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The Formation of Soviet Foreign Policy: Organizational and Cognitive Perspectives

Robert M. Cutler

This article comprehensively reviews six monographs on Soviet foreign policy formation published in the late 1970s, when analytical dispute centered on the degree and significance of organizational and cognitive complexity in Soviet foreign policy making. The first section of the article provides an overview of these issues. The second section discusses them in greater depth and links them, through reference to the works under review, to broader considerations then on the cutting edge in social science in general and political studies in particular. The third section—of which the principal excerpts and three Figures are summarily reproduced below as well as in the article's full-text version—addresses how we knew what we knew about Soviet foreign policy making, i.e., it addresses organizational and cognitive issues in ("Kremlinological") inference from the Soviet press. In particular, it discusses overlaps between organizations making Soviet propaganda (both foreign and domestic) with those making Soviet foreign policy. Repeated examples selected from the works under review exemplify the pertinence of such considerations. The investigation culminates in a general model of inference adaptable to the specific structure and operational procedures of particular propaganda organizations. (A subsequent work of the author produced exactly such an adaptation in a Soviet context.) The article includes 34 notes incorporating sources and studies in English, Russian, and German, as well as three Figures. Interview material from consultations with Soviet journalists and editors in 1980 in Moscow also figures.

[0. Preliminary Remarks]
 1. Introduction: A Cybernetic Approach
 2. The Cognitions of Organizations and the Organization of Cognitions
 3. Cognitive and Organizational Issues in Inference
 4. Conclusion: Power and Policy in the U.S.S.R.?
Originally published as:
Robert M. Cutler, "The Formation of Soviet Foreign Policy: Organizational and Cognitive Perspectives," World Politics 34, no. 3 (April 1982): 418–436. Copyright © The Trustees of Princeton University. Available here for individual nonprofit use only.


[ page 418 ]

[From 1. Introduction: A Cybernetic Approach]

… The principal concern of both organization theory and cognitive

[ page 419 ]

theory is information processing. Organization theory and cognitive theory are, respectively, the structural and behavioral aspects of the processing of information by persons. If we call their combined application a cybernetic approach, we direct attention to what happens to information during the various stages of decision making that lie between cognition (of a situation abroad) and choice (of an action or policy in response to that situation).

The cybernetic approach, in its most abstract expression, comprises norms, structures, and behavior. Soviet foreign policy behavior seen as the output of a system that processes information on the international situation. The analyst attempts to explain that behavior on the basis of the system's structures, which transform such information according to sets of norms. Intrapersonal structures transform information according to cognitive norms; interpersonal structures transform information according to organizational norms. Two sorts of organizational norms may be distinguished. If the organization involved is formal, the norms are institutional; if it is informal, the norms are noninstitutional. The cybernetic analyst, having a general understanding of the intrapersonal and interpersonal structures through which information passes, attempts, by following its transformations, to infer the particular cognitive and organizational norms that animate those structures.

… [C]ognitive and organizational issues … are inseparable in practice, because intrapersonal and interpersonal information-processing structures are not mutually independent (i.e., "where you stand depends on where you sit"). In the second section of this article, we shall discuss both sorts of issues, paying special attention to the question of relating cognitive methods of analysis to particular conceptualizations of Soviet foreign policy formation. …

[ page 420 ]

In the third section, organizational issues are addressed with special reference to questions of inference in traditional (Kremlinological) methods of Soviet policy-making analysis. The items under review exemplify some of the difficulties of applying such techniques under present-day conditions of Soviet organizational complexity. We shall discuss the overlap between the organizations that make Soviet propaganda and those that form Soviet foreign policy, and specify the implications of this overlap for the application of inferential techniques.

In the concluding section we delineate the significance of cognitive and organizational studies for general conceptualizations of how the Soviet system works, and discuss the place of such studies in cumulative knowledge about the Soviet Union. …

[ page 424 ]

[From 2. The Cognitions of Organzations and the Organization of Cognitions]

A distinction between general philosophical attitudes and particular policy preferences will contribute to eliminating the confusion between the "interest group" and "tendency of articulation" approaches to Soviet foreign policy formation. [All emphases in the original.] …

[ page 425 ]

Cognitive methods now exist that would permit these two approaches to be formally differentiated according to the level of abstraction implicit in each. …

[ page 426 ]

Cognitive methods offer an avenue for systematic investigation of collective decision making. A study of the course of a policy debate over time could shed light on the subject of coalition building in Soviet foreign policy making. Research suggests that the operational-code and cognitive-map approaches can be integrated within a unified framework that draws from the literature on artificial intelligence.[14] The question—which of several competing operational codes dominates in Soviet foreign policy formation—could be addressed from this point of view, with empirical reference to how each code may influence particular policy decisions.

Cognitive methods are appropriate to the investigation of organizational processes in Soviet foreign policy formation, particularly the role of the press. …

[From 3. Cognitive and Organizational Issues in Inference]

… [I]t is important to ask how analysts of Soviet decision making know what they know. The answer is that they usually infer the dynamics behind a decision from written "propaganda"—a term they construe in the broadest sense. (Propaganda may include anything printed in the Soviet press, tran-

[ page 427 ]

scribed from Soviet radio, published by Soviet researchers, or distributed by Soviet publishers.) Analysts construct hypotheses about latent policy conflict in the process of interpreting the manifest content of such propaganda. The most consistent and probable set of such hypotheses is then said to explain the propaganda observed.

Such hypotheses are most often constructed inferentially. Alexander George, in his study of Allied analyses of Nazi propaganda, distinguished a "direct method" of inference, based on the frequency of a content indicator's presence or on its intensity, from an "indirect method" of inference, based on its presence or absence. The direct method relies on quantitative correlations of a noncausal nature; in Soviet studies the direct method is used only infrequently, due to the difficulty of discovering data numerous enough to permit its application. The indirect method, which is more prevalent,

may be likened to an effort to reconstruct the missing pieces in a mosaic. … [T]he analyst rehearses in his mind the different possible versions of each particular missing variable which he wants to infer, trying to decide which version is the most plausible, given the known value of the content variable and the known or postulated values of other antecedent conditions.[15]

[ page 428 ]

Figure 1. An Indirect, Logic-of-the-Situation, Pattern of Inference.
Figure 1
Source: George (fn. 15), 41.

… The indirect method of inference constructed by George in his study of Allied propaganda analysis during World War II is reproduced in Figure 1 [above]; the arrows indicate the direction in which inference proceeds. George notes that this model is "appropriate for inferring only the [particular missing variables] that were of interest to the [Allied] analysts."[17] … Kremlinologists use many of the variables discussed by George, but in different ways and for different purposes. One difference from the method portrayed in Figure 1 is:

  1. Situational Factors reported in newspapers betcome textual Content Characteristics; from the Situational Content Characteristics in a text, the analyst infers the writer's "definition of the situation," i.e., an Estimate.

… [T]he Soviet press does portray contrasting points of view on important matters of substance. A prominent member of the journalism faculty at Moscow University explained the issue this way:

Any opinion based on sound analysis is taken into consideration in reaching a decision. Ideas are the most important things; journalists simply express them, stressing the points they see to be important in

[ page 429 ]

international affairs. If you write articles of interest and importance, they will unavoidably present your views. Different leading journalists evaluate current conditions differently.[19]

Specialized journalists, operational propagandists, and propaganda planners help to draw up the reports that form the basis for policy decisions and they also act as advisors to decision makers. …

Such opinions may find their way into the Soviet press. Some newspapers symmetrically reflect the view of—and are to some extent manipulated by—various groups in the Central Comittee and its Secretariat. These groupings may be institutionally based (as in the case of the International Information Department's access to Literaturnaia gazeta), but they need not be so (as in the case of the Russian nationalists' coalsescence around Sovetskaia Rossiia). The process by which these connections evolve is informal and ad hoc: when members of different groupings get into executive responsibility in different newspapers, loose cliques are established around editorial boards, and it becomes known information that different groupings of people think in different ways.[20]

[ page 430 ]

There is another way through which such differences may find expression. The various treatments that are given to the same story by various Soviet newspapers may reflect, over and above mere functional differentiation and audience targeting, the different perceptual filters of different editorial boards. In turn, these filters may reflect the different "evoked sets" on which the different interpretations are based that policy advisors may present to those who would ask them for their opinions. (George's direct method of inference is appropriate for examining these differences.) The link between editorial coverage and expressed policy options is less obvious, but no less clear.

Although the rules of the Soviet press do not permit overt foreign policy advocacy in print before an authoritative decision has been taken,[21] there is a fine line between the evaluation of the present and the recommendation on how to alter it; the latter is often implied in the language of the former. An analyst of the Soviet press may undertake to uncover this hidden meaning. However, "what we want to understand is not something hidden behind the text, but something disclosed in front of it."[22] That is to say: any text being analyzed was written by the author with some audience(s) in mind who will react in some way(s). It was, in this sense, written with reference to a future. That future is what is "disclosed in front of" a text, what the analyst tries to understand; it is the basis for the interpretation that he makes in extricating from the text its meaning for policy. In other words:

  1. From the author's Estimate of the present situation, the analyst infers his Expectation for the future, which is disclosed in front of that Estimate.

"In this process, the mediating role played by structural analysis [is central]."[23] Structural analysis here means only the use of symbols, and their mutual relations, to make the interpretation. In the present instance, such symbols are concepts expressed in words. The authors of the texts that the analyst examines manipulate such symbols; this

[ page 431 ]

process has been called "esoteric communication."[24] By hypothesizing particular relations among these symbols (phrases), the analyst builds an interrelated structure. Codewords embedded in the ideology-laden language of the policy debate, reflected in the press, are explicated by being put into mutual relations. By way of that structure of relations, the analyst infers from the overt discourse the policy covertly advocated. In terms of George's variables, this step may be expressed as follows:

  1. From the author's Expectation the analyst infers the author's Intention, i.e., the particular Policy that he intends to promote through the veiled language of esoteric communication.
Figure 2. The Traditional Motive-Belief Pattern of Inference.
Figure 2

It bears repeating that the foregoing discussion—which involves what George has called the logic-of-the-situation pattern of inference—applies when the Content Characteristics involved are Situational Factors. When a Content Characteristic in a text is not merely a report of a current event (i.e., when it is a Nonsituational Factor), the motive-belief pattern of inference comes into play. Epistemologically undergirded by philosophers who call it the Logical Connection Argument the motive-belief pattern posits that an actor does X because (motive) he thinks (belief) that in that way he can achieve Y.[25] In this pattern of inference, the analyst's procedure comprises the two steps illustrated in Figure 2. "In many cases," George remarks, "content characteristics which 'indicate' (permit the analyst to infer) the propagandist's goal or strategy can be readily spotted."[26] …

[ page 432 ]

… In order to avoid weak conclusions about internal policy debates, it is necessary to account for Nonsituational Content Characteristics such as the abbreviation of a report for lack of space; because these are present for reasons germane neither to the analyst's principal concern nor to the propagandist's, they may be said to result from Nonpurposive Propaganda Behavior.[27] Briefly put:

  1. Inference from Nonsituational Content Characteristics in the motive-belief pattern must proceed first to Nonpurposive Propaganda Behavior, so that the effects of standard editorial or reportorial procedures are not mistaken for policy conflict.

… Such functional differences as exist among publications should not be taken, in the absence of other evidence, as indications of a disagreement over policy. Other evidence, suggesting that such differences actually reflect a policy disagreement, most often comes from inferences based on Situational Content Characteristics. Therefore:

  1. The inference from Nonsituational Content Characteristics to Nonpurposive Propaganda Behavior should be cross-checked against and reconciled with the inference from Situational Content Characteristics to the Estimate, described in (1) above.
  2. This having been done, inference may continue from Nonpurposive Propaganda Behavior to Propaganda Goal/Strategy; at the same time, the inference from Estimate to Expectation, specified in (2) above, may be reevaluated as a result of the inference in (5).

From the standpoint of the text's author, Propaganda Goal/Strategy and Expectation respectively represent objective and subjective influ-

[ page 433 ]

ences on the text. From the standpoint of the analyst, they yield, for that reason, a strengthened inference based on the combination of the motive-belief and logic-of-the-situation patterns. Therefore:

  1. The original inference, to Intention/Policy, may be made jointly from Propaganda Goal/Strategy and Expectation.

The model of inference portrayed in Figure 3 synthesizes the seven steps that have emerged from the consideration of organizational and cognitive factors. This is a general model that can be adapted, in modified form, to the specific structure and operational procedures of particular propaganda organizations. Its top branch, based on the logic-of-the-situation pattern of inference, describes the process by which the analyst attempts to establish intersubjectivity with the author of the text. The bottom branch, based on the motive-belief pattern, describes the steps the analyst takes to insure that he does not impose, by overinterpretation, his own subjectivity on that of the text's author. In other words, generally speaking, the top branch portrays cognitive effects on a text's content, and the bottom branch controls for extrinsic organizational effects. These two procedures check one another and together contribute to the final inference.

Figure 3. Synthesis of Cognitive and Organizational Considerations in Inference.
Figure 3
The numbers refer to issues enumerated in the text; they do not necessarily correspond to the order in which the steps, which are interrelated, must be executed.

[From 4. Conclusion: Power and Policy in the U.S.S.R?]

In the end, neither the study of who has power over individual decisions, nor that of how the broad contours of policy are formed, is enough. Each is necessary, but even together they are insufficient. James Rosenau has succinctly stated the problem by observing that

hypotheses that seek to predict decisional behavior are too narrow to provide more than partial comprehension of [a state's external behavior],

[ page 434 ]

and hypotheses that seek to predict policy behavior are too broad to provide an incisive understanding of [it. The problem with using decisions as dependent variables is that] a society must engage in a series of behaviors and not in a single behavior in order to preserve or alter a situation abroad. …
     [But policies,] in their most common usage as dependent variables, … have no fixed behavioral boundaries and are so variable, amorphous and all-encompassing that the findings they yield obscure variance and defy cumulation.[28]

When Rosenau suggested the study of foreign policy "undertakings," he meant "the serial, purposeful, and coordinative nature of foreign policy behavior."[29] A focus on fluid noncrisis situations would be appropriate to the study of foreign policy undertakings.[30] This sort of approach could shed light on organizational actors in Soviet foreign policy formulation; it would provide a framework for observing not only behavioral continuities resulting from standard operational procedures, but also behavioral discontinuities resulting from the impact of significant international events.

[ page 435 ]

… The strategy of creating vested interests among domestic constituencies in the Soviet Union assumes that organizational learning occurs. What requires further attention is the specification of whose attitudes, and which structures, change—i.e., of how learning occurs in Soviet foreign policy formation. Cognitive and organizational frameworks for analysis, combined within an approach that focuses on information processing, are appropriate for such investigations.

… An understanding of organizational processes in Soviet policy making, including the press as a vehicle of political communication,[34] will help to clarify precisely what kind of general model

[ page 436 ]

might describe Soviet reality most accurately. The use of cognitive and organizational perspectives will contribute to making the results obtained in the study of the Soviet Union comparable across political systems.

[ page 426 ]

[Note 14]. Robert M. Cutler, "Unifying the Cognitive-Map and Operational-Code Approaches: An Integrated Framework with an Illustrative Example," in Christer Jonsson, ed., Cognitive Dynamics and International Politics (London: Frances Pinter, [1982]), [pp. 91–121].

[ page 427 ]

[Note 15]. Alexander George, Propaganda Analysis: A Study of Inferences Made from Nazi Propaganda in World War II (Evanston, Ill.: Row, Peterson, 1959), 61.

[ page 428 ]

[Note 17]. Ibid., 41.

[ page 429 ]

[Note 19]. Personal interview[, Moscow, summer 1980]. … Further information is available from the author upon request.

[Note 20]. Reference to such circles is found, upon occasion, even in the Soviet press. One example of this occurs in July 1974. During the last days of that month, Komsomol′skaia pravda ran a long two-part article by a section head in the Central Committee Propaganda Department, lauding détente without qualification—at the height of the Cyprus crisis: "It is possible to speak with plenty of reason of an expansion of détente, of realistic prospects for the realization of numerous new possibilities, on the basis of [those] already achieved." What is even more striking, this article, in a catalogue of influences contributing détente, excludes any mention of the Soviet armed forces.
     The very next day, a leading article in the armed-forces newspaper reminded its readers: "Despite the achieved détente, the international situation remains difficult. It would be extremely dangerous if a view prevailed in social circles that everything is perfectly all right now, that the danger of war has been eliminated, and that the task of securing peace can be relegated into the background or even further." (Emphases added.) Since the Soviet Union would not be endangered if such a view prevailed in Washington, the reference must be to "social circles" (obshchestvennye krugi) in Moscow. It is possible to conclude from this not only that such circles exist in Soviet policy formation, but also that these circles are conscious of their interests (for "securing peace," read "building arms") and recognize that other circles may have opposing

[ page 430 ]

interests. Such a conclusion would not necessarily imply that the composition of individual circles is constant over time or across issues.
     G. Oganov, "Razriadka: nastoiashchee, budushchee. 1. Real′nost′ mira" [Détente: Present and Future. 1. The Reality of Peace], Komsomol′skaia pravda, July 30, 1974, p. 3; "V interesakh bezopasnosti narodov" [In the Interests of the Security of the Peoples] (editorial), Krasnaia zvezda, July 31, 1974, p. 1. Translations are by the author.

[Note 21]. Care should be taken not to confuse what Western policy analysts usually mean by "decisions" with resheniia—also meaning "decisions"—which are authoritative statements, rather like resolutions, adopted at Party gatherings.

[Note 22]. Paul Ricoeur, "The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text," Social Research, XXXVIII (Autumn 1971): 557.

[Note 23]. Ibid., 558 (original emphasis omitted).

[ page 431 ]

[Note 24]. See Myron Rush, "The Role of Esoteric Communication in Soviet Politics," in The Rise of Khrushchev (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1958), 88-94; Rush, "Esoteric Communication in Soviet Politics," World Politics, XL (July 1959): 614–20.

[Note 25]. Georg Henrik von Wright, Explanation and Understanding, (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971), 93-97, 115-17 and nn.

[Note 26]. George (fn. 15), 60.

[ page 434 ]

[Note 27]. George mentions this variable but does not discuss it: ibid., 41.

[Note 28]. Rosenau, "Moral Fervor, Systematic Analysis, and Scientific Consciousness in Foreign Policy Research," in Austin Ranney, ed., Political Science and Public Policy (Chicago: Markham, 1968), 212, 215.

[Note 29]. Ibid., 221.

[Note 30]. 0n the utility of studying noncrisis situations, see … Lincoln P. Bloomfield, The Foreign Policy Process: Making Theory Relevant, Sage Professional Paper in International Studies No. 02-028 (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1974), 41.

[Note 34]. There is a high-quality Soviet literature on this subject that Western specialists on Soviet policy making have yet to tap. To cite but two examples: Zhurnalistika v politicheskoi strukture obshchestva [Journalistics in the Political Structure of Society], Ia.N. Zasurskii, ed. (Moscow: Izdatel′stvo MGU, 1975); Teoriia i praktika sovetskoi

[ page 436 ]

periodicheskoi pechati [Theory and Practice of the Soviet Periodical Press], V.D. Pel′t, ed. (Moscow: "Vysshaia shkola," 1980).

Dr. Robert M. Cutlerwebsiteemail ] was educated at MIT and The University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in Political Science, and has specialized and consulted in the international affairs of Europe, Russia, and Eurasia since the late 1970s. He has held research and teaching positions at major universities in the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, and Russia, and contributed to leading policy reviews and academic journals as well as the print and electronic mass media in three languages.

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