Determinants of Foreign Policy: A New Framework

Shahid H. Raja
9 min readSep 18, 2019



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

  1. Standard of Living: Increasing the quantity, quality and access of economic goods and services-food, shelter, clothing, health, education etc.
  2. 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.
  3. Social Development: Increasing the quantity, quality and access of social goods and services- classless society, equality of opportunity, cultural enhancement, absence of discrimination based on race, religion and gender etc.

To achieve this objective, the government formulates a set of interrelated and inter-dependent 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 chosen by it to safeguard its national interests and to achieve its goals by interacting with other countries and with 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. Nothing objectionable in such list-making except it becomes too unwieldy to remember. Accordingly, in this article, I have discussed these multiple determinants of foreign policy under the following three heads namely

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 per the context in which it is used by the statesmen and policy-makers for justifying 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 a part and parcel of this national policy which is formulated to achieve the objectives set to safeguard its national interest which 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 can take all the decisions without being under duress or 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 upon 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 under the national interest, it may weaken the very foundations of the state and create an existential threat for the country. Thus the national interest of the country lies in containing that unrest and instead of improving their cohesion.

A/4. Preserving Regional Peace

Lastly, it is the preservation of regional peace and stability is an essential component of the national interest of a country. No country howsoever powerful 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 the 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 interest 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 its defence armaments capability. As such, one of the prime objectives of the foreign policy would be to cultivate friendly relations with those countries that are capable of meeting its need for requisite military equipment.

Similarly, for improving 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 to 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

1. Geography

2. History

3. Economy

4. Society

5. Polity

6. Technology

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 the strategic culture. Similarly, the geostrategic location of a country can be an asset or liability depending upon the prevailing geopolitical situation. Sometimes, a small country with a geostrategic location or abundant availability of a natural resource can play larger than life role in international politics.

No doubt, new technological developments such as supersonic jets, inter-continental 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 which plays an extremely important role in the making 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 the society, the nature of social groups, and the degree of conflict and harmony among various social groups is also important determinant of the foreign policy of a country. A society characterised 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

Contents, contours, and focus of the foreign policy of any country are directly dependent upon its stage of economic development as it determines the direction of a country’s foreign policy in pursuit of access to sources of supply of 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 plus 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, 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, it will be the well-being of the public interest takes precedence.

Similarly, the political structure of the country, 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

C. Regional Apparatus

Different from the strategic culture which refers to the mindset of the policymakers formed over a period, 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 upon efforts of a country to safeguard its national interest. As such it is an objective assessment of the current situation and would change with the change in any constant or variable.

Components of Security Apparatus

Generally, there are three inter-dependent and inter-related determinants of a country’s regional apparatus

  1. Regional Geopolitical Dynamics

2. Global Politics

3. Trends & Events

All these are given over which the country has no control but must react to safeguard its national interest

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 interest in any given situation. Several triggers could change the geopolitical situation even in short term. Regional hegemonic states are interested to safeguard their national interest 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 conveniences among countries to safeguard their interests. These regional alliances and antagonism may have the blessing of global powers also. 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 having 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 the social boycott of your exports.

C/3. Security Apparatus: Trends & Events

Lastly, there are trends and events which 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 needing 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 contain.


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