The Three Conceptual Models: Purposes by Allison

Last Updated: 17 May 2023
Essay type: Definition Essay
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The term "theory" can have many other names: worldview, conceptual model, conceptual lens, and mode of analysis. They all mean the same thing, that is, "a set of hypothesis about how factors interact to produce a result" (Hilsman). Theories are essentially a way of looking at the world in order to understand why states behave the way they do. Each theory has a set of assumptions about the structure and process of the working of international politics. They tell analysts what facts to look for and what to expect if those certain facts are found. In this sense, theories can assist analysts in gaining insights into predictable patterns (Hilsman). Examples of some theories are Realism, Liberalism, Marxism, and Constructivism.

However, theories differ from midrange theories which are more centralized on certain aspects of international relations. These are often defined in if/then statements which are connected by a causal mechanism or dynamism. Such an example is the Democratic Peace theory: IF a state is a democracy, THEN it will be more peaceful with other democratic states.

Midrange theories are useful in making predictions on what is likely to occur if certain conditions exist. While both worldviews and midrange theories help analysts interpret data and help governments in the shaping of their policies, they play different roles in foreign policy analysis. Theories are a lens through which to see or explain an event. Therefore, in attempting to explain a phenomenon or to answer a question, a wise foreign policy analyst will put on each "lens" in order to gather more information and reach new insights. Theories start at assumptions while midrange theories, by contrast, start at empirical observations.

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The importance of making clear what is the analyst's conceptual model is mentioned briefly by both Hilsman and Allison. That is serves to reveal the basic logic behind analysts' activity is conveyed by Allison. Furthermore, benefits of the transitioning of an implicit conceptual model into an explicit paradigm include the erasing of artificiality surrounding a paradigm's statement and the express clarification of additions and modifications made by the analyst (Allison). These are points argued by Allison; Hilsman does not comment about this transition. However, he makes it clear that facts in and of themselves are not self-evident nor hold the answers for policy makers (Hilsman). This touches on the role of theory and how it is used in foreign policy analysis as a supplement to gathering facts.

The three models discussed by Allison in his Essence of Decision, the rational-policy model, the organizational-process model, and the bureaucratic politics model, each give differing views of the same event: the Cuban Missile Crisis. The rational-policy model's main assumption is that state behavior is rational, purposive, and value maximizing. The state is a unitary and rational actor, meaning that it is united in its decisions and it pursues the national interests at the lowest possible cost and highest value. States weigh the costs and benefits of the choice to be made and conclude on the option that has the least negative consequences, i.e. the most beneficial. Most analysts, Allison argues, explain and predict state behavior using this model (Allison). The rational-policy model allows us to anticipate and predict actions of a state and deduce why a state has acted a certain way.

The organizational-process model is one of the two other alternative models. This paradigm rejects the assumption that the state is a unitary actor, saying that the decision- making process is made up of a "loose alliance of semi-independent organizations" each of which follows standard operating procedures. The actions of organizations, and consequentially, the government, originates from these set routines or rules according to which things are done rather than rationality (Allison). What the rational-policy model dubs foreign policy "acts" or "choices" the organizational-process model calls outputs.

In addition, it is precisely the capabilities and routines of associated organizations that determine and sometimes constrain the decisions of government leaders. This touches on another important facet of the model: specialization. The more specialized you are as a nation, the more areas in which you are an expert, and therefore, the outcome of a nation's policy becomes more successful. This model forces policy makers to look at procedures and preparations of other states' organizations in order to determine if they are a threat.

The last alternative, the bureaucratic-politics model, the state is perceived at an individual level within a larger bargaining arena. Foreign policy decisions are neither acts nor outputs, but outcomes or the result of compromise, coalition, bargaining, and competition among "players positioned hierarchically within the government" (Allison). Different individuals, interest groups, and organizations each pursue their own agenda and interests, and in the end the outcome can be simply the triumphing of one group over the others. Allison points out that in this model where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit in the bureaucracy (Allison).

This means that one's position in the hierarchy of political decision-making constitutes the advantages and handicaps with which each player works. Bureaucratic leaders can be looked upon as rational actors pursuing the value-maximizing option in the interest of the organization they represent, however, this does not always mean that the policy that arises out of this bargaining maximizes the national interest.

When applied to the Cuban Missile Crisis, these models each have strengths and weaknesses worthy of discussion in explaining this crucial event in history. Beginning with the rational-policy model, given the potential consequences of nuclear war, it makes sense that the US would have pursued a value-maximizing choice for the entire nation. The costs were high, higher than they had ever been, and the ultimate goal was to avoid nuclear war.

The president and his advisors weighed the options, of which Allison points out six, surveyed the dangers (weighing the costs), and chose the course of action (the blockade) that was the safest (value-maximizing). One weakness in the model, however, is that it overlooks the influences of standard operating procedures at the organizational level, as well as the impact of critical individuals who influenced the president to arrive at his decision. For example, and as shown in the movie, if the few number of Kennedy's constituents did not warn him against the policy agendas being pursued by leaders of the bureaucracy, Kennedy might very well have sided more with those who preferred an air strike.

We move on to the organizational-process model. This paradigm is strengthened when we call attention to the other organizations involved such as the US Air Force and the US Navy. They sometimes have a mind of their own, as shown in the film with the Chief of Naval Operations Anderson, when they took it into their own hands as to how the blockade was going to be carried out. This is one strike against the rational-policy model that states are not always unitary actors and that there can be internal conflicts.

However, they ended up submitting to the rules of standard operating procedures and executed from there. One weakness to this model is that it does not give full recognition to the bargaining powers that were involved in the crisis. The president received advice from many groups with their own individual ideas of how to solve the problem. This included organizational agendas and what is most beneficial for them, for this is how they view the best course of action, from where they sit in the bureaucracy. This paints them in the light of players in the bargaining arena and brings us to our final mode of analysis.

The bureaucratic-politics model is important for one, because it highlights upon diplomatic leaders' personalities and the effects of these on the final outcome. In the CMC, many would agree that had it been Nixon as president, he likely would not have settled on a blockade and would have chosen a more aggressive form of defense such as the airstrike or possibly use of the nuclear weapons. This model has a major weakness however, in light of the Cuban Missile Crisis. When the stakes are so high, it might not be reasonable to think that the final decision should be the result of a political "game." The pulling and pushing takes time. A wrong choice could mean irreparable damage. The consequences of nuclear war are far greater than losing a political battle over one's organizational interests. Therefore, this model might exaggerate the extent to which influences were dispersed in how it actually played out in the CMC.

I believe the organizational process model offers the best explanatory power in this case. Only because SOP were followed and the capabilities of the organizations involved existed was the Kennedy administration able to carry out the blockade. They certainly weighed the costs and benefits of what to do but this was a function of the organizational structure and position (Allison). Rational policy model overestimates the power of the central government to act and underestimates the organizational influences within its decision making process. Could government leaders have dealt with this issue alone? Was it not the Air Force's U-2 spy plane that uncovered these missiles in the first place? Examining the organizational routines of the Soviets helped the US in predicting what is was preparing to do.

Although the bureaucratic-process model makes some important points such as why the Chief of Naval Operations Anderson ultimately stepped down to the Secretary of Defense McNamara because of his position in the hierarchy, its explanatory power in the reasons why the blockade were chosen are weak. The blockade was not an output of the US Navy "winning out" the political bargain, rather, as the organizational-process model explains it, it was precisely because the US had a strong Navy enough to open this up as an option.

Organizations play the most important role, I believe, in the way this crisis played out. Foreign policy is the result of the organizational output of different bureaucratic organizations, it's not the result of a political value-maximizing choice made "right now". Decisions such as those made in the Cuban Missile Crisis are not left in the hands of a few at the top, but neither are they debated upon on such a wide scale as the entire bureaucracy. The organizational-process model is described by a conglomerate of organizations of which the government sits atop. This accurately describes the decision-making structure during the Cuban Missile Crisis.


  1. Allison, Graham T., and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Longman, 1999. Print. A
  2. Hilsman, Roger, Laura Gaughran, and Patricia A. Weitsman. "The Classical Model Analyzed: Black Box." The Politics of Policy Making in Defense and Foreign Affairs: Conceptual Models and Bureaucratic Politics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993. N. pag. Print.

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The Three Conceptual Models: Purposes by Allison. (2023, May 17). Retrieved from

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