Identity and power are two critical concepts in understanding international relations and foreign policy decision-making. A state’s identity – how it views itself and its role in the international system – shapes its interests and preferences. Power – material capabilities as well as social and normative influence – determines a state’s ability to pursue and achieve its interests.
The interplay between identity and power creates a complex and multifaceted drivers of state behavior and decision-making in international relations. States construct identities that shape how they define their interests and preferences. At the same time, the distribution of power in the international system and relative power capabilities constrain and enable states in pursuing their interests and preferred policies.
This complex relationship between identity, power, and decision-making can be analyzed at multiple levels: the individual leaders, domestic politics, state/national, regional, and international system levels. Identities and power capabilities shape and constrain decision-making simultaneously across these different levels of analysis. Furthermore, identities themselves are contested and subject to domestic and international social processes.
This article will provide an overview of the scholarly literature analyzing the linkages between identity, power, and decision-making across different levels of analysis. It will highlight key theoretical frameworks, major debates, and empirical findings that characterize the state of knowledge on these relationships in international relations. Given the breadth of this topic, the article focuses on key themes and studies in order to provide a concise yet rigorous overview of this critical issue. The conclusion will summarize the findings and suggest avenues for future research.
A range of theoretical frameworks in international relations offer insights into the complex relationships between identity, power, and decision-making. These include constructivism, the role of ideas and strategic culture, foreign policy analysis, and power transition theory.
Constructivist theories emphasize the importance of ideas, norms, identities and social interactions in shaping international relations. Identities are not exogenously given – they are socially constructed through interactive processes (Wendt, 1992). Identities shape national interests and foreign policy preferences. However, identities themselves are not fixed – they evolve in response to domestic and international social dynamics.
Constructivists argue that international structure impacts state behavior not just through the distribution of material capabilities, but also through social relationships and normative structures that shape identities (Wendt, 1995). Identities define what states consider legitimate or acceptable behavior. Power capabilities alone cannot explain state behavior – identities matter for how states interpret the meaning of power and set policy preferences.
Ideas, Strategic Culture, and Foreign Policy
Related to constructivism, other scholars have highlighted the independent role of ideas, beliefs, and strategic culture in driving foreign policy decision-making and international relations. A state’s strategic culture is the blend of history, values, and norms that shape national identity and interests (Johnston, 1995). These ideational factors lead to variation in state behavior independent of structural power considerations.
Leadership ideas and beliefs also impact foreign policy choices, as cognition affects how leaders perceive the international environment and interpret national interests. Belief systems act as filters shaping leaders’ diagnoses and responses to foreign policy problems (Goldstein & Keohane, 1993). Decision-makers are influenced by ideational frameworks regarding what foreign policy means and how to pursue national interests.
Foreign Policy Analysis
Foreign policy analysis (FPA) explores the complex process of decision-making, focusing on the roles of individuals, domestic politics, and bureaucratic politics (Hudson, 2005). Individual leaders vary in their interpretations of national interests and policy preferences. Domestic groups contest different policy options and shape foreign policy choices. Government bureaucracies and organizations inject organizational processes and norms into decision-making.
FPA examines how identities and interests are subjectively interpreted and contested through these multi-level processes. Foreign policy decisions emerge through bargaining games between individuals and organizations with different interests, ideas, and power capabilities. This generates a contingent and complex foreign policy process.
Power Transition Theory
Power transition theory analyzes the link between changing power distributions and global war (Organski, 1968). As rising challengers narrow the power gap with dominant states, structural tensions increase incentives for major war. Perceptions of power and status matter – conflicts result when rising powers believe the dominant power refuses to accommodate their expanded interests and standing.
Identities shape perceived status discrepancies and generates grievances from relative losses in standing. As challengers gain power capabilities, their identity interests increase, fueling greater dissatisfaction with the dominant state’s leadership. This drives more aggressive attempts to overturn the hierarchy as rising and falling powers struggle over status.
Overall, these frameworks provide diverse insights into how identities, ideas, and power distributions interact to shape foreign policy. Identities condition how states perceive interests and make decisions amid relative power capabilities. The next sections analyze these dynamics across different levels of analysis.
Individual Leaders’ Identities, Beliefs, and Decision-Making
A substantial body of foreign policy analysis examines how individual leaders’ identities, experiences, and beliefs impact their diagnoses of foreign policy problems and crisis decision-making. Leaders rely on pre-existing knowledge structures through which they interpret reality and make judgments. Belief systems act as cognitive filters or prisms refracting the external environment into policy options and decisions (Renshon, 2008).
Different leaders therefore construct alternative understandings of the same reality and events based on their idiosyncratic identities and experiences. For example, Goldgeier (1997) compared how Ronald Reagan’s and Mikhail Gorbachev’s contrasting belief systems produced divergent interpretations of the opportunity for rapprochement at the end of the Cold War.
Leadership styles and dispositions also influence how identity perceptions affect foreign policy choices. Hagan (1994) distinguishes between clampdown presidents who respond to external threats by reasserting dominant identity narratives versus supportive presidents open to reassessing identities amid change. When identities are destabilized by new events, these varying styles produce different foreign policy adjustments.
Psychological needs and motivations rooted in identity concerns also drive leadership decision-making (Hermann, 2001). Defined as the quest for purpose and meaning, identity needs shape leaders’ views of the national interests and desired policies. Foreign policy choices serve identity-expressive goals of leaders pursuing self-esteem, consistency, distinctiveness, efficacy, and meaning.
The interaction between power and identity further conditions individual decision-making. Power capabilities influence which identity needs are prioritized. Meanwhile, constructed identities shape perceptions of relative power and assessments of threat that filter information and drive policy preferences (Stein, 2013).
Overall, foreign policy analysis highlights how identity and power interact across cognitive, psychological, and contextual levels to shape the subjective interpretations, motivations, and decisions of individual leaders regarding international relations.
Domestic Politics, Identity Contests, and Foreign Policy
Domestic-level theories analyze how identity politics shapes and constrains foreign policy choices through contests between competing identity groups (Smith, 2016). Identity groups based on nationalism, religion, ethnicity, race, or culture influence political discourse and mobilize constituencies to lobby for preferred foreign policies.
Political leaders construct electoral coalitions among identity groups. Adopting foreign policies catering to pivotal identity groups provides resources for building domestic coalitions and consolidating political power (Fearon & Laitin, 2000). Foreign policy serves as a tool for dispensing patronage to identity groups at the domestic level.
Meanwhile, outsider identity groups may engage in protests and dissent to contest dominant foreign policy narratives and push for alternative policies more consistent with their identities. Anti-war protests, immigration policy debates, and other foreign policy issues are fueled by identity group contests and ethnic lobbying over the substance of foreign policy.
Leaders face tradeoffs balancing multiple identity constituencies and constructing unifying ‘in-group’ identities broad enough to maintain coalitions (Smith, 2016). Appealing to narrow identities risks alienating other groups and fracturing domestic cohesion. Leaders expansively interpreting national identities have wider latitude adopting flexible, pragmatic foreign policies.
As relative power changes among domestic identity groups, due to demographic shifts or evolving political resources, their ability to influence foreign policy changes as well. New ascendant identity groups or declining groups see shifts in their capability to lobby leaders and extract policies catering to their preferences. Domestic power transitions intersect with identity politics to reshape foreign policy over time.
In summary, domestic identity contests act as intervening variables between structural power shifts and foreign policy changes. Power capabilities create opportunities for new groups to mobilize and extract foreign policy concessions. But group identities, discourse, and resource mobilization mediate how domestic power distributions affect foreign policy outcomes.
State Identity Interests in Regional and International Systems
At the regional and international levels, state identities substantially shape foreign policy choices and decision-making amid system-level power dynamics. State identities delimit national interests regarding regional leadership, prestige, status, and hierarchy. Identities and socialized role expectations generate policies as states pursue legitimacy, status, and influence.
Realist and liberal theories often treat interests as objectively defined based on material capabilities or political regime. But constructivists counter that interests themselves stem from social identities (Wendt, 1999). Interests are not exogenously given – they are endogenously generated by identities which imbue states with desires for status, recognition, and influence over policy outcomes. Interests are therefore derivative of identities.
State identities shape perceptions of threats, delineate spheres of influence, and determine preferences regarding alliances and institutions. Identities construct definitions of prestige, status, and leadership that drive foreign policies aimed at hierarchical ranking and international social mobility relative to significant ‘others’ (Subotic & Zarakol, 2013).
For example, France and Britain’s imperial identities generated post-war preferences for retaining colonial empires and global status despite decline in relative capabilities. Russia’s regional great power identity shapes its assertive foreign policies vis-a-vis its ‘near abroad’ – policies aimed at maintaining its privileged leadership status in Eurasia.
State identities are not unified or stable – they are contested both domestically and internationally. Foreign policy is often aimed at socializing other states to accept one’s preferred identity claims in the broader diplomatic discourse. Power capabilities influence success in these discursive contests over identity and status in the regional/international social environment.
China’s re-emergence as a major power has fueled an ongoing discursive battle with the US over East Asian regional leadership and China’s great power status. Chinese elites actively cultivate an identity as a responsible, peaceful rising power to socialize other states to accept its increased authority and regional leadership role commensurate with its growing economic and military capabilities.
In general, identities substantially shape state interests and foreign policy preferences amid relative power. Power capabilities influence the ability to achieve identity goals like status, hierarchy, and leadership over regional or global orders. State agency interacts with structure as leaders construct and promote identity narratives amid changes in the distribution of capabilities.
System Structure, Power Transitions, and Great Power Conflict
Finally, the relationship between identity and power operates at the overall international system level. Identities shape expectations and perceptions of status and hierarchy in the system. As relative capabilities between leading states’ shift, identity gaps fuel dissatisfaction and conflicts over status and realignment of the international distribution of prestige and authority (Wohlforth et al., 2007).
Most clearly, power transition theory argues that hegemonic conflicts result when a rising challenger’s expanding capabilities allow it to demand more status and influence. However, the dominant power resists changes to the social hierarchy. Both sides’ identities shape perceptions of the proper hierarchy and status discrepancies. Identity conflicts cause bargaining failures over accommodation.
Historically, rising challengers like Germany and Japan saw identities as giving them claims to greater imperial authority and status denied by existing UK and US led orders. Identity gaps reinforced by growing power disparities generate dissatisfaction and assertive attempts to overturn the status quo.
Power transitions alone do not determine conflict – identity & status concerns shape whether accommodation is possible. Peaceful power shifts require concessions allowing rising powers prestige and privileges aligning status with new capabilities. Identity conflicts triggered by power shifts drive feelings of lost status and desires to violently change hierarchical orders.
System structure and identities interact – relative power changes create status discrepancies filtered through identity prisms. Leaders face foreign policy choices managing identity gaps, status dilemmas, and conflicts or acceptance of shifting social hierarchies as the balance capabilities evolve. Identity dynamics shape whether power transitions unfold peacefully or through war.
Research Agenda on Identity, Power, and Decision-Making
This review reveals a complex web of interactions between identity, power, and decision-making across multiple levels of analysis. A coherent research agenda can integrate insights and questions generated by these diverse theoretical frameworks:
How do individual leaders’ identities, beliefs, and dispositions shape subjective interpretations of the national interests amid changing power dynamics? How do identity needs and motivations interact with shifting relative capabilities to drive foreign policy choices? Leaders face tradeoffs balancing identity expressive motivations rooted in self-esteem and social influence needs arising from power capabilities in their decisions.
Domestic identity politics creates complex multi-level bargaining between leaders, identity groups, and opposition movements. How do constructed political coalitions among identity groups shape and constrain leaders’ foreign policy options amid changing relative capabilities? Growing material capabilities empower some identity groups to increase claims on foreign policy. But group identities, values, and discourses mediate how domestic power shifts translate into foreign policy outcomes.
At the state and international system levels, identities substantially shape interests and preferences over regional hierarchies, prestige, and status. How do state identity narratives evolve and reconstitute interests in response to relative power shifts? Power capabilities influence states’ ability to achieve identity goals like leadership and status. But identity discourses shape perceptions of threat, interests, and policy preferences regarding accommodation or confrontation of changing power balances.
Power transition theories should further incorporate identity dynamics. How do constructed identities on both sides affect status quo vs. rising powers’ assessments of and bargaining over appropriate hierarchy and realignment? Identity gaps interact with power shifts to shape dissatisfaction, grievances, and conflicts over systemic status and leadership.Identities provide an important lens analyzing how relative capability changes translate into threat perceptions, interests, and foreign policies.
A complex research agenda integrating across these levels of analysis can unpack the multifaceted interplay between identity, power, and decision-making driving international relations. Rigorous theorizing and empirical study clarifying these relationships provides an important scholarly and policy task.
This article reviewed key themes in the international relations literature on the complex linkages between identity, power, and decision-making. Identities are socially constructed and define how states perceive interests and make foreign policy choices. Relative power capabilities shape and constrain identities and interest pursuits. But identities mediate how material capacities affect behavior.
The relationship between power and identity shapes decision-making across multiple levels – individual leaders, domestic politics, states, and the international system. Identities work through cognitive, psychological, social, and discursive pathways to impact foreign policy amid changing power distributions.
Rigorous models and empirical analyses are needed integrating insights across these levels of analysis. A coherent research agenda can make important progress in unpacking the complex interactions between identity, power, and decision-making in international relations. Given the stakes of foreign policy choices, clarifying these dynamics represents an urgent scholarly challenge.
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