Foreign policy is neither formulated nor operates in a vacuum, rather, it is a conditioned response to the events and trends prevailing in the environment, both domestic and external. In normal discussions, you will find a long list of determinants of the foreign policy of a country.
This article categorizes all the important determinants of foreign policy under three headings: national National Interest, Strategic Culture, and Regional Apparatus for ease of understanding and memorization.
Throughout history, every state has had one overriding objective-improving the quality of life of its citizens. This, in turn, has three interrelated and interdependent components
- Standard of Living: Increasing the quantity, quality and access to economic goods and services-food, shelter, clothing, health, education, etc.)
- Good Governance: Increasing the quantity, quality and access of political goods and services-protection from external aggression, internal law and order, access to justice, political empowerment, etc.
- Social Development: Increasing the quantity, quality and access of social goods and services; a classless society, equality of opportunity, cultural enhancement, absence of discrimination based on race, religion, gender, etc.
To achieve this objective, the government formulates a set of interrelated and interdependent national policies relating to social, economic, and political fields, along with suitable strategies to implement them.
Foreign policy is one component of this set of national policies.
A country’s foreign policy can be defined as the strategies it chooses to safeguard its national interests and achieve its goals by interacting with other countries and non-state actors. A complex, and iterative process involving multiple stakeholders, it is neither formulated nor operates in a vacuum, rather, it is a conditioned response to the events and trends prevailing in the environment, both domestic and external.
Determinants of Foreign Policy
In normal discussions, you will find a long list of determinants of the foreign policy of a country. There is nothing objectionable in such list-making except that it becomes too unwieldy to remember. Accordingly, in this article, I have discussed these multiple determinants of foreign policy under the following three headings:
A. National Interest
B. Strategic Culture
C. Security Apparatus (Regional/Global)
I hope this framework will become a standard tool of analysis for discussing the determinants of the foreign policy of any country.
Let me explain them in a bit of detail
A. National Interest
National interest carries a meaning depending on the context in which it is used by statesmen and policymakers to justify the actions of their states. For this article, we can agree with the Brookings Institute which defines it in the following way:
“What a nation feels to be necessary to its security and wellbeing... National interest reflects the general and continuing ends for which a nation acts.”
Components of National Interest
Every nation-state faces multifarious challenges, either due to internal dynamics or external situations. Accordingly, a state formulates a comprehensive national policy consisting of a host of social, economic, and political policies to ensure that its vital interests are safeguarded.
Foreign policy is part and parcel of this national policy, which is formulated to achieve the objectives set to safeguard its national interest and consists of the following four interrelated and interdependent components;
A/1. Maintaining Territorial Integrity
The first component of a country’s national interest is to maintain its territorial integrity and national sovereignty by being able to defend itself from any external aggression and taking all the decisions without being under duress or the command of outside forces.
A/2. Economic Wellbeing of the People
The second component of the national interest of a country is the well-being of its citizens by ensuring decent standards of living for its populace. This, in turn, is dependent on a country growing at a rate commensurate with its survival and growth needs.
A/3. Maintaining Internal Order/Cohesion
The third component of the national interest of a country is to maintain internal cohesion and harmony among its diverse communities. If some groups cross the limits set in the national interest, it may weaken the very foundations of the state and create an existential threat to the country. Thus, the national interest of the country lies in containing that unrest instead of improving its cohesion.
A/4. Preserving Regional Peace
Lastly, the preservation of regional peace and stability is an essential component of the national interest of a country. No country, however powerful it may be, can live in peace and enjoy prosperity if there is turmoil just outside its borders; a civil war in a neighbouring country results in an influx of refugees with attendant consequences.
As a part of its overall national policy, the foreign policy of a country strives to achieve the objectives set to safeguard its national interests described above. For example, to ensure its territorial integrity and preserve its national sovereignty, a state must have well-trained and well-equipped defence forces as well as a defence armament capability. As such, one of the prime objectives of foreign policy would be to cultivate friendly relations with those countries that are capable of meeting their needs for requisite military equipment.
Similarly, to improve the standard of living of its citizens, a state must have a vibrant economy growing at a reasonable rate, for which it needs access to foreign markets not only to ensure an uninterrupted supply of essential resources, including technology but also to sell its exportable surplus at competitive rates. Only a vibrant foreign policy can help a country achieve this objective.
B. Strategic Culture
While the prime driver of the contents and direction of the foreign policy of a country is its national interest, it is the mindset of the ruling elite that ultimately defines the national interest and formulates the objectives to be achieved and how. Known as the Strategic Culture in academic discussions, this mindset is a set of shared beliefs, assumptions, and modes of behaviour derived from common experiences and accepted narratives. It is this strategic culture that shapes the collective identity of the country and determines the appropriate ends and means to accomplish its national security objectives.
Components of Strategic Culture
The strategic culture of any nation-state is a synergistic result of the following six constants and variables:
Let me explain them in a bit more detail
B/1. Strategic Culture: Geography
A country’s unique geographical location, availability of resources, relative size, topography, shape, and climate have a tremendous impact on its foreign policy. Geography is said to be 80% of the foreign policy of a country, and rightly so. You cannot change your neighbours with whom you have to interact most, and formulate your foreign policy accordingly. The geographical shape and contours of a country also have a lot to do with the development of its strategic culture. Similarly, the geostrategic location of a country can be an asset or a liability, depending on the prevailing geopolitical situation. Sometimes, a small country with a geostrategic location or abundant availability of a natural resource can play a larger-than-life role in international politics.
No doubt, new technological developments such as supersonic jets, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and rockets have lessened the importance of the geography of a country in the overall calculus of its foreign policy formulation, yet the importance of geography is still intact as the most important pillar of the foreign policy of every state.
B/2. Strategic Culture: History
After geography, it is the history of the country that plays an extremely important role in the formation of the strategic culture of a country. Learning lessons and taking cues from the historical legacies, i.e., how it came into existence, the travails and traumas, past war and peace experiences, failures, and successes, etc., the strategic elite of the country develops a perception about the challenges the country is facing and how to respond to them.
B/3. Strategic Culture: Society
The structure and nature of society, the nature of social groups, and the degree of conflict and harmony among various social groups are also important determinants of the foreign policy of a country. A society characterized by strong internal conflict and strife acts as a source of weakness for foreign policy. A society of united, enlightened, and disciplined people with a high degree of group harmony is always a source of strength. It materially influences their ability to secure the objectives of national interest during international bargaining.
B/4. Strategic Culture: Economy
The contents, contours, and focus of the foreign policy of any country are directly dependent upon its stage of economic development, which determines the direction of a country’s foreign policy in pursuit of access to sources of supply of the resources needed as well as the markets for the exportable surplus. Thus, a country desperately needing to import oil has to maintain friendly relations with one or more oil-producing and exporting countries.
Secondly, it determines the amount of influence one has in the global arena. That’s why the developed countries have much clout to play a larger-than-life role in global affairs because of their huge technologically advanced export surplus and the necessary wherewithal to offer aid and trade concessions to those still developing nations.
Thirdly, image building; other things being equal, if a country is experiencing a healthy growth rate over a period of time, its image automatically starts improving. No one gives two hoots to a country that is constantly begging donors for bailouts.
B/5. Strategic Culture: Polity
Who are the dominant decision-makers in foreign policy formulation to determine the direction, contents, and priorities of its foreign policy? If the armed forces are calling the shots, then foreign policy will be heavily biased towards the security imperatives. If elected representatives are in charge of the foreign policy process, the well-being of the public will take precedence.
Similarly, the political structure of the country, whether democratic or authoritarian, would have a significant bearing on its foreign policy formulation. In a country run according to modern democratic principles and practice, this process will be slow but stable; however, in an authoritarian state, it will be quick but maybe short-term.
B/6. Strategic Culture: Technology
The introduction of technology into any field is disruptive; it forces you to not only change your ways of working as it requires new skills to use it in an environment dictated by the technology itself, but also compels you to think differently. Think about the introduction of word processing software, which displaced typewriters, and you can easily understand what I mean. The introduction of military technology is no exception.
It changes the way the military elite perceives the threats posed by the acquisition of new military technology by the adversary and how to respond to that new threat; they in turn change the mindset of the political elite, which is to take the final decision. Thus, if the enemy has acquired ballistic missiles, we need to counter that threat by acquiring the anti-ballistic missile system on the one hand and also acquiring the missiles ourselves from the same source or their equivalents. That means our foreign policy will have a marked tilt towards those countries that can provide us with missiles. North Korea? Yes, that is why a country like Pakistan has such cozy relations with North Korea, which is otherwise considered a pariah in global politics.
C. Regional Apparatus
Different from the strategic culture, which refers to the mindset of the policymakers formed over a period, the Regional Apparatus is the appreciation of the current ground realities, i.e., the current situation in the region or at the global level, which could, adversely or positively, impact the efforts of a country to safeguard its national interest. As such, it is an objective assessment of the current situation and would change with any change in any constant or variable.
Components of Security Apparatus
Generally, there are three interdependent and interrelated determinants of a country’s regional apparatus.
1. Regional Geopolitical Dynamics
2. Global Politics
3. Trends and Events
All these are given, over which the country has no control but must react to safeguard its national interests.
C/1. Security Apparatus: Regional Geopolitical Dynamics
Geopolitical configurations refer to the formal and informal alliances made by the countries in a region among themselves or with those outside the region to safeguard their respective national interests in any given situation. Several triggers could change the geopolitical situation even in the short term. Regional hegemonic states are interested in safeguarding their national interests, which could give rise to regional conflicts. Border disputes, one of the legacies of colonialism, are another source of regional conflicts.
Lastly, all regional politics is not conflictual; there are marriages of convenience among countries to safeguard their interests. These regional alliances and antagonisms may also have the blessing of global powers. However, these regional configurations are not cast in iron; they can, and do change as per the requirements of the situation
C/2. Security Apparatus: Fallout of Global Politics
The global powers with a global agenda, are every country’s neighbours. Accordingly, their mutual interaction in the form of diplomatic support, economic assistance, and/or military aid would affect the foreign policies of every country in the region.
Similarly, in a rapidly globalising world, a country cannot just ignore the global citizenry’s sensitivities towards some issues such as human rights, environmental degradation, child labour, etc. For example, strict compliance with environmental laws is a demand of the general public in Western countries; ignore them and be prepared for a social boycott of your exports.
C/3. Security Apparatus: Trends and Events
Lastly, there are trends and events that may or may not have any input from global politics but may affect every country, directly or indirectly. The looming threat of Climate Change is one such trend that needs global action, irrespective of the political affiliation of any country. The same is the case concerning the coronavirus pandemic, which needs global cooperation for its containment, and final elimination. Or take the case of global terrorism, which needs regional and global efforts to be contained.
From my book “International Relations: Basic Concepts and Global Issues”, published by Amazon and available at