H-Diplo/ISSF Article Review 139 on “Substate Organizations as Foreign Policy Agents: New Evidence and Theory from India, Israel, and France.”

George Fujii's picture

H-Diplo | ISSF
Article Review 139

Review Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Seth Offenbach
Production Editor:  George Fujii

Nicolas Blarel and Jayita Sarkar.  “Substate Organizations as Foreign Policy Agents:  New Evidence and Theory from India, Israel, and France.”  Foreign Policy Analysis 15:3 (2019): 413-431.

Published by ISSF on 28 May 2020


Review by Paul Staniland, University of Chicago

Nicolas Blarel and Jayita Sarkar have written a valuable article on the intra-state politics of foreign policy.  An extensive line of research in recent years has examined how domestic political competition (i.e. elections and parties), public opinion, and leaders can shape foreign policy.  Yet bureaucracies within the state – what Blarel and Sarkar refer to as ‘sub-state organizations’ or SSOs—are often powerful actors, especially in technical domains that often escape the detailed attention of the public or politicians.  The authors aim to revive an older research approach—perhaps most associated with Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision[1] – that took bureaucracies seriously as actors in international politics.

They move beyond this general orientation to offer more specific hypotheses about how SSOs can shape international cooperation.  Blarel and Sarkar argue that SSOs will be most autonomous in highly technical areas where political elites lack expertise, and when SSOs receive a broad mandate for achieving goals.  When these conditions hold, SSOs gain the power to identify other SSO partners for international collaboration, favoring those that can offer expertise but also have similar institutional designs and organizational cultures that facilitate cooperation.

They explore this framework using a pair of comparative case studies, examining India-Israel and India-France cooperation in scientific and defense initiatives.  This methodology aims for a plausibility probe of the hypotheses, rather than seeking to definitely establish causality. They argue that these are least-likely cases for their theory, given that we would expect a high degree of political oversight on cooperation about such sensitive technologies.

The empirical findings largely align with their expectations.  Even amidst broader political tensions between the two countries, the French and Indian nuclear establishments developed good ties in the 1950s and then space technology in the 1960s. A strong relationship at the level of SSOs continued into the 1990s, but it was only in the late 1990s that the political leadership of the two countries moved toward a strategic partnership. The cooperation of SSOs far predated political direction from India’s political leadership, which Blarel and Sarkar argue was a result of the autonomy that Indian SSOs carved out in highly technical areas

The case of India-Israel ties is more complicated.  The lack of interest among Indian political elites in cultivating Israel placed a major hurdle in front of SSO cooperation.  This only changed in the 1990s, with the Kargil war and rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJ) creating both incentives and looser constraints on cooperation.  The need for finding a partner with useful technology and similarities in Indian and Israeli state-owned defense firms facilitated India-Israel collaboration, which has become quite sticky even through changes in India’s political leadership.

This is an important article that clearly shows the need to account for SSOs in explaining international cooperation.  It valuably directs our attention to a set of actors and processes that are under-appreciated in most existing research on the domestic politics of international relations.  Blarel and Sarkar make their general point effectively, and identify an agenda that other scholars should be excited to pursue.

The article is not fully persuasive in all of its points, suggesting areas for future research. Theoretically, one can imagine that foreign policy executives might intentionally and strategically allow SSOs autonomy in order to pursue under-the-radar policies that avoid domestic or international costs that would accompany greater publicity. Blarel and Sarkar assume that SSOs are able to carve out autonomy in the face of executives’ lack of knowledge, but it may be more of a delegative exercise in which executives are well aware of what the SSOs are doing and approve of it.

Second, the authors could have done more work to highlight how we would know ahead of time which kinds of SSOs are most likely to share organizational cultures and institutional designs.  There are numerous dimensions along which SSOs vary (centralization, state ownership, relationship to private sector actors, hiring/staffing processes, historical experiences, etc), and it remains somewhat vague how they can be used to generate clear predictions.

Third, the cases provide more limited (though still extensive) support than the authors claim.  For instance, there is little detailed discussion of the organizational culture argument in the French case, despite the authors’ claim that it supports that hypothesis.  The Israel case largely shows the primacy of high politics and political leaders, with SSOs subservient to them.  The SSO-specific arguments help us understand more fine-grained dynamics later on in the India-Israel relationship, but the broad trajectory of the case is quite compatible with existing literature.

These issues suggest that future work would benefit from two lines of inquiry.  The first is a more richly developed assessment of interactions between political elites and SSOs that help to unpack both how elites may deploy SSOs and the conditions under which SSOs are able to either push back against elites or simply evade their oversight. The second is a clearer operationalization of institutional and organizational similarities that can drive cooperation.  This article provides a valuable basis for a rich line of future work that can both build on and complicate its core arguments.


Paul Staniland is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.  He studies political violence and international security, with a regional focus on South Asia.  Staniland is the author of Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse (Cornell University Press, 2014).

©2020 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License



[1] Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd ed. (New York: Longman, 1999).