Foreign Policy: Tools & Instruments


Once formulated, the foreign policy of a country is implemented with the help of several tools available in the tool kit of the foreign office.

This article explains those instruments namely Diplomacy, Economic Diplomacy, Use/Threat of Military Force, Soft Power, and Alliance Building


Once formulated, the foreign policy of a country is implemented with the help of one or more of the following tools available in the tool kit of the foreign office

  1. Diplomacy
  2. Economic Diplomacy: Aid, Trade & Sanctions
  3. Use/Threat of Military Force
  4. Soft Power
  5. Alliance Building
  1. Diplomacy

Diplomacy is the act of dealing with other nations, usually through negotiations and discussions. It involves meetings between political leaders, sending diplomatic messages, and making public statements about the relationship between countries. Diplomacy is as old as international relations. The Amarna letters written between the Pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt and the Amurru rulers of Cannan during the 14th century BCE are one of the oldest diplomatic writings. Ottoman, Byzantine, Chinese, and Roman empires had diplomatic missions. India with its numerous princely states has a rich history of diplomacy. These can be called the predecessors of modern-day diplomatic missions and relations, but there were no defined laws governing diplomats, missions, and mission objectives.

In Europe, early modern diplomacy’s origins are often traced back to Italy in the early renaissance period. The first embassies as we know them were established in the 13th century. The state of Milan in Northern Italy played a leading role in spreading diplomacy through diplomatic missions. Venice and Tuscany were vital, flourishing centers of diplomacy from the 14th century onward. It was in Italy that most of the modern concepts of diplomacy arose. Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince” is the first book that covers the issue of diplomacy. In fact, Machiavelli is considered the founder of modern political science in which diplomacy plays an integral role. Milan was the first state to send a representative to the court of France in 1455, marking the written history of diplomacy.

Most diplomacy occurs behind the scenes as officials hold secret negotiations or meet privately to discuss key issues. Depending on the relative power of a country and the need of the time, states generally pursue diplomacy in one of the three ways:

  1. Unilaterally: The state acts alone, without the assistance or consent of any other state.
  2. Bilaterally: The state works in conjunction with another state.
  3. Multilaterally: The state works in conjunction with several other states.

There are pros and cons to each of these three approaches. Acting unilaterally, for example, allows a state to do what it wants without compromise, but it must also bear all the costs itself. Acting with allies, on the other hand, allows a state to maintain good relations and to share the diplomatic burden, but this often requires compromise.

Diplomacy has been an essential tool of foreign policy in the past and will remain so in the future. However, its success or failure depends upon so many constants and variables that it is difficult to ascertain whether a successful case will result in the efforts of the actors, diplomats as well as political leaders, involved, or the outcome of fortuitous circumstances. Some of the cases of successful diplomatic efforts are as follows

  1. Creation of World Institutions: No one can deny the crucial role the world institutions like the World Bank, the UNO, the IMF, etc have played in preventing wars, helping countries to minimize poverty and develop-all were created as a result of diplomatic processes
  2. Rebuilding the post-WW2 Europe: After the end of the WW2, the USA pumped in $13 billion in economic aid under its Marshall Plan to help its war-ravished European allies stand on their own feet. The plan not only jump-started the European economies but also inhibited the spread of communism, helped in the formation of the NATO plus European Union-both included its former enemies, Italy and Germany.
  3. Preventing Spread of Nuclear Weapons/Technology: Thanks to the diplomatic efforts, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)  succeeded in finalization of the Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT
  4. Rapprochement: The opening to China: President Nixon’s 1972 decision to end its quarter-century hostility towards China is the classic case of diplomacy over non-diplomatic measures. It not only resulted in friendly relations with China but also laid the groundwork for future relations with the Soviet Union, and helped the U.S. exit the Vietnam War.
  5. The Dayton Accords: In November 1995, the Dayton Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended a 3.5-year-long Bosnian War. It was signed in Dayton, Ohio, following negotiations led by the U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, negotiator Richard Holbrooke, and General Wesley Clark.
  6. Rise of the Non-aligned Movement: Non-aligned movement has played an extremely important role in preventing bloodshed creating a platform for a large number of countries to keep themselves aloof from the rivalry of the two antagonistic blocks during the cold war
  7. USA-USSR Détente: Siliralr to the thawing of the relations between China and the USA in 1972, the diplomatic efforts of two countries resulted in lessening of hostilities between the USA and the USSR
  8. Camp David Accords: It was an uphill task to forge a friendship between the Arab countries and Israel; however, the diplomacy bore fruit in the shape of Camp David accords

On the other hand, we can list the following cases where diplomacy was either relegated to a lower position or it did not work

  1. Two World Wars: Both, WW1 & WW2, were classic cases of failures of global diplomacy to avert bloodshed
  2. Dropping of Atomic Bombs: It could have been averted if diplomacy has been effective in the last days of the war.
  3. Iran-IRAQ War: Again the failure of the diplomats or diplomacy not given chance to play its role
  4. US Attack on Afghanistan: Taliban were willing to handover OBL
  5. Syrian Crises: Deliberate efforts to scuttle diplomatic solution
  • Economic Diplomacy

The use of economic and financial tools such as foreign aid, trade concessions/denial, and the imposition of economic sanctions has been one of the most widely used tools of foreign policy in the repertoire of the global and regional powers.

B/1: Foreign Aid

Foreign aid, civilian or military, has been used by all the global and regional powers to achieve the objectives set in the pursuit of safeguarding their respective national interests. There are two types of foreign aid:

  • Military Aid: States donate, sell, or trade military equipment and technology to affect the military balance of power in certain key regions of the world
  • Economic aid: States donate or loan money to other counties to boost economic development.

Thus, economic assistance may be used to prevent friendly governments from falling under the influence of unfriendly ones or as payment for the right to establish or use military bases on foreign soil. Foreign aid also may be used to achieve a country’s diplomatic goals, enabling it to gain diplomatic recognition, to garner support for its positions in international organizations, or to increase its diplomats’ access to foreign officials.

The United States and Soviet Union and their allies during the Cold War used this diplomatic tool to foster political alliances and strategic advantages; it was withheld to punish states that seemed too close to the other side. The Marshall Plan not only helped the war-ravaged European countries to stand again on their own feet but also obviated the possibility of some of them falling under the influence of the USSR. Similarly, the USA and the USSR huge amounts of civilian and military aid to less-developed countries for gaining influence and stopping them to join the opposing camp.

However, every piece of foreign aid provided is not for pure self-interest; countries also provide aid to relieve the suffering caused by natural or man-made disasters such as famine, disease, and war, to promote economic development, to help establish or strengthen political institutions, and to address a variety of transnational problems including disease, terrorism, and other crimes, and destruction of the environment.

B/2: Trade Concessions/Denial

Along with the foreign aid, it is the trade-related measures that have been intertwined with the foreign policy as a two-way process.  Sometimes foreign policy is tailored to promote trade expansion and sometimes trade concessions/denial are used to achieve foreign policy objectives. For example, the European Union uses its GSP PLUS concessions to extract its foreign policy objectives of social compliance from those countries which it deems violating labour laws and thus adversely affects its own competitiveness. Similarly, the imposition of high tariffs on Chines imports into the USA is nothing but the use of its trade to achieve its foreign policy objectives.

On the other hand, countries use foreign policy tools such as military power or economic diplomacy, to gain access to other countries’ resources or markets. In the 3rd century BCE, China used its military power to maintain the Silk Road for its value for trade. Presently, it is using its Belt and Road Initiative/OBOR for the same purposes. Commodore Perry sailed to Japan 1853-54 to open that market to U.S. trade, and eleven years later the United States concluded the Treaty of Wangxia with China, again to support trade.  In each case, foreign policy was enlisted to serve national trade interests.

B/3: Economic Sanctions

It is the favourite tool of the foreign policy of the USA and its allies whereby they impose economic sanctions ranging from banning the imports from or exports to a country deemed to be hostile towards their national interest. The conventional wisdom is that economic sanctions do not work, i.e. they have a low rate of success. One quantitative study estimates that they have a success rate of 35% . To describe this success rate as low, however, implies some criterion of judgment, a criterion that is rarely specified. Is 0.350 a low batting average for a baseball player?

  • Use/Threat of Military Force

Carl Philipp von Clausewitz, a Prussian general, and military theorist rightly stated that “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”. In some cases, states use military force or the threat of military force to achieve their foreign policy objectives. The use of military forces often involves stronger states pressuring weaker states to get what they want. The practice of forcing a weak state to comply with a stronger state via the threat of force is known as gunboat diplomacy. It refers to the pursuit of foreign policy objectives with the aid of conspicuous displays of naval power, implying or constituting a direct threat of warfare should terms not be agreeable to the superior force.

In the final days of World War II, Finland reached a peace agreement with the Soviet Union. Even though both countries knew that the Soviets could have easily overwhelmed the Finns, neither wanted war, and the Soviets preferred to use their military elsewhere. The terms of the peace treaty basically gave the Soviets everything they wanted, so much so that Finland almost became a puppet of the Soviet Union.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States relied on the strength of its nuclear and conventional weapons to deter the Soviet Union from invading Western Europe.

  • Soft Power

Lately, the use of soft power enjoyed by a state in the form of its cultural superiority, historical relationship or the clout enjoyed by a state’s Diaspora has gained currency as a tool of foreign policy. Introduced by Joseph Nye in the 1980s as a policy instrument in international relations, “soft power” is the ability to influence the behaviour of others to get the outcomes you want. It stresses on co-opting and inducing people rather than coercing them with threats. As such, it can be contrasted with ‘hard power’, which is the use of coercion and payment. Although Soft power is a policy instrument for a nation-state, it is mostly used by NGOs or international institutions to obtain the outcomes they want.

A country’s soft power, according to Nye, rests on three resources namely a)its culture that must be attractive to others), b)its political values when it lives up to them at home and abroad, and c) its foreign policies when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority. In his words

“A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it. In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power – getting others to want the outcomes that you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them.”

Soft power resources are the assets that produce attraction which often leads to acquiescence. Nye asserts that “Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive. However, it must be remembered that soft power is a double-edged weapon;  if the citizens of a country are attracted by the ideas, ideals, and policies of another state, they can also be repelled by these very traits if they are repulsive enough to create a bad image of the state or society. Obviously, in this respect, the role of media cannot be overemphasised.

The Soft Power 30, an annual index published by Portland Communications and the USC Center on Public Diplomacy for 2018, ranked the Western countries as the leading sovereign states in soft power with the United Kingdom at the top. On the other hand, the 2016/17 Monocle Soft Power Survey ranked the United States as the leading country in soft power. Both the Soft Power 30 and Monocle gave France the top spot in 2019.

  • Alliance Building

Building alliances with those who mutually share their views on foreign policy issues is an age-old practice and has been used successfully throughout history for waging wars or defending against foreign aggression. From the early writing of the Indian philosopher Kautilya, more than two thousand years ago to modern-day scholars, alliances have been treated as a universal component of the relations between political units irrespective of their degree of organisation and location in time and space. This state of affairs, it is maintained, will be continued in the foreseeable future.

While alliance-building can be a useful instrument to ward off the threat of foreign aggression, it also entails the possibility of unnecessary involvement in an unwanted war started by one member of the alliance. Several studies find that such defensive alliances deter conflict while many question these findings. In fact, it is generally believed that alliance commitments deterred conflict in the pre-nuclear era but have no statistically meaningful impact on war in the post-nuclear era. Another study finds that while alliance commitments deter conflict between sides with a recent history of conflict, alliances tend to provoke conflicts between states without such a history.

Most research suggests that democracies are more reliable allies than non-democracies. One of the most profound effects of alliances can be seen in technological innovation, due to conduits of knowledge flows that are open between allies but closed between rivals.

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

Previous Post
Next Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *