Graham Allison’s Conceptual Models

Assessing Allison’s Models:

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Contemporary Evaluation of Graham T. Allison’s Three Conceptual Models as Explanations for the 2003 War in Iraq

In 1969, Harvard University’s Graham T. Allison revolutionized foreign policy with his American Political Science Review article, “Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” creating three theoretical models that are still widely references in international relations theory today: Rational Policy Model, Organizational Process Model, and Bureaucratic Politics Model. While some have heeded the models as infallible, others have suggested their need for reconditioning. In their 1992 study, Jonathan Bendor of Stanford University and Thomas H. Hammond of Michigan State University found that “the models require substantial reformation” by subjecting them to a “systematic critical analysis” (301). Other scholars, like Andrew Farkas, have considered one of Allison’s models — in his case Rational Actor Model — and critiqued the model based on other factors, such as psychological data (343). In addition to the scholarship that has already been done in regards to the applicability of Allison’s models across foreign policy situations, an evaluation of the models in terms of contemporary foreign policy decisions is still necessary. When writing his exposition of the models, Allison chose the Cuban Missile Crisis, a foreign policy decision that had the ability to impact the world on a scale larger than had ever been witnessed before. According to Allison, the Cuban Missile Crisis was “a seminal event,” that included “a higher probability that more human loves would end suddenly than ever before in history” (689). In order to test the models’ contemporary value, therefore, they must be evaluated against the “seminal event” of contemporary history, the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. By weighting each of Allison’s three models against this decision, students of foreign policy will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of the models in regards to both the War in Iraq and in general.

II. Rational Policy Model

According to Allison, the Rational Policy Model was not an original work. Instead, it was the model that “most analysts” used to “explain (and predict) the behavior of national governments” (690). With its foundation in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, analysts and foreign policy leaders certainly had been using this method to evaluate foreign policy decisions and situations since the seventeenth century, as this model is the one that supposes sovereign states as rational and unitary actors. In regards to a more modern issue — the Cuban Missile Crisis — Allison suggests that the model is still effective, describing the Soviet Union’s decision to place missiles in Cuba during the stages of detente as a rational policy developed by a rational government (Allison 691-693). The same can be done regarding the Iraq War of 2003. In order to visualize the theory, Graham breaks the Rational Policy Model into a “Rational Policy Paradigm” inspired by sociologist Robert K. Merton (Allison 693). The same paradigm can be applied to the War in Iraq.

In this model, Allison requires that the foreign policy decision be made solely by the sovereign state in line with strategic solutions that will maximize the state’s best interests and answer a strategic problem. The United States’ decision to go to war in Iraq certainly meets these criteria. Because the conflict is new, and a series of committees have been involved in its analysis already, several possible motivations for going to war in Iraq have been formed. Among them are Iraq’s support of terrorists in the form of harboring terrorists and supporting them financially, retaliation for certain acts of terrorism or support for terrorists, human rights violations, and the desire for oil (Hayes, Woods and Lacey, “White House”). By using the official reason for the war, however, the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, students of foreign policy can examine how the United States served as a unitary rational actor, a requirement for this model. Although the United States went before the United Nations with its grievance, suggesting Iraq had nuclear weapons, the state decided on its own to go to war. While most of the world saw this as an act of defiance, it is the embodiment of the model: the United States saw going to war in its best interests in order to vanquish a potential future threat, and did so unitarily. Thus, the United States made a unitary and rational decision to go to war as a strategic solution to the problem of Iraqi threats. According to this traditional view, the decision to go to war in Iraq is a foreign policy decision that can be well explained by the Rational Policy Model.

III. Organizational Processes Model

In this foreign policy model, Allison suggests that the government can be likened to members on a football team (698). While the team, or government, is one large organization, it is made up of individual organizations, the players. According to Allison, the government is run much like this because the sheer size forces certain sectors to be in charge of certain areas. In most cases, Allison argues, the actions that these organizations must take is already predetermined, put together by a strategic plan that informs each organization what to do in the event of certain actions. Again, Allison uses the football analogy to compare these organizations to members of a team who know their plays in advance and react appropriately. Even though plans may be set out, however, teams and governments cannot always react according to plan. Players and organizations change, and circumstances may occur that make running a particular play irrelevant. Because organizations within the government are often semi-independent, the second model views the primary foreign policy actor as the government as an “output” of individual organizations, the primary problem as “fractionalized” among many different agencies, and the primary result as a collective action of these agencies, though some may have had more information or a greater role in planning the foreign policy action than others (Allison 698-700).

One can view the decision to go to war in Iraq in light of this second paradigm as well. The major government organizations involved in going to war were President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, the United States Congress, and the United States troops. According to Allison’s second model, the organizations (executive, legislative, and military), fractionalized the decision to go to war in Iraq. The executive organization, President George W. Bush, with his top officials and cabinet, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, were responsible for gathering information regarding a potential attack. Bush, Powell, and the remainder of the executive branch heard U.N. briefings, CIA information, and strategic military plans. Powell was responsible for presenting evidence to the United States Congress, in order to seek the authorization for war. Finally, the U.S. congress was responsible for voting on the act that would send troops to Iraq. From this point, the military branch of the government took center stage. Military strategists and ranking officials were tasked with forming plans for invasion, defense, and success, and troops were given orders to carry out. When the invasion began, therefore, the United States government as a coalition of organizations and branches achieved the foreign policy of invading Iraq together.

Since the 2003 invasion, the war in Iraq has been the source of much criticism. One of those critiques has been a lack of communication between organizations such as the FBI, CIA, and UN. This Organizational Processes Model may well give an excellent explanation for that lack of communication. Because the decision to go to war was fractionalized between the agencies of the government — although the UN is not an agency of the United States Government, it was included in the decision and the fractionalization process — a lack of communication, organization, and access to information may have resulted in an error in judgment for the government as a whole. Although evidence has not been properly examined to determine whether or not this indeed occurred, the Organizational Processes Model should be consulted when the war is analyzed in the future to determine whether or not a communication error aided to the waging for this controversial war.

III. Bureaucratic Politics Model

The third and final model suggested by Allison is the Bureaucratic Politics Model, in which foreign policy decisions are viewed as results of a political game (707). According to this model, bureaucrats and leaders at the top of government organizations negotiate and bargain with other bureaucrats and leaders in order to come to a political foreign policy decision that satisfies a conglomeration of needs in the best possible manner. Solutions are not seen as rational answers to strategic problems, nor as the result of organizational fractionalization, therefore, but instead as the result of bargains between high-ranking officials in various positions of various governments. Unlike both the Rational Policy Model and the Organizational Processes Model, the Bureaucratic Politics Model does not focus on one problem, but on a series of international problems, the solutions of which may work out as a network solution in order to create the least amount of international damage.

Thus, foreign policy decisions are not actually decisions at all, but rather unplanned outcomes that result from “compromise, coalition, competition, and confusion among government officials who see different faces of an issue” (708). Though Allison once again uses the analogy of players to illustrate this model, these players are not all on the same team. Instead, the players are political bureaucrats attempting to win the game by getting the best solution to their problems without loosing their own world interests.

A variety of theories about the decision to go to War in Iraq suggest that the Bureaucratic Politics Model may be an excellent fit to the foreign policy decision. The most prominent is the theory that the War in Iraq was essentially a war for oil. According to Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve and a conservative, in his 2007 biography, the United States went to war in Iraq in order to protect U.S. oil interests that were threatened by Saddam Hussein (Paterson). Whether or not this motivation for the foreign policy decision is legitimate is a question that must still be tested, but the proposed motivation would resemble an application of the Bureaucratic Policy Model. At the top of his country, bureaucrat George W. Bush failed in negotiation with bureaucrat Saddam Hussein. The failure of this negotiation resulted in a military struggle instead of a peaceful solution, which may have been accomplished if the bureaucrats had found common political ground. In this model, therefore, the War in Iraq was not a solution to a rational problem, a threat from Iraq, but was, instead, the political result of a foiled negotiation between bureaucrats.

IV. Evaluation and Conclusion

In 1969, Graham Allison shook the world of foreign policy and the fledgling school of International Relations by storm with his monumental essay on three conceptual models. In order to test these models, Graham used the most significant foreign policy decision of his day, the Cuban Missile Crisis. In order to determine whether or not the conceptual models are still relevant, pairing each with the most significant decision of our day, the decision to go to war in Iraq, was necessary. Although each model does offer the best explanation to the foreign policy decision, each offers a plausible solution. Because the war is a subject of such recent history, and a variety of debates exist as to its actual cause, the conceptual models prove extremely useful in organizing and evaluating many of the war’s proposed motivations. Although they were conceived over three decades ago, therefore, Allison’s conceptual models remain relevant to today’s foreign policy world.

Works Cited

Allison, Graham T. “Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” The American

Political Science Review. 63.3 (1969): 680-718.

Bendor, Jonathan and Hammond, Thomas M. “Rethinking Allison’s Models.” American

Political Science Review. 86.2 (1992): 301-322.

Farkas, Andrew. “Evolutionary Models in Foreign Policy Analysis.” International Studies

Quarterly. 40.3 (1996): 343-361.

Hayes, Stephan F. “Saddam’s Al Queda Connection.” The Weekly Standard. 8.48 (2003).

Paterson, Graham. “Alan Greenspan Claims Iraq war was really for oil.” 2007. The Times Online. June 30, 2008.

White House spells out case against Iraq.” 2002. CNN June 30, 2008.

Woods, Kevin M. And Lacey, James. “Iraqi Perspectives Project.” Institute for Defense

Analyses IDA Paper P-4286. ES-1.