|dc.description.abstract||This thesis seeks to advance understandings of why states’ foreign policy decisions vary when the material and social conditions underpinning their interests have not changed. It focuses on American foreign policy, and specifically on US decisions on whether to use military force abroad. It works to show that variation in these types of decisions can best be explained through an emphasis on the different types of ideas that emerge in debates within presidential administrations, rather than through adopting rationalist approaches making generalised presumptions of state self-interest.
Since the end of the Cold War, the US has remained a great power and enjoyed relative stability in coalitional alignments. Despite this relative stability in material and relational conditions, however, decisions to use military force abroad have varied considerably across cases, including in humanitarian crises in the Balkans in the early 1990s, the War on Terror from 2001, and more recent conflicts in Libya and Syria. But what explains this variation? Existing rationalist theoretical approaches in International Relations have often pointed to crises and “exogenous shocks” to explain variation in foreign policy interests. In doing so, they have emphasised rational self-interest, presuming that agents use information efficiently in efforts to pursue either material or ideational bases of state interests. Yet, realist, liberal, and constructivist scholars have struggled to explain variation in state interests in the absence of either a change in the international distribution of material capabilities or in the face of ideational change. For example, in regard to possible intervention in Bosnia in the early 1990s, President George H.W. Bush urged restraint, arguing that the conflict was fuelled by “ancient, ethnic animosities”, and that the US “did not have a dog in the fight”. His successor, Bill Clinton, initially adopted the same approach. Yet, following the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, it became clear that the existing approach to conflict in Bosnia had become a “cancer” in US foreign policy. As such, Clinton demanded a new policy which ultimately led the US intervene and bring the Bosnian War to an end through Operation Deliberate Force. Similarly, despite professing a foreign policy of restraint, President Barack Obama would become drawn into intervention in Libya in 2011 despite their being “no vital security interests” at stake. An approach focussing on a states’ rational pursuit of self-interest would face severe challenges in seeking to explain the decisions ultimately made in either case. Overall, such approaches tend to underrate uncertainty and overrate interpretive efficiency in foreign policy decision-making.
This thesis develops an alternate theoretical framework focussed on the role of ideas in influencing the interpretations by states’ principal foreign policy decision-makers of foreign policy interests. Building on Vivien Schmidt’s discursive institutionalist framework, it highlights how agents use different types of ideas — principled or cognitive — as “weapons” as they contest the meaning of events. It focuses on two key mechanisms — narrative displacement and repressive conversion — through which agents come to rely on these different types of ideas as they either repress or displace different sources of information. In doing so, it provides an explanation of how decisions to use force vary as agents come to rely on principled or cognitive types of ideas in their interpretations of foreign policy interests.||