Michael J. Butler is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut and a Simulation Coordinator for the GlobalEd Project. Mark A. Boyer is a Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Connecticut, where he is Co-Director of the GlobalEd Project (www.globaled.uconn.edu). The authors would like to thank Ernie Zirakzadeh for inspiring the conceptual underpinnings for this article.
THE EVENTS OF 11 SEPTEMBER 2001 VIVIDLY ILLUSTRATE how an international issue can leap to the top of a nation's foreign policy agenda. Although combating terrorism has long been a focus for collaboration among the dominant players in the international system, it has rarely occupied the attention of high-level policy-makers as it has since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This changed policy environment forces us to consider why some issues (such as terrorism) come to the fore on the foreign policy agenda, whether dramatically or in a more evolutionary fashion, while others (such as foreign aid programmes) persist in relative obscurity and still others (such as most trade issues) command a significant but not excessive share of the policy spotlight over long periods of time. If we accept the likely proposition that the fundamental characteristics of the issues themselves change very little (if at all), we then need to understand what causes the relative importance of particular issues to change, at least for short periods of time.
Understanding the changeability of the international policy environment has several important implications for both citizens and elites. For the former, changing policy priorities means that it is more difficult to stay informed on the nuances of particular issues. Citizens making electoral and other political decisions must synthesize new and necessary information as it becomes available. If we believe, as some in the public opinion field do,(1) that citizens are not particularly attentive to foreign policy and international relations, the changing policy environment and the demands it imposes for more information will make the average citizen even less inclined to worry about the world and more inclined to cede decision-making power over complex and dynamic issues to political elites.
The problems may be even greater for elites as they try to cope with the need to learn about newly important issues even as they hammer out policy 'on the fly' with incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information about emergent international challenges. Even a layman's eye could discern the scramble that took place in official Washington in the wake of 11 September to find experts on the new buzzwords of the day: Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. Policy challenges such as these are made more difficult when we factor in the complexity of the foreign policy decision-making process and the need to identify and court international coalition members in an age of increasing multilateralism and interdependence.
Recently, international relations scholarship has begun to show an appreciation for these and other challenges faced by policy-makers. Works such as Robert Putnam's study of two-level games, Terrence Hopmann's comprehensive analysis of the complexity of negotiation, David Held and Anthony McGrew's excellent compilation examining the impact of globalization on domestic and international policy challenges, and even Paul Sharp's article on the centrality of studying diplomacy within the international relations field have helped push toward more complex analyses of international and global phenomena and the policy-making process more generally.(2) As a result of studies such as these and the growing diversity of methodological approaches available in the field, scholars are beginning to place foreign policy decision-making more directly into the complex of relationships that engender contemporary global affairs.
In this vein, this article examines two recent cases of international policy change - discord within the European Union (EU) over the harmonization of fuel taxes and the evolution of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operations in Bosnia - in an effort to understand the forces at work in changing the policy environment in each case and the implications of those changes for policy outcomes. …