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Foreign Policy Learning

Summary and Keywords

An improved understanding of foreign policy learning necessitates a clarification of what foreign policy learning is, who learns, and how such learning occurs. Cognitive and social psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists situated in a variety of subfields have contributed to the understanding of foreign policy learning, a multidisciplinary area of inquiry. Learning theorists seek to show how a change in an actor’s beliefs due to experience or observation can lead to changes at other units, such as organizations and within the government. This cognitive dimension is important because actors may pursue a new course of action for politically expedient reasons rather than having genuinely “learned”—a distinction referred to as “complex” vs. “simple” learning.

Foreign policy learning can be internal or external. The former type of learning entails what individuals, governments, or organizations learn from their prior experience. Learning theorists who focus on the individual level of analysis borrow insights from political psychology in an effort to shed light on the personal characteristics, the belief structures, and the cognitive psychological mechanisms of political actors that can better inform policymaking. Leaders whose cognitive structures are described as relatively open and complex—like Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose learning brought about the dramatic changes that ultimately led to the demise of the Soviet Union—are more likely to alter their beliefs than their cognitively closed and simple counterparts.

Yet external learning occurs as well. Policy diffusion studies show that learning can result from demonstration effects. Foreign policy learning via diffusion is not instrumental, but instead occurs through osmosis. Privatization in the former communist states, China’s Foreign Direct Investment liberalization, and the diffusion of environmental norms in the European Union are examples of learning that is contagious, not chosen. A more conscious mode of learning than diffusion is policy transfer, which entails policymakers’ transferring ideas from one country and implementing them in another. Technological innovations, unlike lessons that involve political ideology, are generally easier lessons to transfer—for example, Japan’s success in applying lessons from the West to modernize its army in the second half of the 19th century.

The constraints to foreign policy learning are formidable. Decision makers are not always open to reconsidering views that challenge their beliefs. Leaders tend to resort to, and misuse, analogies that prevent learning. Even a change in a decision maker’s beliefs may not lead to foreign policy change, given the myriad political pressures, bureaucratic hurdles, and economic realities that often get in the way of implementing new ideas. Indeed, foreign policy learning and foreign policy change are not synonymous.

Scholars face significant obstacles in studying foreign policy learning. There is no consensus on the definition of learning, on what constitutes learning, on how actors learn, when they learn, or on how to assess whether learning has taken place. Despite attempts to make sense of the confusion, scholars face the daunting challenge of improving understanding of how learning is shaped and funneled through the interaction of agents and the structures in which they are situated, as well as the relationship between learning and foreign policy change.

Keywords: advocacy networks, cognitive structure, epistemic communities, foreign policy analysis, foreign policy change, foreign policy decision making, foreign policy learning, leaders, learning, policy diffusion, policy networks, policy transfer


For over three decades, scholars have studied various forms of learning, including organizational learning (Levitt & March, 1988), social learning (Bandura, 1977; Hall, 1993; Heclo, 1974; Lott & Lott, 1985), and political learning (Breslauer & Tetlock, 1991; Etheredge, 1985; Haas, 1991; Rose, 1993; Stone, 2012). The literature on foreign policy learning, which draws from these different approaches, is truly multidisciplinary. Cognitive and social psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists situated in a variety of subfields have all contributed to the attempt to understand foreign policy learning. The question of who learns is approached differently by scholars who focus on different units of analysis: individuals (decision makers, advisers, specialists, etc.), organizations, the policy community, governments, and regions.

“Can governments learn?” was the question that Lloyd Etheredge asked in his 1985 book of the same title. His answer was decidedly negative. Analyzing U.S. failures in Latin America during the Kennedy years in the 1960s and the Reagan era in the 1980s, Etheredge found that collective learning was “blocked.” An investigation of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, for example, found that Kennedy’s subordinates had perceived their boss to want “doers,” not “doubters” or “worriers,” and thus felt intimidated in meetings and that they were at personal risk if they told the truth (1985, p. 100). The U.S. government had not learned the correct lessons of its earlier experiences in the region, concluded Etheredge.

The end of the cold war sparked renewed interest in the question of foreign policy learning, given the monumental events that began with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and which culminated with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Mainstream international relations theories failed to adequately explain the dramatic change in the structure of the international system, let alone predict it. Scholars searched for better explanations, focusing, for example, on the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last head of state, and the influence of the “New Thinkers” with whom he surrounded himself (Bennett, 1999; Herman, 1996; Mendelson, 1998; Stein, 1994). The young Soviet intellectuals’ “new thinking” helped to convince Gorbachev that Soviet interests lay in rapprochement with the West and liberalization at home (English, 2000, p. 221; Lynch, 1992, p. 32). Gorbachev’s learning led to transformative changes. In the realm of foreign policy, despite facing powerful resistance from conservative politicians and the Soviet military-industrial complex, he advocated common security, universal human rights, the freeing of political prisoners, the unjamming of foreign broadcasts, and the dismantling of nuclear weapons (English, 2000; Snyder, 2005). Stein (1994) convincingly demonstrates that Gorbachev underwent trial-by-error learning through experimentation, aided by the New Thinkers, who, in turn, had learned from the Soviet Union’s failures, such as its ill-fated involvement in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Consequently, Gorbachev made drastic changes in his country’s foreign (and domestic) policy that changed the course of history.

Since the momentous events of the late 1980s and early 1990s, numerous studies on a broad range of issues have been added to the foreign policy learning literature. Scholars have applied learning theory to topics as disparate as shifts in U.S. and Soviet foreign policy (Bennett, 1999; Breslauer & Tetlock, 1991; Nye, 1987); state alliances in the face of international instability (Reiter, 1996); the growth in the number and influence of international organizations, such as UN peacekeeping operations (Haas, 1990; Howard, 2008); China’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) liberalization (Ye, 2009); regional integration (Bomberg, 2007; Bulmer, Dolowitz, Humphreys, & Padgett, 2007; Eising, 2002; Zito & Schout, 2009); and leaders (Farnham, 2001; Malici, 2008; Malici & Malici, 2005; Renshon, 2008; Stein, 1994; Ziv, 2013, 2014).

The very question of what constitutes learning is a matter of scholarly debate, since there is no consensus on the definition. Is learning necessarily an individual activity, or can it be done collectively, such that an organization or a government can learn? How can the scholar determine whether genuine foreign policy learning has occurred? For example, would a government’s adoption of a new policy constitute learning or is a change in a leader’s beliefs necessary for learning to take place? Does learning even need to be instrumental or can it be a less conscious phenomenon—a contagious effect—that incrementally leads to different ideas? What is the relationship between foreign policy learning and foreign policy change? Are there certain conditions that need to be in place for learning to take place? Conversely, are there circumstances that impede foreign policy learning?

To clarify what foreign policy learning is, who learns, and how such learning occurs, it is first necessary to offer a definition for foreign policy learning, followed by discussion of the relationship between learning and foreign policy change, as well as a consideration of what constitutes genuine learning, as opposed to tactical adoption of a new policy.

What is “Learning”?

Levy defined learning as a change of beliefs or the development of new beliefs, skills, or procedures as a result of the observation and interpretation of experience (1994, p. 283). Bennett similarly defined learning as “change in cognitive structures as the result of experience or study” (1999, p. 81). He pointed out that a learning-based explanation “does not dismiss the role of material and political factors, it merely argues that leaders’ changing perceptions of these factors have powerful mediating influences on the direction, magnitude, and timing of policy changes” (Bennett, 1999, p. 11). The cognitive dimension is thus key to an actor’s learning.

As Bennett noted, his definition applies not only to individuals’ belief systems, but also to their organizational, governmental, and international counterparts. Individual learning is the starting point for learning at those other units. In an organization, for example, it is individuals who first recognize the need for change and then act within the norms and procedures of that organization to affect organizational change, a process that changes the “institutional memory” of the organization (Davidson, 2010, p. 19). Finnemore (1996) similarly looked at organizations, offering a constructivist approach to explain the changing roles of international organizations like UNESCO, the Red Cross, and the World Bank. Her explanation calls for “the return of agency,” as it is political actors who help to shape state interests by internalizing norms. When the norms shift, a state’s interests—which are malleable—shift accordingly. Organizations are taught states’ changing preferences, but they, too, often play a role in socializing states to adopt new preferences.

Foreign Policy Learning vs. Foreign Policy Change

Foreign policy learning is often conflated with foreign policy change, but they are distinct phenomena. Although learning can lead to policy change, it is not a prerequisite for it. A shift in a state’s foreign policy can result from political expediency entailing domestic politics or from external pressure—even coercion—where no learning may have occurred. Even when foreign policy change is identified as a distinct goal by actors who have learned, that goal will not necessarily be realized. Levy wrote: “Actors may learn from experience but be prevented by domestic, economic, or bureaucratic constraints from implementing their preferred policies based on what they have learned” (1994, p. 290).

Understanding foreign policy learning is important for understanding foreign policy continuity and change. As Stein pointed out, the relationship among individual learning, political institutionalization, and foreign policy change is not linear, but highly interactive (1995, p. 245). Whether a government or organization embarks on a new path or adheres to the status quo depends first and foremost on the beliefs and attitudes of the decision makers—the leader, along with the political elites, who will either opt to change course or stymie proposed changes. Learning and change are not synonymous, since one can occur without the other. Shifting domestic coalitions can lead to foreign policy change, just as a leader can move in a different foreign policy direction in response to changes in the international environment without having learned any lessons from past experiences or observations. In the absence of learning, however, a government can repeat mistakes that it or other governments have made in the past. It also can revert to the old path if the decision to embark on a new course was taken for purely instrumental reasons—for example, in response to domestic or international pressure. The cognitive dimension is critical to learning because it entails a genuine change in one’s beliefs, as opposed to a tactical maneuver that is politically expedient one moment but may not be so the next moment. At the same time, genuine learning does not guarantee that foreign policy change will follow. A change in beliefs signals a genuine commitment to a foreign policy shift, even if that shift ultimately fails to take place.

Normatively, foreign policy learning can have significant implications for conciliatory policies, such as those involving peace processes. Decision makers whose learning has propelled them to engage in peacemaking will be more dedicated to peace-oriented policies than decision makers whose beliefs have remained the same but who have changed policy for purely instrumental purposes. Analyzing the cognitive structure of decision makers over time can be useful in identifying whether they are likely candidates to pursue peace diplomacy.

Simple vs. Complex Learning

Knowing whether or not actors have learned is important. A leader who has undergone a change in his or her belief system, for example, is likely to be more committed to a newly announced policy than one who is operating at the tactical level. In cases involving peace diplomacy, failed learning can lead to widespread disillusionment with the leadership and with the process in general. As Knopf noted, “the reason for attaching special importance to learning that involves the adoption of new causal understandings or redefinition of goals is clearly an expectation that this will generally lead actors to embrace policies that favor peace and cooperation” (Knopf, 2003, p. 190).

Tetlock (1991) pointed out, however, that most learning takes place at the tactical level following recurring failures to reach adequate solutions to foreign policy problems. U.S. policy toward the Middle East, for example, may vary to some extent from administration to administration, but as Spiegel (1991) has shown, these changes are likely tactical adjustments rather than changes in goals or fundamental assumptions.

Joseph Nye offered a useful distinction between “simple learning” and “complex learning”:

Simple learning uses new information merely to adapt the means, without altering any deeper goals in the ends-means chain. The actor simply uses a different instrument to attain the same goal. Complex learning, by contrast, involves recognition of conflicts among means and goals in causally complicated situations, and leads to new priorities and tradeoffs.

(Nye, 1987, p. 380)

Ernst Haas (1991) similarly differentiated “adaptation” from genuine learning; the former refers to the pursuit of a new course of action without undergoing a reassessment of one’s belief system, while the latter involves the alteration of one’s causal beliefs that leads, in turn, to the adoption of new goals. Learning involves “consensual knowledge,” whereas adaptation is a superficial form of learning that does not entail a consideration of causality (Haas & Haas, 1995, p. 260). To Haas, adaptation, which is equivalent to Nye’s “simple learning,” falls short of learning. Genuine learning—or Nye’s “complex learning”—is the only real form of learning, because it entails an actor’s questioning his or her fundamental beliefs. It is complex learning, therefore, that is the more significant form of learning.

Who Learns?

Learning theorists have selected various units of analysis to explain learning, including the individual, government (or state), organization, region, and society. Scholars have looked at the roles of epistemic communities (Dunlop, 2009; Haas, 1990; Haas & Haas, 1995), think tanks (Stone, 2000), pressure groups, and transnational advocacy groups (Stone, 2004) to explain how various actors assimilate new information. It is the individual unit of analysis, however, that is arguably of greatest utility in explaining the starting point for foreign policy learning. Peter Senge, focusing on organizational learning, noted that “organizations learn only through individuals who learn”; in the absence of individual learning, “no organizational learning occurs” (1990, p. 23). Organizational learning is “metaphorical” given that organizations do not have the cognitive capacity to learn (Sabatier, 1987). “It is the leader, alone or in consultation with senior advisers, who redefines a problem, reorders goals, or chooses new strategies,” wrote Lebow and Stein (1993, p. 95).

International relations theorists, in an effort to produce more rigorous and parsimonious explanations, had long been dismissive of the role of leaders, focusing instead on structures and processes in analyses of world affairs (Byman & Pollack, 2001). With the advent of constructivism as a mainstream theory of international relations—and its emphasis on nonmaterialist aspects of international politics, such as norms and ideas—there was renewed focus on the individual. As Checkel noted, norms change over time through interactions with particular agents, who first internalize norms through a socialization and learning process (1998, p. 340). Political actors are sometimes able to manipulate or change norms to further their own interests, such as many of the Mezhdunarodniki (or “internationalists”) in the Soviet Union who promoted the New Thinking to change the course of Soviet foreign policy and, at the same time, to serve the political interests of the liberal reformers (Kowert & Legro, 1996, p. 492).

To grapple with the question of whether foreign policy learning has occurred, it is instructive—and, arguably, necessary—to study leaders under whose watch a major foreign policy change has taken place. Just as scholars studying the end of the cold war have focused on Gorbachev’s leadership, scholars have looked to the leadership of Deng Xiaoping to investigate China’s opening to the world in the 1970s–another dramatic development in international affairs (Huang, 2003; Shirk, 1994; Zweig, 2002). Zweig wrote:

Because bureaucrats kept domestic actors in China in the dark about the benefits of transnational exchanges and because ideological norms justified such constraints, elite activism in opening up a closed sector was absolutely necessary if domestic actors were to learn how they might benefit from internationalization. Thus, preferences among Chinese elites played a leading role in opening China to the outside world. No sector could be deregulated without strong support from a coalition of top leaders, although Deng Xiaoping did have the charisma to push openings forward even when resistance among conservative leaders was strong.

(2002, p. 27)

Not all scholars who focus on political agents, however, explore leaders. An early study on learning by Heclo (1974) emphasized not politicians but, rather, specialists within a specific policy area. In his influential study, Heclo showed that Britain and Sweden were the “first innovators of social programs” in large part due to the interaction of specialists who, over time, learned how to best realize their policy objectives.

Scholars of organizational learning argue that organizations learn from routines that guide behavior. “Routines” encompass “forms, rules, procedures, conventions, strategies, and technologies around which organizations are constructed and through which they operate.” The actors that execute these routines are tangential to the process of learning, since the routines can survive even high turnover in individual actors (Levitt & March, 1988, p. 320). Similarly, scholars like Etheredge (1985) examined collective, rather than individual, learning of governments. Reiter, too, examined behavior at the state level, arguing that “it is the most powerful level of analysis” and that “individuals and substate organizations usually impact on world events only in terms of how their actions are reflected by the nation in which they reside or the government of which they are a part” (1996, p. 18). However, as Levy argued, “the reification of learning to the collective level—and the assumption that organizations or governments can be treated as organisms that have goals, beliefs, and memories—is not analytically viable” (1994, p. 287). Kim argued that “organizations can learn independent of any specific individual but not independent of all individuals” (1993, p. 37). In short, organizational or governmental learning begins with individual learning. But, in the case of organizational or governmental learning, that new knowledge must be institutionalized in order to endure (Levy, 1994, p. 289).

How Learning Occurs

There are multiple pathways to foreign policy learning. Learning can be internal or external, it can be instrumental or less of a conscious activity, it may involve many or few actors, and it may entail varying forms of structure-agency interaction.

Internal Learning: Cognitive Beliefs

Learning theory can be seen as a corrective to what Levy called “structural adjustment models,” such as neorealism, which assume that the decision maker will rationally and efficiently adjust to changing structural incentives (Levy, 1994, p. 298). Governments that fail to do so will pay a price, which could include jeopardizing the very survival of the state. To be sure, the rationality assumption, a central tenet of this realist approach, does not assume that rational actors will always read the situation correctly. As Tetlock noted: “Just as pigeons sometimes fail to respond to changing reinforcement contingencies, and just as economic actors sometimes fail to respond in a timely fashion to changing market signals, so foreign policy actors are sometimes slow to respond to changes in the distribution or even the nature of geopolitical power” (1991, p. 25). Nevertheless, structural realists downplay the significance of human agency in international relations.

The international relations subfield of foreign policy analysis (FPA) tries to fill this void by stressing actor-specific theory (George, 1993, 1994; Hudson, 1997, 2005, 2007). Leaders themselves ought to be studied and incorporated into analyses of foreign policy, rather than treated as a “black box” (Hudson, 2007, p. 6). Hudson wrote, “States are not agents because states are abstractions and thus have no agency. Only human beings can be true agents, and it is their agency that is the source of all international politics and all change therein” (2005, pp. 2–3). Understanding why, how, and when states learn requires an understanding of not just structural factors like the distribution of power in the international system, but also agency-based factors that can explain the actions of key decision makers.

The political psychology literature in particular has shed important light on foreign policy decision making, helping us to better understand, for example, why some leaders learn more than others. Cognitive psychologists point out that leaders simplify in their minds what they see in a complex world characterized by ambiguity and uncertainty. They respond not to objective changes in their environment but, rather, to their mental representations of these changes. They rely on heuristics—mental shortcuts—to help them make sense of a messy world. Prior beliefs will often anchor how actors view international events. Cognitive psychologists thus reject the notion that people readily revise their beliefs in light of changed circumstances.

Cognitive consistency theorists posit that people tend to filter information from the environment, accepting information that is consistent with their prior beliefs yet rejecting information that challenges those beliefs; their beliefs are consistent over time (Jervis, 1976; Little & Smith, 1988; Stein, 2002). Leaders, in particular, may choose to avoid information that challenges their beliefs because they wish to protect their credibility with the public, which does not possess all of the information available to their leader (Vertzberger, 1990, pp. 122, 137–138). Indeed, studies of leaders have found that they typically use information selectively as confirmation of their positions (Howlett, 2012, p. 540).

Learning theorists have found, though, that decision makers sometimes do change their beliefs, a phenomenon that may be infrequent but which exists. Learning requires that leaders have undergone a change in their cognitive system. They might learn through their own experience or by studying the experience of others (Bennett, 1999).

Some studies have focused on the structure—as opposed to the content—of decision makers’ beliefs. Cognitive psychologists employ the terms cognitive openness and cognitive complexity to analyze the likelihood that individuals will change their core beliefs when confronting new information that challenges those beliefs. Individuals who are receptive to information that contradicts their prior understandings are deemed more cognitively open than their cognitively closed counterparts, who would reject such information (Finlay, Ole, & Fagen, 1967; Goldmann, 1988; Hermann, 1984; Rokeach, 1960; Stoessinger, 1979). Those individuals who recognize multiple dimensions in their environment are deemed more cognitively complex than their cognitively simple counterparts, who tend to view the world in binary, black-and-white terms (Hermann, 1980; Shapiro & Bonham, 1973; Tetlock, 1984, 1985; Vertzberger, 1990).

Leaders whose cognitive structures have been characterized as relatively open and complex and whose changed beliefs have been linked with dramatic foreign policy shifts include Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (Stein, 1994), U.S. President Ronald Reagan (Farnham, 2001), and Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres (Aronoff, 2014; Ziv, 2011, 2014). Ziv used discourse analysis to determine the level of cognitive complexity of Israeli prime ministers. Examination of decision makers’ spoken and written words showed that a leader who uses absolutist language to convey opinions—words such as always, never, or without a doubt—signals a more simple level of complexity. By contrast, a cognitively complex leader will typically use more ambiguous, nuanced language—words such as if, as long as, etc. (2014, p. 21). Based on the author’s interviews, along with published accounts of the leaders, Ziv was also able to piece together a picture of the leaders’ levels of cognitive openness. Shimon Peres was found to be the most complex and open of the Israeli prime ministers Ziv examined—more so than his Labor Party rival Yitzhak Rabin and far more than the rightist Likud leaders Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Peres’s nuanced replies in interviews, for example, differentiated him from these other premiers, whose responses were definitive and unequivocal, lacking any ambiguity or nuance. And unlike his counterparts, who were surrounded by a small group of “yes men,” Peres’s inner circle typically consisted of a diversified group of young, ambitious, highly educated aides who were encouraged to provide ideas and alternative perspectives to their boss. Peres was invariably described by those who knew him as “open,” “pragmatic,” or “adaptable.” His highly open and complex cognitive structure was highly conducive, Ziv argued, to the learning he underwent with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peres, indeed, underwent a more profound reversal in his beliefs than Rabin on matters such as direct negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), while Shamir and Begin—the most closed and simple of the four premiers Ziv examined—never budged on their positions concerning Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

External Learning: Diffusion

While most studies on foreign policy learning focus on internal learning—what individuals, governments, or organizations learn from their prior experience—others look externally to explain foreign policy learning. The latter form of learning, which analysts call “policy diffusion,” refers to government policy decisions in a given country that “are systematically conditioned by prior policy choices made in other countries” (Simmons, Dobbin, & Garrett, 2006, p. 787). Learning occurs through osmosis; it is contagious rather than chosen, and it occurs incrementally as knowledge spreads (Stone, 2012, p. 484).

Diffusion has long been a focal point of studies of domestic politics (Walker, 1969, 1973). Yet policy diffusion may also help to explain cases of foreign policy learning that result from demonstration effects. States tend to be influenced most by their neighbors. Goldsmith (2005), for example, makes the case that Russian elites undertook extensive marketing efforts to promote Russia’s enterprises among potential foreign investors, basing their new policies on observed lessons of success from Poland’s “shock therapy” and Czechoslovakia’s mass privatization. Ukrainian elites, however, opted not to do so, preferring to maximize Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence. Goldsmith showed that Russia’s and Ukraine’s perceptions were framed by different schemata based on distinct historical experiences. The governments of both countries may have learned, but they did so from different historical lessons.

Another example of policy diffusion is China’s FDI liberalization. Ye (2009) argued that it was China’s move away from restrictive FDI policies that led to the country’s industrial boom and that this change did not occur because of conscious learning by its elites but rather due to the strength of dispersed networks of local governments. Volden et al. (2008) argued that systematic evidence that governments learn from one another, however, is limited and that it is quite possible that, rather than learning from one another’s experiences, similar governments respond to a common policy problem independently; i.e., they learn only from their own experiences.

There have been a growing number of studies in recent years focusing on learning in European integration. While diffusion of power across European Union (EU) institutions and levels enhances the opportunities for learning, this diversity can also inhibit learning (Zito & Schout, 2010, p. 15). As studies of learning and the EU make clear, diffusion should not be conflated with convergence; the former emphasizes process, whereas the latter emphasizes outcomes. Braun (2014), for example, focusing on the diffusion of environmental norms in Europe, shows that Poland has resisted the EU’s climate norms. In short, that there has been a diffusion of norms across the EU states and institutions does not mean that each state or institution has accepted all of the norms or adopted policies that stem from the norms.

Policy Transfer and Lesson Drawing

A more conscious mode of learning than diffusion is policy transfer, which can occur either internally or externally. The former entails an examination of a state’s previous policy successes and failures, whereas the latter entails policymakers’ transferring ideas from one country and implementing them in another (Dolowitz & Marsh, 1996). Policy transfer is defined as “a process by which knowledge of policies, administrative arrangements, institutions and ideas in one political system (past or present)” is utilized in another political system (Dolowitz, 2000, p. 3). Dolowitz and Marsh (2000) argue that globalization’s effects—both negative ones, such as global economic pressures, and more positive effects, such as more accessible information to policymakers—have led to policy transfer becoming a more prominent feature of policymaking.

Policy transfer can be coercive or voluntary—or a combination of coercive and voluntary elements. Coercive policy transfer is illustrated, for example, in the World Bank’s efforts to impose its policies on developing nations seeking assistance (Stone, 2010). Policy transfer can mitigate corruption in developing countries via international or regional organizations. Examining various forms of domestic corruption (e.g., bribery) in the Pacific Islands (Solomon Islands, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea), Larmour (2007) shows how international organizations like the IMF and World Bank have worked to make the local elites more accountable—for example, by the use of conditionality in IMF loans and other coercive means that characterize this form of policy transfer. Policy transfer that is coercive is not necessarily a good indicator, however, that any learning has occurred (Radaelli, 2009, p. 1159).

Voluntary policy transfer is more conducive to learning. It typically involves “drawing lessons” based on experiences elsewhere. A lesson is defined as “a program for action based on a program or programs undertaken in another city, state, or nation, or by the same organization in its own past” (Rose, 1993, p. 21). Policymakers, seeking practical solutions to problems they face, try to identify “copyable” policies that they can then emulate to address a current problem. As Rose points out, technocratic improvements are generally easier lessons to import than lessons that involve political ideology or ones that may alter power relations. Ideology and social values can facilitate or restrict policy transfer by determining, for instance, where political actors will look for lessons (Dolowitz, 2007, p. 277). By contrast, Rose, emphasizing technocratic innovations, shows how the Japanese Meiji regime in the late 1860s sent officials to Europe to learn how to modernize the postal service and army. By the 20th century, Japan had been able to apply lessons it learned from the West to establish military equality with it.

The agents of policy transfer can be both state and nonstate actors. Examples of the former include Britain’s Center for Management and Policy Studies (CMPS), which “promotes a ‘lesson-drawing’ dynamic within the British civil service,” and Canada’s International Development Research Center (IDRC), a quasi-autonomous government development agency that assists communities in developing nations in finding solutions to social, economic, and environmental problems (Stone, 2004, pp. 550–551). Nonstate actors include international organizations—the IMF, World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United Nations, etc.—as well as think tanks, law firms, management consulting forms, and actors in social movements.

Networks of experts—in national bureaucracies, NGOs, business firms, or other actors—promote “best practices,” often playing a critical role in policy transfer. “Epistemic communities” consist of like-minded professionals that purvey consensual (usually scientific) knowledge and have “the ability to transfer policy by assuming control over knowledge production and in doing so guiding decision-maker learning” (Dunlop, 2009, p. 290). Epistemic communities attempt to inject their consensual knowledge into the bureaucratic and legislative channels that produce public policy (Haas & Haas, 1995, p. 260). Decision makers are most likely to turn to epistemic communities under conditions of uncertainty, in which allies and/or strategies are difficult to identify and established institutions and procedures fail to work, with the expectation that epistemic communities will provide guidance (Haas, 1992, pp. 14–20). Even then, there is no guarantee that learning will occur. Haas and Haas (1995) found that the World Bank, for example, was able to promote internationalization of environmental considerations by installing environmental experts in their operational division. By hiring new environmental personnel and introducing training programs in environmental management for borrowers, the World Bank helped to promote learning (Haas & Haas, 1995, p. 268).

In addition to knowledge-based transnational networks, advocacy networks that rally around a global issue like human rights can also play an important role in foreign policy learning by seeking to change not just the interests and practices of actors but also the environments within which those actors operate (Price, 2003). Beyond merely providing information, they seek to be seen as having moral authority so that they can introduce norms into policy debates, as well as promote norm implementation by pressuring actors to adopt different policies (Keck & Sikkink, 1998, pp. 3 and 30). Organizations like Amnesty International demonstrate their expertise by serving as alternate sources of information, providing both facts and testimony from people whose lives have been affected (Keck & Sikkink, 1998, pp. 16–22). During the 1970s, human rights activists living under repressive communist regimes used the norms of the Helsinki Accords in their networking efforts. The “Helsinki Network” monitored, documented, and reported the human rights violations of the regimes. Nonstate actors exploited the Helsinki norms to educate–and pressure—the Carter administration to adopt more confrontational policies toward the Soviet Union and its client states (Thomas, 2002). In this case, although a response to political pressure can be interpreted as politically expedient, Carter’s foreign policy team also learned from the Helsinki Network about the extent and impact of systematic human rights violations that led, in turn, to a shift in the administration’s approach.

The strategic and instrumental role for policy analysis is characteristic of advocacy coalitions. Sabatier’s “advocacy coalition framework” accounts for both the cognitive activity of advocacy coalition members trying to further their policy objectives and changes in circumstances, such as socioeconomic conditions, systemwide governing coalitions (e.g., the 1973 Arab oil boycott), and turnover in personnel (Sabatier, 1988; Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1993; Sebatier & Zafonte, 2001). This approach highlights the interaction of agents and structures, showing how learning is shaped and funneled through interaction. Actors at various levels of both public and private organizations play important roles in generating, disseminating, and evaluating policy ideas.

Constraints on Foreign Policy Learning

The challenges to foreign policy learning are formidable. First, not every leader is primed to learn lessons from experience or study; one who is cognitively closed and simple is not as likely to do so as one who is more cognitively open and complex. Gorbachev, for example, was a very different sort of decision maker—inquisitive, flexible, amenable to revising his prior assumptions—than his far more rigid, doctrinaire predecessors; he was a rare exception among Soviet leaders. Few leaders consult a broad array of experts like the New Thinkers who had Gorbachev’s ear. Few leaders surround themselves, as did Peres, with aides who are encouraged to present their boss with alternative perspectives (Ziv, 2014). Few leaders assemble a cabinet modeled on Abraham Lincoln’s “team of rivals,” composed of political opponents who bring different experiences and views into the leader’s inner circle (Goodwin, 2005). Few leaders are open to the point of willingly exposing themselves to a wide range of views that can facilitate learning. Conversely, many leaders will simply adopt lessons for political expediency rather than as a result of improved understanding (Stone, 2004, p. 7).

Second, decision makers may reach very different conclusions from experience or study, since their experiences or interpretation may vary widely from one another. Just as people filter incoming information through their own analytical lens, they interpret historical events through this lens as well. What one understands from experience is influenced “less by history than by the frames applied to that history” (Levitt & March, 1988, p. 324). Leaders will often resort to—and misuse—analogies, typically picking the first ones that come to mind while failing to consider alternatives or important differences with the situation they are presently facing. The Munich analogy is a classic example of an overused and misplaced analogy, since not every instance of “appeasement” will result in aggression unleashed (Khong, 1992).

Beyond the individual level of analysis, decision makers must contend with the realities of domestic politics. A change in leadership that results in new policies does not amount to learning. However, even a leader who has undergone a process of learning and personally favors a policy change will invariably need to deal with a host of domestic pressures: public opinion, opposition from fellow party members or from opposition parties, interest group pressure, etc. These domestic political factors can all stymie a leader’s ability or even willingness to pursue foreign policy change.

Organizational learning entails additional challenges. Organizations do not lend themselves readily to change due to standard operating procedures (SOPs) that are more conducive to the continuity of previously established routines (Allison & Zelikow, 1999). Davidson (2010), exploring the process by which militaries learn and change, argued that despite the barriers to innovation, military change can result from external pressure, the opportunity to grow or survive, and failure. She pointed out, however, that an additional challenge an organization faces is its culture; its history affects the ability of the organization to learn from new experience (Davidson, 2010, p. 15).

Similarly, bureaucratic politics can be a significant impediment to foreign policy learning. As Allison (1969) has shown in his bureaucratic politics model, agencies compete with one another for relevance, resulting in a bargaining among individuals and groups within the government. Although his pithy adage, “where decision makers stand depends on where they sit” may not always be the case, as Allison’s critics have pointed out, change is difficult to pursue, particularly when it is likely to impact the relevance of the agency and the livelihood of its employees. Militaries, for example, will not respond positively to changes that threaten their budgets or resources (Halperin & Clapp, 2006, p. 56; Zisk, 1993). Nevertheless, innovations can come about when savvy political actors set a trajectory for change through initiatives that influence the learning system of the organization (Davidson, 2010, pp. 151–152). Even when political actors have adopted a new policy, the policy may not be sustained due to “policy resistance” by entrenched interests that will seek to stymie the change (Bache & Taylor, 2003).

Finally, even if learning does take place, it by no means ensures that foreign policy change will follow. Although they may understand the need for a new foreign policy course, risk-averse leaders may not initiate the bold move (or set of moves) to realize it. Leaders who are willing to take risks to initiate change may be prevented from doing so because of bureaucratic, political, or economic hurdles. Leaders may also be replaced before they are able to implement the changes they wish to pursue.

Assessing Whether Learning Has Occurred: The Temporal Dimension

For the scholar investigating foreign policy learning, there is an important challenge as well: assessing whether learning has actually occurred. The temporal dimension is particularly useful in this regard, although whether foreign policy learning is best achieved suddenly or over a prolonged period of time depends to a large extent on the context. Scholars have found that genuine (or “complex”) learning is often brought about by dramatic events, such as crises, which can trigger a change in an actor’s belief system (Bennett, 1999, pp. 84–85; Nye, 1987, p. 398). The Korean War, for example, is said to have led Mao Zedong to embrace a more hostile and confrontational worldview (Feng, 2005), while George W. Bush adopted a more negative and bellicose worldview following 9/11 (Renshon, 2008).

Foreign policy learning, however, can also occur incrementally. Learning via diffusion, for example, occurs over time as knowledge spreads from state to state (Berry and Berry, 1999, p. 171). Leaders, too, may undergo shifts in their beliefs over time.

Goldsmith (2005), who focuses on observational (as opposed to experiential) learning based on formative events, asks: “Under what conditions might observational learning be likely in the absence of a formative event of major failure?” In his conclusion, he suggests that future research might focus on incremental learning as well (Goldsmith, 2005, p. 113). Ziv (2013) did just that, arguing that a change in an actor’s beliefs can occur over an extended period of time due to a trickle of information that challenges the logic of the prior beliefs. This temporal element can be seen as an indicator of an actor’s evolving views. Ziv suggested that a sudden change in course, by contrast, may indicate a tactical maneuver, particularly if it is precipitated by significant political or diplomatic pressure. In a crisis situation, actors are said to be operating on “diplomatic time,” which runs faster than normal time, compelling them to make decisions more quickly than usual (Allan, 1983, p. 23; Telhami, 1990, p. 152). If a crisis propels a decision maker to change course due to diplomatic or political pressure, the chances of complex learning having occurred are slim.

To illustrate his argument about the incremental approach to learning, Ziv (2013) examined the evolving attitudes toward Palestinian statehood held by three Israeli prime ministers: Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Benjamin Netanyahu. While each of these premiers came to endorse statehood relatively late in his political career, there was considerable variation in the leaders’ responses to changes and continuities in their environment. Ziv found that, whereas Sharon and Olmert came to embrace the notion of Palestinian statehood over a prolonged period of time, Netanyahu remained publicly opposed to it until his dramatic June 2009 declaration, which occurred against a backdrop of significant pressure from the international community in general and the Obama administration in particular. Since then, Netanyahu has given mixed signals about his support for such a state, leading Ziv to conclude that, while Sharon and Olmert had undergone complex learning, Netanyahu underwent simple learning on this issue. In the absence of significant domestic or international pressure, it is unlikely that the decision maker who has not undergone complex learning will act on his or her own to pursue foreign policy change.

Stein (1995), too, demonstrated that learning took time for Gorbachev, who had been focused on restructuring his domestic economy and only later placed importance on the new thinking concerning security. Gorbachev learned from his meetings with U.S. officials, such as Secretary of State George Shultz, whom he called an “interlocutor” on the “big philosophical questions” about the world, stating that “he helped me a great deal in developing my policies” (1995, p. 243). The New Thinkers who had a profound influence on Gorbachev’s worldview themselves underwent a “long, slow process” that led to acknowledging the tremendous costs of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (Stein, 1995, p. 242). Stein wrote: “Over time, learning from others and from behavior became self-reinforcing and self-amplifying” (1995, p. 243).


Scholars from various disciplines have approached foreign policy learning in different ways, seeking to better understand what it means to “learn” in the context of foreign policymaking, what types of actors learn (i.e., “who” learns), and how learning occurs, including identifying the conditions that are more—or less—conducive to learning. Bennett and Howlett (1992) wrote that scholars must accept

(a) that learning is in fact a complex, multi-tiered phenomenon which can affect either decision-making organizations and processes; specific programs and instruments used to implement policy; and/or the ends to which policy is developed, and (b) that the agent of each type of learning will be different.

(p. 289)

Nevertheless, challenges to learning confront not just individuals, governments, and organizations, but also the scholars who study them. There is no consensus on the definition of learning, no unified theory of learning, and no systematic evidence that governments learn (Stein, 1995, p. 236; Volden et al., 2008, p. 319). There is confusion in the literature on both the dependent variable—what constitutes learning—and the independent variables; i.e., the factors that lead to learning (Howlett, 2012; Radaelli, 2009). There are also questions about whether learning stems primarily from success or from failure, and whether these terms should be viewed as objectively assessable outcomes of policymaking or as interpretations by political actors (Howlett, 2012, p. 542).

There are also multiple pathways to learning—some actors learn by experience, others, by observation of others’ experiences. Foreign policy learning is most often instrumental, a conscious effort by political actors to attain a greater understanding of particular ideas, issues, or policies—or better means by which to promote existing ones. Decision makers who are more cognitively open and complex are more likely to learn new ideas than their more cognitively closed and simple counterparts. Actors may seek to emulate “best practices” by drawing lessons from past experiences—or from the experiences of others, as demonstrated in the transfer literature. Yet other studies show that learning can also be a less conscious process, involving the diffusion of ideas over time.

Scholars must weigh, also, the extent to which foreign policy learning is better explained by structural forces or by human agency, as well as how structure and agency interact to induce learning. An example of the latter is Sabatier’s advocacy coalition framework, which attempts to demonstrate how policy-oriented learning involves the interaction of strategic, instrumental, and ideologically based coalitions with noncognitive factors like macroeconomic conditions. Advocacy coalitions, epistemic communities, and policy networks serve as “teachers” to actors, whose newfound knowledge—they hope—will be applied toward policy change.

The relationship between foreign policy learning and change is indeed yet another challenge for scholars to explore more systematically in order to provide greater clarity on what it takes to have learning incorporated into policymaking. A better understanding of foreign policy learning should be useful not only to the scholar but also to the actors—decision makers, specialists, networks, coalitions, think tanks, organizations, etc.—involved in the policymaking process.


The author is grateful to Rachel Chang for her research assistance. The author also thanks the editors and anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.

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