Henry Kissinger once remarked, “As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces. But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make.” It is common sense that a state’s foreign policy cannot be explained without reference to the beliefs of such leaders as Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, or Kim Jong Un, to name a few. It is, therefore, ironic that leaders have mattered little for much of the international relations discipline’s history. Structural approaches with foci on the distribution of power, international institutions and domestic politics have been dominant. To be sure, scholarship on belief systems has been present since the 1950s. Early key concepts included the decision maker’s “definition of the situation,” the “ecological environment,” and the “attitudinal prism.” This scholarship laid an important foundation; however, at the time, it did not generate competitive research programs. Agent-centered approaches remained secondary and beliefs were seen as residual variables. They were also seen as “unobservable”—difficult to assess and operationalize. Indeed, rigorous methods that would enable the scientific study of belief systems have long been absent. Over time such challenges were addressed successfully, and these efforts were catalyzed by scholarly advances and also by real-world developments. In the real world, it was mainly the end of the Cold War that illustrated the insufficiency of structural theories. Under Mikhail Gorbachev the Soviet Union took a fundamentally new course, and it gave up power. The dominant structural theories did neither predict the ensuing events nor could they explain them. They were “caught flat-footed,” as one scholar wrote. What really mattered, it seemed, was what these theories did not pay much attention to: namely decision makers’ belief-systems. Of particular relevance are decision makers’ operational code beliefs. Along with the general literature on belief systems, the operational code research program began in the 1950s. It gained still more prominence with the work of Alexander George and Ole Holsti in the 1960s and 1970s. A decision maker’s operational code is constituted by his answers to questions such as: What is the essential nature of political life? Is the political universe essentially one of harmony or conflict? What is the fundamental character of one’s political opponents? What is the best approach for selecting goals for political action? The most significant advances in the operational code research program were then made in the 1980s and beyond by Stephen Walker and his students. The progress occurred on the theoretical, methodological, and empirical plane, and through their work the research program has become, (and continues to be) a mainstay in contemporary international relations scholarship.
Jonathan Pierce and Katherine Hicks
The advocacy coalition framework (ACF) was developed to explain policy processes where contentious coalitions of actors seek to translate competing belief systems into public policy. Advocacy coalitions may include interest groups, members of the media, scientists and academics, and government officials that share beliefs about a public issue and coordinate their behavior. These advocacy coalitions engage in various strategies using resources to influence policy change or stasis. As part of this process, advocacy coalition members may learn within and/or across coalitions. This framework is one of the most prominent and widely applied approaches to explain public policy. While it has been applied hundreds of times, in over 50 different countries, the vast majority of ACF applications have sought to explain domestic policy processes. A reason for the paucity of applications to foreign policy is that some ACF assumptions may not seem congruent to foreign policy issues. For example, the ACF uses a policy subsystem as the unit of analysis that may include a territorial dimension. Yet, the purpose of the territorial dimension is to limit the scope of the study. Therefore, this dimension can be substituted for a government body that has the authority or potential authority to make and implement foreign policy. In addition, the ACF assumes a central role for technical and scientific information in the policy process. Such information makes learning across coalitions more conducive, but the ACF can and should also be applied to normative issues, such as those more common among foreign policy research. This article introduces the ACF; provides an overview of the framework, including assumptions, key concepts and theories, and transferability of the ACF to foreign policy analysis; and discusses four exemplary applications. In addition, it proposes future research that scholars should explore as part of the nexus of the ACF and foreign policy analysis. In the final analysis, the authors suggest the ACF can and should be applied to foreign policy analysis to better understand the development of advocacy coalitions and how they influence changes and stasis in foreign policy.
Paul Sabatier and Hank Jenkins-Smith introduced the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) in the late 1980s to refine the theoretical and methodological tools available for the study of the policy process. Since the late 1990s, the use of the framework has grown in use outside the United States and it is now applied to study a broad range of policy arenas in all continents. ACF scholars have created a core community that regularly synthetizes findings from applications of the framework, giving the ACF the form of a true research program. The ACF has three principal theoretical domains: advocacy coalitions, policy subsystems, and policy change. The ACF posits that advocacy coalitions and policy subsystems are the most efficient ways to organize actors interested in the policy process for empirical research. The policy subsystem is the main unit of analysis in the ACF, and there are four paths leading to policy change. Expectations about the interactions between and within the three theoretical domains are contained in 15 main hypotheses which have received different degrees of confirmation since the late 1980s. The aspect that has received more attention in existing applications is the effect that external events have on policy change. The development of the ACF is supported by an active community of scholars that constantly reviews venerable as well as emerging criticisms, introducing adjustments that expand the heuristic power of the ACF in a controlled way. However, some areas in need of further refinement relate to: policy-oriented learning, interactions across subsystems, the theoretical foundations to identification of belief systems, and how the interactions between beliefs and interests affect coalition behavior.