing tides of time. He uses the changing nature of the ‘Bolshevik character’ and the attendant revisions of the kind of images they attached to the ‘other’ at different times (i.e., pre, during, and in the post-1962 Cuban Missile to qualify this argument). In tthe last section, the author reiterates his contributions to the operational by pointing to the utility of the questions he posted in each of the four sections for research in political psychology and foreign policy analysis.

Critical Evaluation

The questions that Alexander George possesses in each section of his contribution are core in as much as research in foreign policy analysis is concerned. The contribution is fundamental as it accepts and has been contended by Valerie Hudson, the multidisciplinary nature of the so-called ‘second-generation’/contemporary foreign policy analysis (Hudson, 2005; 2014). However, there are at least three issues of critical importance that should be kept in mind following the author’s analysis of Leites’s Operational Code proposition in the A Study of the Bolshevism.

First, the author’s evaluation should be augmented with recent developments in foreign policy analysis. Such development includes a special emphasis on the actor-specific analysis (see, e.g. Hudson, 2005). This moves beyond group analysis with such notions as Bolshevik character to actor-oriented analysis (e.g., Mikhail Gorbachev or Putin in contemporary Russia). When the ideas postulated in Alexander’s evaluation are used vis-à-vis those of Hudson (2005), foreign policy analysis becomes more practical and deep.

Lastly and equally important, flowing from the first point of critique, the arguments by Alexander and Leites’s can be used to conduct an actor-specific analysis of foreign policy comparatively, particularly in the future directions of the comparative foreign policy method envisaged by professors Rosenau, Herman, Kegley and Zines in 1986. That academic and research venture should concentrate on individual shapers of foreign policies of countries comparatively in two directions. First, comparing two foreign policy actors of different countries in the same period but working at substitutable positions, say for example the presidents or foreign affairs ministers of two or three countries. Secondly, the comparative approach can compare the operational codes of different foreign policy actors of the same country at a different time. However, they have acted with the same positions as their country’s foreign policy-making organizational structure.

Odhiambo Kasera is  graduate student and part-time lecturer at Maseno University.


Hudson, V.M. (2005). Foreign Policy Analysis: Actor-Specific Theory and the Ground of International Relations. Foreign Policy Analysis (2005) 1, P. 1–30.

Caporaso, J.A., Herman, C.F., Kegley, C.W., & Rosenau, N. J., Zinnes, D.A. (1986). The Comparative Study of Foreign Policy: Future Perspectives. The Educational Resources Information Centre (ERIC).

Alexander, M. G. (1969). The "Operational Code": A Neglected Approach to the Study of Political Leaders and Decision-Making. International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 13(), pp. 190-222.

Hudson, V.M. (2014). Foreign Policy Analysis: Classic and Contemporary Theory. Maryland: Rowland & Littlefield. 

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