Eurafrique, France & Mali

Mental Maps and Foreign Policy Decision-Making: Eurafrique and the French Military Intervention in Mali

Benedikt Erforth

Erschienen in: ERIS – European Review of International Studies. Heft 2/2016, S. 38-57

Abstract: Mental maps matter. By looking at France’s decision to launch a military operation in Mali in January 2013, this article decrypts the complex compound of decision-makers’mental maps focusing in particular on the geographic image of Eurafrique. When justifying the military intervention in one of their country’s former colonies, French decision-makers framed the Malian crisis as an imminent threat to the European continent, emphasising geographical vicinity and the close ties between Africa and Europe. These arguments mirror the concept of Eurafrique, a spatial construction that stresses the complementary and interdependence between the two continents. This article reintroduces the notion of Eurafrique as a frame for analysing the present-day French security discourse towards the African continent in general and towards France’s former colonies in particular. The argument joins the debate on the use of mental maps in the field of foreign policy analysis (FPA). The findings show that the notion considerably influenced French decision-makers’ perception of the crisis in Mali, but also points to the narrative’s limited reach as its success is dependent not only on the transmitter but also on the recipients.

Keywords: Mental maps, international security, France, Africa, political psychology


This article broaches the issue of how mental maps affect policy-making processes. More precisely, it explores a specific geopolitical image – Eurafrique – that has been present in the French foreign policy discourse since colonial times and applies it to the case of the French military intervention in Mali in 2013. Geography plays an important role among the set of cognitive images that individuals hold. This is particularly true for foreign policy-makers, who rely heavily on “geographical ideas, images, and associated reasoning processes” when perceiving and interacting with what is described as foreign.[2] Territory and territorial boundaries remain integral to the present-day order of the international system. Therefore, a comprehensive explanation of foreign policy-making needs to account for those geographical images and understand how they interact with “other images and calculations of choice”.[3] By identifying cognitive shortcuts as crucial factors in the decision-making process, the article provides an alternative explanation of France’s continuous readiness to intervene in sub-Saharan Africa, challenging strictly rationalist accounts of decision-making.[4] According to this view ‘classical economic man’ and the rational man of modern statistical decision theory and game theory make optimal choices in narrowly constrained, neatly defined situations. A “rational agent is one who comes to a social situation with [already defined] preferences over possible social states” on the basis of which s/he conducts a simple cost-benefit analysis.[5] Consequently, rational choice approaches do not deal with ideas and perceptions, but instead “take the identity and interest of actors as outside the analysis”.[6] The problem with this assumption is that it excludes “all mental phenomena from explanations of human behaviour” and thus oversimplifies human motivation,[7] divorces it from “contexts that give it meaning”,[8] and reduces human beings to one-dimensional like units. In what follows, I contest this view and argue that the French decision to launc Operation Serval – France’s largest military operation since the Algerian War – can only be understood if the mental image of a shared Eurafrican space is taken into account. In doing so, I build on existing work in the fields of political psychology and political geography that have demonstrated the considerable impact of subjective perceptions on decision-making processes.[9] Shapiro and Bonham – on the basis of their research on cognitive mapping models of decision-making – conclude that decision-makers’ beliefs “probably account for more of the variance than any other single factor”.[10] As a practitioner, former State Department planner Louis Halle came to the same conclusion stating that “the foreign policy of a nation addresses itself not to the external world, as is commonly stated, but rather to ‘the image of the external world’ that is in the minds of those who make foreign policy”.[11]

In particular, when confronted with situations of high uncertainty, policy-makers rely on “heuristics that facilitate information processing and decision making”[12] and make otherwise unmanageable situations manageable.[13] In the following, these simplification and ordering processes are defined as mental maps, a notion that originates from the works of early Gestalt psychologists in the 1930s.[14] A more systematic use of the concept in political science and international relations became possible thanks to the pioneering work of Harold and Margaret Sprout and in particular their theorisation of the man-milieu relationship.[15] The understanding of mental maps proposed here comes closest to what Harold and Margaret Sprout define as ‘cognitive behaviourism’, according to which “a person reacts to [her/]his milieu as [s]he apperceives it – that is, as [s]he perceives and interprets it in the light of past experience”.[16] Studying the geographic mental maps of American foreign policy actors, Henrikson observes that mental maps are not only shaped and influenced by processes of institutionalisation, but are also a result of “education and, more broadly, socialization”.[17] Mental maps are not simply ad hoc reactions to external observations and stimuli, but develop over a longer period. Past experience, present observation, and future expectations are mental maps’ three constituent dimensions.[18] In the remainder of this paper, I account for each of these three dimensions when discussing the emergence, development, and application of Eurafrique.

[1] All translations are by the author.
[2] Alan K. Henrikson, ‘Distance and Foreign Policy: A Political Geography Approach’, International Political Science Review, Vol. 23, No. 4 (2002), p. 440.
[3] Harvey Starr, ‘On Geopolitics: Spaces and Places’, International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 3 (2013), p. 435.
[4] Min Ye, ‘Poliheuristic Theory, Bargaining, and Crisis Decision Making’, Foreign Policy Analysis, Vol. 3, No. 4 (2007), p. 320.
[5] Kenneth A. Shepsle, ‘Studying Institutions: Some Lessons from the Rational Choice Approach’, in J. Farr, J. S. Dryzek, and S. T. Leonard (eds.), Political Science in History: Research Programs and Political Traditions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 280.
[6] Duncan Snidal, ‘Rational Choice and International Relations’, in W. Carlsnaes, T. Risse, and B. A. Simmons (eds.), Handbook of International Relations (London: Sage, 2002), p. 75.
[7] Jonathan Mercer, ‘Rationality and Psychology in International Politics’, International Organization, Vol. 59, No. 1 (2005), p. 78.
[8] Richard N. Lebow, A Cultural Theory of International Relations (Leiden: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 45.
[9] Paul Kowert, ‘Completing the Ideational Triangle: Identity, Choice, and Obligation in International Relations’, in V. P. Shannon and P. Kowert (eds.), Psychology and Constructivism in International Relations: An Ideational Alliance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012), p. 32.
[10] Michael Shapiro and Matthew Bonham, ‘Cognitive Process and Foreign Policy Decision-making’, International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 17 (1973), No. 2, p. 161.
[11] Quoted in: Alexander L. George, ‘The ‘Operational Code’: A Neglected Approach to Political Leaders and Decision-making’, International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2 (1969), pp. 190–91.
[12] Kurt Weyland, ‘The Diffusion of Revolution: “1848” in Europe and Latin America’, International Organization, Vol. 63, No. 3 (2009), p. 408.
[13] Charles F. Hermann, ‘International Crisis as a Situational Variable’, in J. N. Rosenau (ed.), International Politics and Foreign Policy: A Reader in Research and Theory (New York: Free Press, 1969), p. 416.
[14] Henrikson, ‘Distance and Foreign Policy’, op. cit., p. 497.
[15] David Criekemans, ‘Where ‘Geopolitics’ and ‘Foreign Policy Analysis’ once met: The Work of Harold and Margaret Sprout and its Continued Relevance Today’, Working Paper ISA Annual Convention – Exploring the Past, Anticipating the Future (New York, 2009); Harold Sprout and Margaret Sprout, The Ecological Perspective on Human Affairs: With Special Reference to International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965); Harold Sprout and Margaret Sprout, ‘Environmental Factors in the Study of International Politics’, in J. Rosenau (ed.), International Politics and Foreign Policy: A reader in Research and Theory (New York: Free Press, 1969).
[16] Ibid, p. 45.
[17] Henrikson, ‘Distance and Foreign Policy’, op. cit., p. 503.

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Sie möchten gerne weiterlesen? Dieser Beitrag ist in dem Heft 2/2016 der Zeitschrift ERIS – European Review of International Studies erschienen.

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