Determinants of Foreign Policy


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 heads namely National Interest, Strategic Culture, and Regional Apparatus for ease of understanding and memorisation.


The foreign policy of a country is basically an extension of its domestic policies; rather the other side of the same coin and as such aims to achieve the same objectives as are set for the other policies for the pursuit of national interest. Consequently, 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. They range from the geographical location of the country and the historical experiences of the nation-state on the one hand to the nature of global environments and institutional profile of the policy makers on the other. Nothing objectionable in such list-making except it becomes too unwieldy to remember. Accordingly, I have categorized all the important determinants of foreign policy under the following three heads namely

  1. National Interest
  2. Strategic Culture
  3. Regional Apparatus

Let me explain them in a bit of detail

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. While Morgenthau equated it with “survival—the protection of physical, political and cultural identity against encroachments by other nation-states”, Charles Lerche defined it as the “general, long term and continuing purpose which the state, the nation, and the government all see themselves as serving.” 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. Some of these may be due to its own historical and structural contradictions or may originate from abroad, sometimes threatening its very existence. Accordingly, a state formulates a comprehensive national policy consisting of a host of social, economic, and political policies to ensures 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 improves 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 own 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.

  • 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.

Since the foreign policy of a nation is made and implemented by leaders, statesmen, and diplomats, all human beings, how they perceive the national interest and their image of the external and global environment has much to do with the making of foreign policy as the final decision regarding foreign matters lies in their hands. Strategic culture provides national security policymakers a conceptual lens and framework to gain insights into how nation-states have behaved in the past and will possibly do in the future. This gives decision-makers a means to undertake reasonable and limited speculation as to the immediate-future state behaviour over perceptions, interpretation, and implementation of national security policy.

Components of Strategic Culture

The strategic culture of any nation-state is a synergistic result of the following five constants and variables

  1. Geography
  2. History
  3. Economy
  4. Society
  5. Polity

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. In fact, 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; it is a nightmare scenario for the military commanders to defend a country that has not enough geographical depth to withstand deep foreign aggression. Related to the above is the availability of natural and human resources which determine the response capability and morale of the leaders

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. For example, take the case of the Middle East. Due to certain historical legacies, combined with its geostrategic location, abundant resources, and regional/global power politics, the Middle East has been in turmoil for the last half a century or so.

Or take the case of Afghanistan; if the Middle East as a region has a unique geopolitical significance, Afghanistan as a country has been enjoying this distinction. Because of its geostrategic importance, located in the middle of four centers of powers-Middle East, Central Asia (former USSR), China, and South Asia respectively, Afghanistan provides the vital corridor for the movement of goods and armies. If for the USSR, it was its soft belly, Afghanistan is the back yard of Pakistan and gateway to India. China prizes it as one of the most important corridors for reaching the Middle East and Central Asia while Iran touts it for the same reason as Pakistan-its back yard which could cause trouble if not kept in check.

The respective isolations of two countries namely the United States and the United Kingdom have tremendously influenced the general character of their foreign policies. In fact, their location has created for them a similar sense of security as the vastness of size has conferred upon Russia and China.

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. If a specific policy had proved to be rewarding in the past, policy-makers would-like to try the same policy for tackling similar situations in the future. On the contrary, if a particular policy had proved to be a failure to deal with a situation, the policy-makers would try a different policy under an identical situation in the future.

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 an 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 the 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 the course of international bargaining.

Once on a particular problem public opinion is mobilized and expressed in clear terms, it becomes difficult for the government to overlook it while deciding on the issue in question.  For example, Pakistan’s ruling elite may have a soft corner for recognising Israel, but will never do it, at least in foreseeable future because of the strong public opinion to have any truck with a Zionist state. Presently, the foreign policies of most of the Middle Eastern countries have sectarian overtones, thanks to their respective national ethos.

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 in three different ways.

Firstly, the stage of the economic development of a country 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. Similarly, a palm oil exporter cannot annoy its biggest buyer while supporting or opposing an issue that has a sensitive value for the buyer. All the above factors would determine the thinking process of policy makers to join or refuse to join any alliance

Secondly, it determines the amount of influence one has in the global arena. Is the economic base of the country large enough to bear the costs of defence and costs of war for a sustainable period? Is it growing at a respectable rate to produce enough surplus to sustain both-public welfare and defence. 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 a developing nation.

One of the main reasons why the US foreign policy has been very often successful in securing its national objectives, particularly concerning the poor and economically lowly placed states of the world is the high degree of its economic development enabling it to use foreign aid as a tool for securing its foreign policy goals. The global perspectives and policies of the two super-powers (1945-90) were again governed by their vast economic and industrial resources and their needs for foreign markets and trade.

Thirdly, the image building; nothing succeeds like success and nothing fails like failure. 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 the donors for bailouts. Devote maximum energies to economic development including human and social development for a decade and see how your country gets a prominent place in the global rankings in all the indices.

B/5. Strategic Culture: Polity

Who are the dominant decision-makers in foreign policy formulation determines the direction, contents, and priorities of its foreign policy? If the armed forces are calling the shots, then the foreign policy will be heavily biased towards the security imperatives. If elected representatives in charge of the foreign policy process, it will be the well being of the public interest taking 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 is slow but stable; however, in an authoritarian state, it will be quick but maybe short term. The organisation and structure of government i.e. the organisational agencies which handle the foreign policy-making and implementation is another important element of foreign policy.

The shape of the foreign policy is also determined by the fact as to whether the government agencies handling it are democratically constituted or not. Whether the authority relations are centralized or decision-making is free and open. Government officials also act as decision-makers and this factor always influences the formulation of foreign policy.

  • Regional Apparatus

The third set of determinants of the foreign policy of a country can be discussed under what is known as its Regional Apparatus 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. Different from the strategic culture which refers to the mindset of the policy makers formed over a period, Regional Apparatus is the appreciation of the current ground realities-what is happening at the point of time; as such it is an objective assessment of the current situation and would change with the change in any constant or variable.

Components of Regional Apparatus

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

  • Regional Geopolitical Dynamics
  • Global Politics
  • Trends & Events

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

C/1. 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. Shifting international distribution of economic and military power has created new centers of growth and conflict in different regions. Inequality of relative national power of the countries in any region creates its own regional dynamics. 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. Thus a country affected by a regional conflict or crisis will try to co-opt those state and non-state actors whose national interest aligns with its national interest in adopting a particular strategy. 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. Global Politics

Although the sources of any bilateral conflict (i.e., boundary dispute)  or a regional crisis (i.e., water distribution among the countries in a region) may be indigenous, they invariably get exacerbated by the impact of the capitalist world economy. Sooner or later, there is economic/strategic penetration by major powers into these regional conflicts because the global powers having global agenda, are every country’s neighbour. 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. However, it is a two-way street- major powers are also affected by the regional conflicts in which they have become entangled in a competitive fashion.

The foreign policy of every country has two inter-dependent components namely proactive and reactive. In the case of the former, the country tries to pursue its foreign policy goals by taking an active part in global relations i.e., finding new markets to sell its exportable surplus. However, in the case of reactive mode, it tries to respond to the challenges posed or opportunities offered by the global trends and events.

For example, a civil war in one’s neighbourhood may result in an influx of refugees, forcing it to take certain policy decisions. It is a foreign policy in reactive mode. Similarly, during the period of the Cold War-1, a large number of countries benefited from the opportunities offered and joined one block or the other to safeguard their national interest. Similarly, the evolving Cold War-2 between China and the USA are posing challenges to several countries as they will have to, sooner or later, take clear positions.

Response to these challenges will affect the direction and content of foreign policies of all these countries positively or adversely. Like the external situational factors, sudden changes, disturbances, or disorders that occur within the internal environment of a nation also influence the nature and course of foreign policy. Winning or losing of Donald Trump during the coming American elections would a catalyst for the change of contours of the foreign policies of many countries

Not to lose sight of the world public opinion in the formulation of the foreign policy of a country. Domestic public opinion of developed countries on such issues serves as a determinant of the foreign policy of the less developed countries; no country howsoever powerful can go ever-challenging world public opinion

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. Thus you have to enact strict labour laws to discontinue child labour if you want to increase the exports of your country-an an important foreign policy goal. Similarly, 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. Regional 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.

Similarly, Islamophobia is souring the relations between the Muslim-majority states and the West European countries. Besides the above two, a few other global trends could be the rising Sub-nationalism in any region, arms race & Nuclear Proliferation, and Globalisation. All these above-mentioned trends pose serious challenges to almost every country, forcing the respective states to respond to them.

From the e-book “International Relations; Basic Concepts & Global Issues- A Handbook”, published by Amazon and available at

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