Foreign Policy Decision Making
08 April 2019

The Role of Psychological Distance in Foreign Policy Decision Making

If much has been written to explain a superpower’s rationale when deciding to engage in a military intervention, not enough research has thus far been conducted to analyse why some of its allies decide to support and join the intervention, while others decide not to join. This paucity has led Sorina Ioana Crisan to develop in her recent PhD thesis a new theory to help understand why and when junior allies choose to support a superpower’s military intervention. More details with Dr Crisan on “The Politics of Intervention: The Role of Psychological Distance in Foreign Policy Decision Making”. 

How did you come to choose your research topic and what was the main goal of your dissertation?
The themes of military interventions and communication between allies have been the focus of my research for over a decade now because I find the inception of joint military actions to be one of the most fascinating topics to study within the field of international relations (IR). This is primarily because although the decision to participate in a military intervention and consequently war diffusion (due to allies joining in) are choices made by a relatively small number of individuals who hold political power, and not by states’ constituencies, they lead to a wide spectrum of dire negative externalities that are heavily felt by all the parties involved, among which (to name just two): high levels of casualties, on both the side of the intervener(s) and that of the target nation, and large financial expenses, which could have otherwise been invested differently, for example, at the country level or even overseas. Since moving forward, military interventions will continue to be a foreign policy (FP) choice that states make, it is crucial to understand the decision-making (DM) mechanism/process behind it, as best as possible. 

That being said, the main goal of this dissertation was to pose and answer a FP DM related question that combines the aforementioned themes, while filling in a research gap within the IR literature. Once I noticed that the state of the research shows a level of insufficient analysis to better understand why and when junior allies choose to support a superpower’s military intervention, I took on the opportunity to add to the existent literature by devising a novel methodological framework of analysis that combines IR with the fields of social psychology and mathematics. With the approach constructed for this thesis, I was able to analyse, both qualitatively and quantitively, the rhetoric employed by political elites to help justify their nation’s choice to join (or not) a military intervention against (or in support of) a target nation’s (TN) government, on the side of a larger ally, and thus explain why and when junior allies choose such an FP action. 

Given your research question, what is the most innovative aspect of your thesis and what are its main take-aways and findings? 
The most innovative aspect of the thesis is the creation of a novel approach devised to mathematically compute perceived aggregate psychological distances (APDs) between states, relative to a TN, in order to quantitatively (and qualitatively) explain junior allies’ FP decision to go to war, on the side of a larger ally. As such, the thesis argues that a key factor which helps explain why and when junior allies decide to join its larger ally’s military intervention is the psychological distance (PD) that these states perceive between themselves and the ally proposing the intervention, relative to the TN. Thus, the main take-aways of the dissertation are the construction and exemplification of the “10-Phase Procedure”, a methodology that may be employed to analyse political elites’ justification to join (or not) a military intervention, on the side of a superpower, and measure the size and consequent role that PDs have on this FP decision.

Briefly stated, the 10-Phase Procedure was constructed by initially combining the IR and FP DM literature with a social psychology understanding of PD – part of construal level theory. This allowed for organising the concerns commonly addressed by political elites (which were referred to in public speeches discussing a proposed military intervention) along seven PD dimensions (or major categories, which were thereafter divided into subdimensions, also called variables). This step was accomplished by coding all the data in a qualitative software, called NVivo, according to detailed codebooks specific to each proposed intervention. The analysis was subsequently enhanced by employing the field of mathematics, in order to: (1) determine the statistically significant variables (SSVs); (2) create a function that allowed for understanding the simultaneous behaviour of all the SSVs of interest and their respective probability of being mentioned by one nation relative to another; and (3) determine the fit of the proposed hypotheses by projecting the resulting functions, first, on n-dimensional circular systems of coordinates (CSC) (to measure the APD between two states at a time, relative to the TN – as ex. see Fig. 19–21 above), and second, representing the final results on their respective Cartesian coordinate systems (to show the fit of the two proposed hypotheses –  please contact author for further visuals). 

The applicability of the methodology is exemplified by a thorough analysis of hundreds of public utterances (some over 25 pages-long) made by dozens of political elites representing a superpower (the United States) proposing a military intervention and its two junior allies (France and Australia), with respect to two TNs (South Vietnam and Iraq), during two time-periods (the 1960s and the early 2000s). The findings of this research help to explain that: (1) Ally A decides to join the intervention alongside the superpower, while Ally B decides not to join, because the PD between Ally A and the target nation is greater than the relative PD between Ally B and the target nation; and that (2) Ally A decides to join the intervention alongside the superpower against the target nation, while Ally B decides not to intervene, because the PD between Ally A and the superpower is smaller than the relative PD between Ally B and superpower.

Can you give more examples of the policy relevance of your thesis findings and speak of the broader applicability of your research?
By making use of the “10-Phase Procedure” mentioned above, it is possible to create an organic multidimensional CSC that adapts and fits onto a variety of research topics with different policy relevance. Thus, the methodology presented in this thesis may be applied to analyse the perception of different actors and to potentially influence their decision-making process regarding common causes such as: increasing the share of NATO allies’ contribution to the common defence budget, or to increasing governmental or private donors’ contributions to the official development assistance (ODA) of different countries, or working in concert to increase philanthropic contributions meant to accomplish common goals. Furthermore, the methodology may even be employed to help strengthen global marketing strategies, for products/brands positioned in markets within different countries.

Last but not least, how did you find the overall experience of pursuing a PhD? And, would you like to share some words of advice for future students interested in conducting research at the graduate level?
I found the overall experience to be both challenging and rewarding. 

On the one hand, it seems to me that generally, there is a reluctance to talk about the challenges posed by pursuing a PhD. This might be the case simply because people desire to put forth an image that exudes both strength and confidence, in order to help mould a public profile that portrays them as being experts within their field. The reality of the situation is that writing a PhD translates into long periods of solitude, which then might negatively impact your social life and thus place pressure on your emotional well-being. Having a healthy approach to working towards a doctorate is an important aspect that needs to be addressed more often. From my point of view, one of the biggest personal challenges is to find a healthy balance between: (1) being extremely focused, organised, efficient and determined, in order to successfully fulfil the programme; and (2) acknowledging, from early on, that the programme is several years long and that throughout this time period one needs to also invest in their personal relationships, so that they are able to maintain a healthy support system, which ultimately positively contributes towards a healthy emotional state and thus leads to better writing. 

On the other hand, pursuing a PhD is a highly rewarding experience. It gave me the opportunity to: create a research that runs over the length of several years around a question I found to be meaningful; learn how to accomplish all the in-between steps by myself; write a dissertation that contains my vision of analysing a state’s FP choice by combining IR with social psychology and mathematics; and ultimately, provide future scholars with a different FP DM analysis methodology that they may choose to employ as is, within their research and analyses, or that they may proceed to further develop.

In the long-term, regardless of whether one aspires towards pursuing a career within or outside an academic setting, a PhD helps to develop one’s own ability to successfully run a project from A to Z. This is a life-long skill on which one might draw within a variety of jobs, depending on one’s own interests.

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Sorina Ioana Crisan defended her PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science in October 2018. Professor Stephanie Hofmann presided the committee, which included Professor David Sylvan, thesis director, and Professor Richard K. Herrmann, external reader from Ohio State University, USA. 

Dr Crisan also holds an MA in International Relations and International Communications from Boston University, and a BA in Political Science from Bates College. Currently, she is the mentor for the Graduate Institute’s Undergraduate Programme. 

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Crisan, Sorina Ioana. “The Politics of Intervention: The Role of Psychological Distance in Foreign Policy Decision Making.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2019.

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Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Illustration: entrance of the Archives diplomatiques de La Courneuve, France. July 2017. © Sorina Crisan..