The Level of National Attributes and International System: Effects on Foreign Policy

So far we have examined foreign policy through individual level and state level analysis encompass perspectives created by psychological factors, small and large group effects, culture and social discourse and domestics politics. Considering national attributes as important as psychological factors, small and large group and their consequence, we have come to take account to macro level approach to understanding FP. There we shift our perception from FP decision making (at micro level extent) to FP as a whole of macro level analysis. This outlook is simply using more conventional traditions of IR theory occupied by various variables which are fairly stable.

The analysis provide another point of views in the course of national attributes in the systemic international nature followed its effects broadly explaining different foreign policy. Regardless the objective to posit how change in these in FP direction but rather than to show how the particular value of these variables leads to probability distribution over certain type of FP choices, national attributes and foreign policy typically relative while considering the power of the state, which is including elements: natural resources, size, geography, demography, etc.

International system and foreign policy

International system is the highest level analysis in the international political study in which the level analysis has gradually developed into more conceptual definition in regard the state system nature. While the system theory has been ranging to various explication answering how its dynamic changing across the years, it conventionally address about type of system theory posit system permutation, but not necessarily address the issue of transition itself.

Concerning system attributes and its effect towards foreign policy, due to its process, it is highly feasible to take account to each attributes into effect hypothesis  and values to foreign policy.

Ways to hypothesize system attributes for foreign policy are beneficial, but it is increasingly important as well to comprehend for what it cannot tell us. Another approach introduced derives the foreign policy behavior. It is Kaplan classification involved real world and hypothesis system showing that the derivative from behavioral generalization of systemic level variable could be posted counterfactually. He addressed there are five reliable factors within the system :

  1. Increase capabilities, but negotiate rather than fight
  2. Fight rather than fail to increase capabilities
  3. Stop fighting rather than eliminate an essential actor
  4. Oppose any coalition or single actor that tends to assume a position of predominance within the system
  5. Constrain actors who subscribe to supranational organizational principles
  6. Permit defeated essential actors to reenter the system as acceptable role partners, or act to bring previously inessential actors within an essential actor classification, treat all essential actors as acceptable role partners.

Whenever regulation altered so is the system, there would be predisposition rise within the system.

How to connect international system with FP

A. Using system attributes

  1. make typologies systems according to a number of attributes

numbers of actors in a system; the distribution of power across those actors; the number of major powers or poles within a system; the degree of adherence to these poles through formal or informal alliance mechanisms; the presence/absence of supranational organizations; the number of contested issues in the system; etc

  1. create typology (like above) then derive general principles of FP behaviour from it

Morton Kaplan, tight bipolar, loose bipolar, the universal system, the hierarchical system and the unit veto system

B. Using concepts of system transition and transition’s effect on FP

The nature pattern of international system has been increasingly critical affecting different foreign policy.

  1. Long Cycle Theory — George Modelski

posits a regular and cyclical set of system transition

  1. Marxist theory

propounds more of a forward moving spiral movement of the international system culminating in an end state with no further transition

National attributes dealing with foreign policy within macro level analysis are:

1)      Size

State ranging from small to large state also promotes to direct foreign policy. Small state identically prone to the presence of its neighbor power. If the neighbor power is relatively stronger or growing stronger, it will be encouraged to build alliance with the opposite power of its neighboring state. This has been tendency for Europe international system in middle ages.

2)      Geography

Particulars of geography can drive foreign policy and geography itself plays a role in natural resources element.  First of all, access to ports, waterways, and strategically important land features, is an aspect of geography with great import for foreign affairs. Higlands may also be important.  For example: Afghanistan. Afghanistan has very little worth coveting but people keep invading it. Because Afghanistan have  a land pathway from the Middle East to Asia.

Access to the sea is another important facet of geopolitics. Many land-locked countries fall prey to their neighbors with coastline, who then may exert disproportionate influence over their economy.

The borders of a nation may also have foreign policy implications. Some scholars have argued that nations with more borders tend to be involved in more regional wars than nation with few borders, arguing that proximity may become the catalyst for conflict. Borders drawn with more reference to a map than to realities on the ground may also have profound foreign policy effects. Many borders drawn by colonial powers in Africa are similarly troublesome; tribes were divided by these borders; long-standing enemies were placed within the same borders; accessibility to ports was dependent on the outcome of struggles between colonial powers; borders crossed linguistic lines and so forth.

3)      Demographics

Characteristics of a nation’s population also have foreign policy repercussions. Nazli Choucri and Robert North developed the concept of “lateral pressure”, meaning that nations with high population growth rates become hard-pressed to satisfy the needs of their citizens without pressure to obtain these resources from abroad, through trade, migration, colonization, or conflict (1975). In the 21st century, one might also need to develop a theory concerning the inverse of lateral pressure; perhaps the “lateral vacuum”. Many of the richest nations of the world now have birthrates significantly below replacement levels. These nations are depopulating, particularly in Europe (including both eastern and western Europe) and Japan. Issues of migration from high growth rate poor countries to negative growth rate rich countries are now beginning to dominate the domestic politics of many developed nations, with clear foreign policy consequences.

However, there is more to population than simply rates of growth or decline. Other variables come including age distribution, gender distribution, wealth distribution within the population, ethnic/linguistic/religious fractionalization, and education and health. For  example: India and China.

Historically, the presence of a sizeable number of “bare branches” (young men, typically at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum who are surplus to the number of females in society) has led to severe domestic instability (Hudson and Den Boer, 2004). Governments do become aware of the problem and are tempted to co-opt these young men into the armed forces and send them away from population centers of their own country. Governments also may be forced into a more authoritarian mode to cope with the social disruption caused by the bare branches. In sum, abnormal gender distribution within a population may be an aggravating factor in international affairs and in contemporary times may have ramifications for conflicts. International migration flows and human trafficking also profoundly affect nations from which people come and go.

4)      Political System

The key of political system is “Democratic Peace” which means the democratic state usually does not fight with other democratic state. On the contrary, democracies fight no democracies as much as other non-democracies do. That is why the political system which a state used to maintain their national domestic politics would also give consequences for foreign policy. The transparency which increase empathy, the voting process which value the politician, and the high status of women make democratic peace phenomenon is chosen in order to prevent the emerge of conflict.

The example of this phenomenon could be seen in Iraq. During Saddam Hussein administration, Iraq known as a “pseudo-democratic” states. It made their foreign policy tend to avoid or against U.S. It is also became the reason why U.S fight against Hussein’s regime, in order to deliberate democracy government in Iraq.

5)      Military Capabilities

This national attributes which usually includes in the national power give huge impact on the foreign policy of a state. There are two reasons, why the military became important. First, it can often lead the foreign policy to a coercive diplomacy. And second, it can substitute for international support. That is why most of state which has a good military capabilities usually also known as a “super power” state. We could see the example clearly during the Cold War era, where there were only two “great power” in the international system, U.S and USSR who has good power in military.

There are also three kinds of mass destruction weapon which could make a state became powerful; chemical weapon, nuclear weapon, and biological weapon.


Marijke, Breuning. 2005. Foreign policy: a comparative introduction. London: Palgrave macmillan


About Renny Candradewi Puspitarini

Lecturer at Panca Marga University Faculty of Social Science and Political Science Department of Public Administration

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