Besides the system level of analysis, there are important factors in a nation-state’s domestic capabilities, decision-making and policies that affect its actions in world politics.
Geopolitics (Location, Location, Location)
Even with the easy travel and communication of today, traditional factors like geography, natural resources and population affect foreign policy.
For instance, the U.S. has an advantage in sitting behind large oceans and having friendly and relatively weak nations on its borders, which has sometimes encouraged isolationism. Similarly, the English Channel has protected England from invasion. Compare this to Germany, which was surrounded by sometimes hostile neighbors and has no natural defenses. Russia’s borders consist of open plains that have been invasion routes for centuries. Korea is located between China, Russia and Japan, a tough neighborhood! Mexico and Canada must cope with the giant on their borders. Mexican President Porfirio Diaz once said, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.” Indeed, the U.S. took half of Mexico, twice tried to take over Canada, and still dominates both economies. The Caribbean countries and Central and Latin America have similar concerns about the nearby U.S., especially after dozens of military interventions. Obviously, these geographic factors will influence outlooks and decisions.
The U.S. and Europe have many navigable rivers and good ports, which were particularly important before the existence of railroads, good roads and cars. (Even today, over 75% of goods move by water.) Since shipping by water is 50% cheaper than by land, countries with good rivers, coastlines and ports have an advantage in trade and can develop strong navies. Many of Russia’s rivers run to the North and many of its ports are frozen in the winter. (However, the melting of the Arctic is opening up the Northern Sea Route.) Many of Africa’s rivers are less navigable because they fall steeply through waterfalls from the interior plateau.
In addition, the topography and fertility of the land affect a country’s economy, power and behavior. The U.S. has large amounts of good land for farming, whereas only 20% of China’s land is arable. Looking ahead for future food security, Saudi Arabia and China have bought large tracts of land in Africa. Russia is so far north that much of its land is difficult for farming (although global warming has also improved this situation). Much of Afghanistan is mountainous, which makes agriculture and travel difficult.
Availability of water is also a factor. For thousands of years, the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers caused huge, deadly floods in China. Today, because of increased industrial use, the Yellow River sometimes runs dry before it reaches the ocean. Lack of water may be a serious constraint on growth in the Chinese economy. So, they have dammed the Yangtze and are transferring huge amounts of water from the South to the dry North. In Pakistan, India and most other countries, water tables are falling. The world will soon be divided into water-rich areas and water-poor areas like the Middle East, North Africa and Southwest Asia. The cities of Sao Paolo in Brazil, Capetown in South Africa and Chennai in India have already experienced water emergencies.
Other natural resources are also important. Russia has plenty of oil, gas and minerals, while Europe and China have to import oil and gas. (China does have plenty of coal.) Europe gets more than a third of its gas from Russian pipelines, and is vulnerable to cutoffs such as the ones Russia imposed on Ukraine during price and political disputes. Until recently, the U.S. was importing most of its oil. However, new fields, fracking and new drilling methods greatly increased production, and it is close to being self-sufficient.
A large population means military and economic power. However, having too large a population can cause problems of supplying food, jobs, and other services (China, India). A well-educated population is clearly a big advantage, as countries as different as Japan, Malaysia, Costa Rica and Ireland have shown. The population profile is also important. Not only are the populations of Japan, Russia and Europe decreasing, they are becoming older, which will lead to problems of retirement costs and workforce shortages. On the other hand, poor countries in the Global South have many young people who need jobs (typically, half the population is under 30). High unemployment in many of these countries increases instability.
All these geopolitical factors will influence the outlook and actions of countries.
Today, the U.S. spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined. The resulting power may be one reason why the Bush 2 administration favored military action in Iraq Russia’s conventional military forces greatly diminished after the Cold War. But Putin has strengthened the military, emphasizing special forces and new weapons, invading their tiny neighbor Georgia, taking the Crimea and part of Ukraine, and intervening to prop up longtime ally Syria. Britain and France have small but effective and modern militaries. Japan is rearming. China is modernizing its military. India is the most powerful in South Asia.
Economic Capabilities and Technology
Nations with strong economies and technology have more international interests and the resources to pursue them. Having rich natural resources helps, but today, technology, education and government policy are more important in developing the economy. Europe has a higher average income than the U.S. and the latest technology. India, China, and other Newly Industrialized Countries are also using technology to advance rapidly. For instance, instead of spending trillions of dollars on phone lines, they are moving directly to cell phones. Furthermore, in many places in the Global South even the poor use cell phones to pay for goods and services and to transfer money, allowing their countries to skip over the costs of developing banking, checking and credit card systems. In Japan and South Korea, internet speeds are far faster than in the U.S. and people use their phones to join affinity groups and buy cold beer from vending machines (one benchmark of an advanced society). In Chinese cities, even street food stalls and beggars use QR codes.
Type of Government
Dictators don’t allow independent legislatures, media and interest groups. In contrast, living in a democracy means that Bush 2 had to consult with Congress before the 2003 Iraq war (they rolled over and authorized him to use force). When U.S. public opinion turned against the Iraq war, he lost his Republican majority in Congress. Sometimes the Congress supports the president strongly, and sometimes they attack him relentlessly, such as what Johnson endured during Vietnam or what Obama got during his term. Furthermore, because of elections, leaders in democratic countries have to steer a course that keeps most people happy.
The powerful American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has a strong influence on U.S. policy regarding Israel. Iraqi exiles’ promise of an easy ‘liberation’ had a large effect on the Bush administration’s outlook and decisions on Iraq. The U.S. farm and drug lobbies overcame the influence of the anti-Castro Cuban American community to sell their products to Cuba despite the U.S. economic embargo. The military industrial complex keeps defense expenditures high with expensive weapons. Big U.S. corporations who have moved their factories to China are a powerful lobby against trade restrictions. Different groups ran TV ads for and against the Iran nuclear deal.
Sometime bureaucracies put their programs, goals and interests first, or even define the national interest in terms of bureaucratic interests. During the first four years of the Bush 2 administration, the Defense Dept. consistently had its way over the State Dept. and CIA. For instance, after 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to let the military help the CIA in Afghanistan unless the Defense Department was in charge of the operation. The military leadership’s subsequent focus on conventional tactics such as capturing the capitol city of Kabul allowed Osama Bin Laden and thousands of his men to escape over the border to Pakistan. When an Army general was asked in an interview why the Army did not respond to the CIA’s request to block the mountain passes to trap Bin Laden, he answered, “First of all, the CIA doesn’t tell the Army what to do.” In other words, protecting their bureaucratic turf was more important than the mission.
The Defense Dept. also insisted on handling all aspects of the war in Iraq, which caused problems when they ignored State Dept. plans for the postwar occupation, made none of their own, and made many serious errors. For instance, they disbanded the Iraqi Army, putting 400,000 men out on the street with no jobs or pensions and plenty of weapons, and fired all members of the ruling Baath party, stripping the country of its managers and educated professionals. This drove both groups into the arms of the insurgency.
Bureaucratic attitudes influence policy decisions. Diplomats prefer diplomatic solutions even when dictators like Hitler or Yugoslavia’s Milosovic abuse the process for their own ends. Some military leaders prefer military solutions even when diplomacy is possible. Furthermore, in order to justify their budgets, each military service competes for a share of all operations, whether it is appropriate or not. Some of the aircraft that Reagan used to bomb Libya in 1986 were Air Force planes that flew several hours from Britain to be part of the action, even though there were plenty of Navy planes on nearby aircraft carriers. Another problem is that competing agencies don't cooperate, whether it is Army and Navy units whose radios are on different frequencies or rival agencies like the FBI and CIA who didn’t share information on Al Qaeda terrorists before 9/11.
Groupthink is the name given to the conceptual constraints that arise within organizations. People in the same organization tend to see things through the filters of their experience, procedures and bureaucratic goals, accepting only the information that conforms to their template (confirmation bias) and only supporting action that will serve the organization. For example, in 1914, all the militaries had plans for quick mass mobilizations because quick mass mobilizations had won the most recent wars. But it became a self-fulfilling prophecy - each side saw the others’ mobilizations as a threat and started their own, a major factor leading to the outbreak of WWI.
Before 9/11, the Bush 2 administration refused to deal with terrorism, partly because they felt that anything the previous (Clinton) administration emphasized must be wrong. Then, after 9/11, Vice President Cheney and his group cherry-picked intelligence that agreed with their view that Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) such as nukes, and ignored information that contradicted that view.
Sometimes the bureaucracy simply disobeys. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Navy disregarded Kennedy's orders to shrink the blockade line closer to Cuba. The Navy also flouted orders by chasing Soviet subs, nearly causing a nuclear counterattack. And despite Kennedy’s orders, the CIA provocatively sent a U-2 spy plane over the USSR during the height of the crisis.
The Media and Public Opinion
In 1993, TV pictures of starving children in the war in Somalia pressured the UN and U.S. to intervene. But when American soldiers were killed and their bodies dragged through the streets on CNN, the U.S. pulled out. In 2003, the Bush 2 administration spread scary media stories about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that caused the public to support an invasion. Later, pessimistic TV coverage helped the public sour on the war. Voters may simply tire of the human and financial costs of intervention in far-off, unknown places. Americans demanded revenge after 9/11, but now a majority supports leaving Afghanistan.
Ideology and Political Culture
During the Cold War, the USSR preached Marxist ideology, including the inevitability of class struggle, conflict with capitalist countries and eventual world communist revolution. Today, Islamists such as Islamic State (IS) believe in pushing the West out of the Muslim world and establishing a theocratic Caliphate. The U.S. tries to bring American-style democracy and capitalism to all countries, regardless of their history or culture. The political descendants of former French President Charles DeGaulle insist on a leading role for France in world politics. The Chinese world view is that it should dominate Asia and the world.
In addition, each country has a different political culture. France, Japan and Britain’s bureaucrats are openly elitist, while American bureaucrats must feign humility. Pervasive corruption in China, India, Russia and other countries causes many problems. The level of political participation of women varies widely among countries, with the U.S. lagging behind many others. There was surprise when Clinton appointed a woman (Madeleine Albright) as Secretary of State. There was amazement when Bush 2 appointed a black woman (Condoleeza Rice) as Secretary of State. When Obama appointed Hillary Clinton, her gender no longer elicited comment.