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The Foreign Policies of Arab StatesThe Challenge of Globalization$

Bahgat Korany and Ali E. Hillal Dessouki

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9789774163609

Published to Cairo Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5743/cairo/9789774163609.001.0001

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Conclusion: Foreign Policy, Globalization, and the Arab Dilemma of Change

Conclusion: Foreign Policy, Globalization, and the Arab Dilemma of Change

(p.481) 14 Conclusion: Foreign Policy, Globalization, and the Arab Dilemma of Change
The Foreign Policies of Arab States

Bahgat Korany

Ali E. Hillal Dessouki

American University in Cairo Press

Abstract and Keywords

The four general chapters and the nine case studies in this book offer a wealth of information. This information deals not only with relatively under-researched foreign policies of some countries but also with under-researched aspects like the making of foreign policy. At the heart of the analysis n is the question of how Arab countries cope with the accelerated and multidimensional change characteristic of increasing global interconnectedness. This interconnectedness is no longer primarily interstate but intersocietal, ranging from the flow of tourists and international capital. While many aspects of change have made huge inroads, such as the number of internet users, satellite information, the privatization of the economy, liberalization, and the rise of civil society organizations as well as political parties, rigid belief systems concerning modes of political governance continue to prevail. As a result, the foreign policies of many Arab states have so far failed to restructure in response to new internal and external contexts.

Keywords:   Arab states, terrorism, Islam, global interconnectedness, tourism, international capital, liberalization

After this journey through thirteen chapters concerning Foreign Policies of Arab States in the global era, where are we?

The four general chapters and the nine case studies offer us a wealth of information. This information deals not only with relatively underresearched foreign policies of some countries (for example, al-Mashat's study of the UAE, or Rosenblum and Zartman's study of Morocco) but also with underresearched aspects like the making of foreign policy. For instance, Salloukh's table documenting the eighty-four entries to the post of Lebanon's foreign minister from 1944–2007 raises relevant questions about the dynamics of the Lebanese system and which sect occupied the position when and for how long. It shows that members of the Shi′a community occupied the position only twice, with the first time in 1968 and only for ten days. But the Greek Catholic community dominated this post, with one of its members, Philippe Taqla, holding it seven times during the thirty-year period 1946–1976.

At the heart of the analysis in this third edition is the question of how Arab countries cope with the accelerated and multidimensional change characteristic of increasing global interconnectedness. This interconnectedness is no longer primarily interstate but intersocietal, ranging from the flow of tourists and international capital (in both directions, thanks to the pileup of petrodollars) to the influx of ideas (for example, the pressure to “democratize” and in a certain way). How did these foreign policies respond—or fail to respond—to globalization? How did governing elites (p.482) respond or fail to respond to the twin challenges of globalization—lack of national control and crisis of governance? How can the established body of social science theory help us capture—or not—this Arab reality and its complexity?

When we subtitled the second edition of this volume “The Challenge of Change” in 1991, we identified the problem and reiterated its centrality in the concluding chapter. But frankly, we did not think that the problem would continue and become even more acute seventeen years later. While many aspects of change have made huge inroads, such as the number of internet users, satellite information, the privatization of the economy, liberalization, and the rise of civil society organizations as well as political parties, rigid belief systems concerning modes of political governance continue to prevail. As a result, the foreign policies of many Arab states failed to restructure in response to new internal and external contexts, (see, for example, Chapter 3 concerning some aspects of resistance to globalization, and Kandil's chapter on Syria). There are lots of movements but little progress. The Arab political agenda continues to be overcrowded. To the eternal Arab-Israeli conflict are added the quagmire of Iraq and the issue of fragmentation of political authority, of ethnic wars and of civil society, democratization, human rights, poverty, and unemployment. In a conflict-ridden region still conceptually dominated by a Realist lens, the analysis of foreign policy of Arab countries, however, cannot be separated from its domestic context. As Lesch in Chapter 11 puts it in the case of the Sudan, “internal conflicts, regional relations, and global orientations are closely interwoven. They feed on each other, heighten each other, and constrain each other. A shift in one of the three levels impacts the other levels.”

The Primacy of a Holistic Approach to Foreign Policy

The interconnectedness of policy levels explains why, from the start, we insisted on a holistic approach to the analysis of foreign policy. This holistic approach incorporated political economy and historical sociology, to attract attention to both current issues as well as historical patterns of state formation (Chapters 1 and 2). We shunned the trap of single-variable deterministic explanations like ‘global dependency’ or ‘international anarchy’ at the macro level or ‘psychologistic eductionism’ at the unit/state level. These are relevant phenomena and certainly impact the making of foreign policies in these countries, but neither a (p.483) country's general orientation nor its patterns of behavior can be reduced to either of them.

As Chapter 3 shows, we attach great importance to the conditioning global/regional contexts, and Paul Noble in Chapter 4 masterfully links the two levels conceptually and empirically. As for idiosyncratic variables, it is of course absurd, as we have said before, to imagine the fate of contemporary Iraq without giving due weight to the personality of Saddam Hussein. The question is whether the intricacies of the Gulf crises, for example, or the eight-year Iraq-Iran war, Kuwait's invasion, and Iraq's occupation could be reduced to the personalities of Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, or Sheikh Jaber al-Sabah without analyzing in depth the oil factor, or US objectives in a unipolar system. In our analytical framework, we have tried to balance this one-sidedness and obsession with idiosyncratic factors by attracting attention to global-systemic constraints, domestic structures, geopolitical context, and characteristics of state formation, whether we are talking of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, or Sudan. Our message is that the leader at the top is to be analyzed not as a psychological atom but rather as a social phenomenon, part and parcel of the wider context. (Dessouki and Abul Kheir talk in their chapter on Jordan about Hussein's “monarchic pluralism.”) The leader's disproportionate influence is not due to his exceptional personal qualities as much as to the specific social context that allows him great latitude. Like most developing countries, Arab countries are still characterized by weak formal interest groups, a high level of illiteracy, a relatively low level of bureaucratic development and communication facilities, modest resources at the disposal of civil society, and a personalized political culture.

This preeminence itself varies. The leader could be an agenda setter, arbiter, or final decision maker, which indicates that his greatest influence is not primarily in determining foreign policy in general but in taking—as distinct from making—decisions. Making decisions is a more involved process whereby various factors interfere1. His preeminence is part of the country's social dynamics and not a substitute for them. Given its influence as a hegemonic conceptual lens, this psychologism was submitted to serious critical evaluation in Chapter 2 in order to pave the way for a less skewed analysis of foreign policy and its multidimensional manifestations.

(p.484) Holism, Yes, But Also Distinguishing Between the Common and Specific in Arab Foreign Policies

To promote this holistic approach, we attached special importance to a dualistic definition of foreign policy output as both role conception, or general foreign policy objectives and orientation, as well as the translation of this overall verbal role enunciation into action as role performance or specific behavior. This distinction between role conception and role performance allows us to deal with the variety of foreign policy, both vision and specific action, without lumping them together. It also allows us to identify what is common in the policies of these countries (such as the insistence on pan-Arabism) as well as what is specific (such as Qatar's or Morocco's interactions with Israel). For instance, all the Arab countries share major aspects of state formation (for example, the role of colonial powers), state functioning (for example, the predominant role of the military and/or other segments of the new middle class, increasingly at present businessmen), problems of economic development and their social consequences, and Arab-Islamic political culture.

But Arab countries also differ, whether in their specific geopolitical aspects (for example, Morocco and Algeria are not frontline states with Israel as are Jordan or Syria), level and quality of resources (the ‘haves/have-nots’ division between rich oil-exporting and poor labor-exporting countries), specific social structures and organization (for example, peasant versus Bedouin), elite composition (for example, veteran politicians versus technocrats, Islamist groups versus secular managers), and of course the types of specific problems faced (for example, the problem of the south or Darfur in the Sudan, the status of foreign labor in many Gulf monarchies, sociopolitical consequences of privatization in Egypt, Jordan or Morocco). This mix of common and specific components impacting on Arab foreign policymaking indicates why Arab countries historically share some aspects of foreign policy and differ on others. In this respect, the common aspects have appeared most at the level of foreign policy orientation, or role conception, and the differentiating elements in foreign policy behavior, or role performance.

At the regional level, the insistence has been on Arab unity or at least a certain form of pan-Arabism. While this pattern was most apparent in the 1950s and 1960s, the story is different at the beginning of the twenty-first century. With the end of East-West bipolarity and of the cold war (but not the end of history!), the issue of nonalignment was bound to lose much of (p.485) its value. Similarly, the issue of Arab unity has also ceased to be a war cry affecting the legitimacy of different political regimes. Since all Arab states declared their adherence to the principle of a pragmatic approach, pan-Arabism lost its salience as a controversial dividing issue. Since the late 1980s and even more at present, there has been a consensus on accommodation with Israel—a sharp contrast with the late 1970s. An example is the 1988 Palestinian National Council (PNC) acceptance of a Palestinian state in coexistence with Israel. Similarly, with the passage of time, the Arab states' approach to Arab unity changed to emphasize not the ‘one Arab state’ conception but a strategy of phases around subgroups (for example, the 1981 Gulf Cooperation Council, the 1988 Maghreb Union, and the 1989 Arab Cooperation Council). Moreover, the emphasis is no longer on ideological purity, but rather on material and pragmatic interests such as relations between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ within the ‘Arab family.’

Briefly, global-systemic constraints and historical-regional patterns, such as the belief in one Arab nation, clustered Arab foreign policy around a similar identity orientation, whether in the form of formal disengagement from cold war blocs or insistence on the oneness of the ‘Arab nation.’ It is revealing that even during the 1990–1991 Gulf crisis, supporters and opponents of Saddam Hussein's actions did not question the principle of settling Arab affairs among Arabs. Rather, it is how this principle is interpreted, respected, or violated that has divided the Arab countries. Hence the importance of dealing with how the consensual foreign policy orientation or role conception is actually enacted in specific foreign policy behavior.

It is indeed by dealing with the foreign policy behavior of Arab countries that we realize the complexity of this subject matter. A first discrepancy is that most Arab countries have insisted on raison de la nation or umma (Arab nationalism) in justifying their (regional) foreign policy orientation, but have, more often than not, conducted their foreign policy in terms of raison ďétat. For example, Egypt's intervention in the Yemeni civil war of 1962–1967 was officially in the name of raison de la nation or umma and the promotion of Arab revolution and liberation, but it was equally, if not primarily, in defense of Egyptian regional leadership. Similarly, Saddam Hussein conducted both the war against Khomeini's Iran and the invasion of Kuwait in the name of the defense of basic Arab interests. But Iraq's moves were equally, if not primarily, the result of specific Iraqi needs and motivations, whether the perception of a threat from Khomeini's Iran, or the necessity of invading (p.486) Kuwait to “correct” colonial history and Baghdad's economic conjuncture. A similar mix of explanation and motivation of foreign policy moves exists in Syria's 1976 military intervention in Lebanon, its present relations with Iran, and Morocco's actions toward the Western Sahara.

While foreign policy orientation is mostly consensual in nature (even in an acutely fragmented Lebanon), foreign policy behavior can and does put Arab countries at cross-purposes—as, for example, in Morocco's rivalry with Algeria, Lebanon's tensions with Syria, and lingering border disputes among some Gulf countries. This is the case because foreign policy behavior, much more than orientation, brings out differences between Arab actors—their varieties of political regimes, geopolitical characteristics, and resource bases. In its behavior, Kuwait, for instance, is bound, because of its size and Iraqi claims, to emphasize the threats to its political independence and survival, whereas these issues are much less at stake in the case of Iraq itself, Morocco, or Egypt. In these last two cases, if survival is an issue at all, it is mainly at the domestic, economic level, in the form of democratization pressures, and the maintenance of subsidies and the welfare state. The chapters on Jordan and the Sudan show that the threats to an actor's survival may, in fact, be both political and economic.

As we can see, such differences are not a function of, or even primarily associated with, the leader at the top. Thus Saudi Arabia practiced its nonalignment in a very peculiar way: not having diplomatic relations with the erstwhile Communist bloc countries on the ground that they were atheist, but then, in the context of the Gulf crisis, deciding to reestablish diplomatic relations with Moscow. Indeed, before the end of the cold war, Saudi Arabia purchased missiles from ‘Communist’ China and severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Regional issues, too, bring into the open behavioral differences among Arab states. Thus the greatest contrast between orientation and behavior in the late 1970s was in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Egypt practiced a ‘go it alone’ policy, whereas the majority of Arab countries opposed this policy. Though the 1980s saw the continuation of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the issue did not prevent Egypt's reintegration into the Arab regional system and the appearance of an Arab behavioral consensus in accepting the state of Israel, especially after the 1988 Palestine National Council acceptance of the idea of an independent Palestinian state, the 1993 Oslo Accords, and the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty. Similarly, the eight-year Iran-Iraq war manifested Arab differences.

(p.487) Whereas the majority of Arab countries—especially in the Gulf region—took Baghdad's side, Libya, Syria, South Yemen, and Algeria sided with Tehran. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the issue of Iran's nuclear program still puts the Arab consensus to the test.

Related to incongruence in role conception and performance are sudden changes, zigzagging, and improvisation in foreign policy behavior. In some cases, this is caused by despair at the gap between capabilities and objectives. In others, the cause is the complexity of global politics and the confusion between national dreams (which are by definition of a long-range nature) and objectives that depend on operational capabilities.

The Arab world also provides examples of states with acute foreign policy dilemmas. The Lebanese case is striking—a sovereign state, and member of the United Nations and the League of Arab States, it finds its territory the battleground of combating forces. Lebanon has become an arena for the foreign policies of other actors, rather than being able to choose a foreign policy of its own. To the extent that Lebanon has a foreign policy, it is the ‘art of the impossible.’ The diffusion of the impact of globalization and crises of governance could generalize this problem of serious fragmentation to areas beyond Lebanon. A factionalization of the many parts of the Arab world could take place. Foreign policy is handcuffed to domestic developments. Hence the imperative of going beyond the study of foreign policy determinants and their outcome to zoom in on the analysis of policymaking, the serious difficulty of accessing the relevant data notwithstanding.

The Necessity of Opening the Black Box

If a focus on foreign policy inputs emphasizes the sorting out and classification of factors determining such a policy, an analysis of decision making is concerned with the chemistry of these factors, of their dynamic nature, and their interaction to produce the outcome: decision. In the case of the UAE, al-Mashat realizes the importance of the personality of the leader but the top imperative is the maintenance of the UAE federal structure, hence the necessity for a minimum of coordination in a collective decision-making process.

The various chapters reflect two main patterns of the decision-making process in Arab countries: prevalent oligarchic presidentialism/royalism, and a collegial-collective pattern. The first emphasizes the presidential/royal center, which includes ‘the president/king as a person’ and ‘the (p.488) presidency/royal palace as institution’ with its advisers, offices, etcetera. Nasser's and Sadat's Egypt comes closest to the oligarchic-presidential pattern of decision making, which is characterized by an authoritarian decision maker who can act alone, without consultation with any political institutions other than a small group of subordinate advisers, typically appointed by the leader and lacking an autonomous power base of their own. Usually these advisers have no independent sources of formal information other than those available to the leader.

This oligarchical pattern is characterized by fragmentation of responsibility on the part of the staff group, reliance on direct negotiation and personal diplomacy with foreign heads of state, and the ability to respond quickly to events and to make unconventional and bold decisions. Leaders often repeat their past behavior in similar situations, make important decisions without consulting their foreign ministers or even prime ministers, and frequently use presidential emissaries (not necessarily career diplomats) in foreign policy assignments. This type of decision making provides the opportunity for nonofficials to perform important roles due to their personal relations with the leader.

At the other end of the spectrum is the collegial or delegate assembly type of decision making, characterized by consultation, bargaining, and a search for consensus. Though formally accepted, in reality it is much less prevalent than the previous kind. This pattern of decision making was followed, for instance, by the PLO even before Yasser Arafat's death, and Lebanon, despite its presidential hierarchy, came close to it for most of its history. This pattern may lead to immobility and an inability to innovate or adapt adequately to changing circumstances. When the pressure for change is no longer avoidable, the resulting decision could be improvised or hesitant. Yasser Arafat's decision not to condemn Iraq's occupation of Kuwait during the August 1990 Arab League summit in Cairo comes closest to this pattern. Lahoud's paralysis after withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon is another example.

Like almost all developing countries, we see that Arab states are characterized by the primacy of the executive and especially the personalized nature of the decision-making process, due mainly to lack of independent checks, weak legislative structures, or independentlybased political groups. The result is the prevalence of a neopatrimonial pattern of decision making in which the distinction between public and private issues and their relationship is highly blurred. Consequently, it (p.489) is not an individual's official position that could indicate relative status and influence in the making of decisions but rather his or her proximity to the top executive. This proximity could be physical (principal private secretary) or social (friends, relatives, wives, or sons). Thus, an acceptance of the leader as the final decision taker characterizes all Arab countries, though the making of decisions—formal or informal—could be a group activity. Korany and Fattah demonstrate this spect extensively even in a relatively secretive and closed system like Saudi Arabia's. In a “hydraulic centralized” system like Mubarak's Egypt, Dessouki emphasizes the presidential center and its staff as the locus of decision making rather than the president alone.

But differences still exist in the types of groups surrounding this leader. In Saudi Arabia, they are influential members of the royal family, tribal heads, ulama, or members of influential commercial families. In Egypt, they are less likely to be ex-military revolutionaries and more likely technocrats or businessmen. In Syria, they are a mixture of military and/or Baathist apparatchiks. Moreover, the type of leader may differ, as between the leader with the historical mission and hence a ‘mover,’ or the leader as purely a ‘manager.’ Mubarak of Egypt symbolizes this last type, whereas Nasser, Sadat, Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, or Tunisia's Bourguiba symbolize the former. The mover type does not necessarily and invariably take radical-nationalist foreign policy decisions, as the cases of Sadat and especially Bourguiba show. These two leaders befriended the dominant powers in their respective regions (whether the United States or France), and both proposed a political settlement with Israel (Bourguiba in a public statement in 1965, while Sadat went beyond words to action by signing the 1979 peace treaty).

In addition, the presence of a historical mission for the leader is not a guarantee of his automatic monopoly of effective decision-making powers. There may even be checks on the leader to impose on him the necessity of consultation, bargaining, and search for consensus. On some occasions, this seems to be the case in Syria, and especially Palestine. The main point is that contrary to the simplistic notion of a domineering leader or “commander of the faithful,” with unchecked and unrestricted powers, the case studies of this book present a more sophisticated image of the decision-making process. In most cases, the leader is confronted by a complex situation of sociopolitical and economic constraints, military vulnerabilities, and a number of domestic political demands (on (p.490) religious, national, or ethnic grounds). Since information is fragmented, personalized, and diffuse, this prevents its free circulation and effective function. Important decisions could be based on incomplete and even misleading information, a serious handicap in a complex context of accelerated globalization. This brings us to the most difficult problem facing Arab foreign policies in the twenty-first century: the unavoidability of vertiginous change.

The Crisis of Adaptation to Change

This dilemma became clear in the early 1990s with a first major global change in the form of the disappearance of the USSR and the end of bipolarity. The impact was most acute on pro-Soviet allies like Syria, the PLO, or even Libya or Saddam's Iraq. What is revealing about the inability to factor in change and hence adapt to it is that, more than many other powers, these pro-Soviet allies seemed to ignore what was going on in the Eastern bloc. When the collapse finally happened it was—as veteran Egyptian journalist Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal called it—a “political earthquake.” Reactions were haphazard and general foreign policy, or role conception, continued for years as if the old world still existed. Reactions to the change in international politics following 9/11 were less slow and more consensual, especially when some regimes (for example, Algeria) could associate their battle against local Islamic opposition groups with the world campaign against terrorism. This antiterrorism campaign was even used to abort external efforts to impose political reform (for example, the Algeria or Tunisia regime's self-interested logic is that the conduct of fair elections could lead to the victory of Islamists like Hamas).

Soffar quotes in his chapter on Iraq the Web site of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of that country, where the main entry emphasizes a “new Iraq.” But this is an extreme case in a state's political evolution through invasion. The general norm in the Arab countries is a lack of foreign policy adaptability as part and parcel of the limited ability of most Arab political systems to open up and initiate real elite circulation. King Abdullah II succeeded his father in Jordan as did Mohammed VI in Morocco. But Bashar also succeeded his father Hafiz al-Assad in Syria—though Syria is a republic. Such a pattern of presidential monarchies gave rise to a new term in Arab political thought: ‘Gomlaka.’ It is a creative amalgamation of parts of the Arabic word gomhuriya (‘republic’) and mamlaka (‘kingdom’). Thus political elite circulation—especially at the top—is limited, while (p.491) Arab society itself is drastically changing, if only at the demographic level with the bulging number of its youth. Chronic lack of adaptability could produce a crisis of governance and could lead to a breakdown.

This discrepancy in the level of change between the top of the political system and its base has led to the fragmentation of political authority and of foreign policy itself. Sudan might be an extreme case, but it is not unique. With the dominance of the ‘Washington consensus’ and the increasing influence of businessmen, foreign policy moves are increasingly ‘privatized.’ With the rise of ethnic or religious sectarian groups, foreign policy is similarly ethnicized. Kurds in Iraq tend to have their own foreign policy. It was Hizbullah, rather than the Lebanese state, that faced Israel in the thirty-six-day war of summer 2006. Darfur is another example of state factionalization. As Chapter 2 attempted to show in its evaluation of dominant paradigms of foreign policy analysis, these examples of fragmentation demonstrate once more how complex the conduct of foreign policy is in the present Arab context. They do demonstrate how misleading it is to define foreign policy as simply “the defense of national interest.”

In the face of such complexity of both global and domestic environments, most foreign policymakers stuck to minimum-level objectives or showed risk aversion. When major foreign policy shifts have taken place-such as Libya's volte face in 2005–2006-it has been to join the mainstream and carry out rapprochement with the US and major European powers. Otherwise, many foreign policies muddled through amid sea changes. For instance, the Saudi-initiated Arab peace plan for settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 2007 has already been submitted to the Arab summit back in the early 1980s.

Despite the mushrooming of satellite television channels like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, the governing elite's belief systems showed a surprising rigidity, a static tendency, and an inclination to do business as usual. Kandil's chapter on Syria is full of supporting examples. Adaptation to globalization and crises of governance was selective, emphasizing mostly aspects of economic reform rather than political ones. With the exceptions of such cases as Hamas gaining power, elections seemed to maintain the political status quo.

Moreover, the increasing instance of Islamophobia following 9/11 (as, for example, in the Danish cartoons controversy) confirmed many Muslims' ‘siege mentality’ and reinforced polarization and religiopolitics. Despite repeated talks and meetings concerning the “dialogue of cultures,” (p.492) effective political bridge building did not materialize. Tension—latent or bubbling to the surface—seemed to dominate over accommodation at both the domestic and global levels

The absence of a new social contract between governors and governed as well as the failure to find the magic formula to cope effectively with the hazards of globalization reflected the failure to elaborate a regional post-cold war vision and reinforced foreign policy improvisation and a piecemeal approach. Arab ‘deficits’ in good governance emphasized by the much-cited annual Arab Human Development Reports published since 2003 are now coupled with a major adaptability deficit to global sea changes. As a result, instead of overall Arab foreign policy frameworks, the foreign policies of many states are concerned only with managing immediate problems and concentrate on the extremely short term, even in mastering their assets. This piecemeal approach explains why oil—despite increasing global needs and accumulated petrodollars—is no longer a serious Arab bargaining card. This lack of overall regional vision, even in dealing with Iran's nuclear issue, explains why we can talk at present of ‘foreign policies of Arab states’ rather than ‘Arab foreign policies.’ Hopefully, despite the emphasis on specifities, the wealth of data in the analysis of these nine cases, together with the four general chapters can reinforce the bridge established between Middle East studies and comparative foreign policy theorybuilding in the global era.



(1) For an explanation of this distinction, see Bahgat Korant et al., How Foreign Policy Decisions Are Made in the Third World (Boulder: Westview Pess, 1986), 55–59. The many writings, even in the press, about lobbies or ‘invisible government’ compel us to give more attention to this distinction between the easily identifiable ‘decision-taking’ and the much more complex process of decision-making.