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Article

Role Contestation in Making Foreign Policy Decisions: Digraph and Game Theory Models  

Stephen G. Walker

The concept of role contestation has emerged within the recent renaissance of role theory in foreign policy analysis, which has taken hold among international relations scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. Role contestation is a novel theoretical perspective on the process of role location that complements the more established concepts of role strain, role competition, and role conflict identified earlier by the role theory literature in the subfield of Foreign Policy Analysis. It refers to the process that occurs within states as their decision units debate and decide what role to select in relations with another state in the regional or global international system. The process of horizontal role contestation occurs among elites inside the government while the process of vertical role contestation occurs between elites and interest groups outside the government. These role contestation processes can also extend to interactions before and after a foreign policy decision. Role contestation processes are part of a larger process of role location that refers to various stages of evolution and transition in the enactment of role and counter-role between Ego and Alter as states construct role conceptions, exchange cues, and adapt to structural role demands in their respective decision making environments. The focus will be limited to the analysis of horizontal role contestation as a causal mechanism that describes and explains how the foreign policy decision making process among elites leads to foreign policy decisions. Digraph models represent the process of debate among elites as they deliberate over the selection of ends and means prior to making a foreign policy decision. Game theory models represent how the decision is likely to be carried out as a strategy of role enactment. Illustrative applications of this two-stage modeling strategy from recent research into Britain’s appeasement decisions in the late 1930s reveal two patterns: bilateral role contestation between Prime Minister Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Eden in March 1938 over the appropriate enactment of a Partner role toward Italy and multilateral role contestation among members of the British Cabinet over the enactment of a Partner vs. Rival role toward Germany during the Sudeten crisis in September 1938. The outcome in the first case was a victory for Chamberlain in the wake of Eden’s resignation; however, in the second case the Cabinet majority altered the prime minister’s initial appeasement tactics in favor of deterrence tactics later in the crisis. This shift foreshadowed a subsequent British role reversal from Partner to Rival toward Germany in 1939.

Article

Domestic Role Contestation and Foreign Policy  

Juliet Kaarbo and Cristian Cantir

Scholarship on domestic role contestation arose out of critiques of two frequent assumptions about the impact of national role conceptions (NRCs) on a state’s foreign policy: the assumption of elite consensus and the assumption of elite–public agreement on one or several NRCs. These critiques have been occasionally articulated since the entry of role theory into international relations literature, but they were systematized during a new wave of research on roles that started in the 2010s. The domestic role contestation approach identifies the key domestic actors that hold NRCs and hypothesizes that roles connect to foreign policy behavior via the domestic political process. The degree of consensus along two dimensions—commonly defined as “horizontal” and “vertical” for the intra-elite and the elite–public nexus, respectively—can explain what roles are enacted or blocked. Empirical findings, though tentative, have corroborated the relevance of these arguments. Elites with significant institutional power—particularly in the executive–can often overcome impediments to enact preferred roles, although this ability often hinges on the lack of divisions in ruling institutions. Although less robust due to the absence of significant empirical research, role theory scholarship has also revealed that the public can, at times, constrain elites from enacting unpopular roles. The literature on domestic role contestation has a number of limitations that can inform future research directions. First, there is still no comprehensive list of domestic actors that hold (and argue about) NRCs. Such a list can outline the diversity of social environments in which countries find themselves, generate insights into how they navigate their presence in each one, and lead to more detailed accounts of how the contestation process unfolds. Second, the literature is yet to provide a framework for incorporating the involvement of relevant external actors (commonly known as “alters”) in the domestic contestation process. The impediments here are partly practical—an eye to detailed domestic processes and external involvement can create an unwieldy narrative—but the effort to conceptualize this dimension is important in light of role theory’s major focus on the interaction between ego and alter. Third, role contestation scholarship needs stronger and clearer connections to traditional and critical international relations theories, as well as the study of contentious politics. Finally, methodological rigor and diversity should be a priority for the future development of this strand of role theory.

Article

Role Theory in Foreign Policy  

Marijke Breuning

Role theory first emerged as an approach to the study of foreign policy with the seminal work of Holsti, who argued that decision makers’ conceptions of their state’s role on the world stage influenced that state’s foreign policy behavior. Holsti’s approach was ahead of its time. The potential of role theory to contribute to the agent-structure debate has not always been appreciated. In fact, early research employing role theory often maintained a close connection to structural theories of international relations, especially among U.S.-based scholars. In the last decade or so, there has been a renewed interest in role theory that differs from earlier work in that it more clearly connects with psychological approaches to foreign policy analysis. It also takes more seriously the domestic sources of role theory through inquiry into horizontal and vertical role contestation. Much of this new work intersects with constructivism, although it remains grounded in empiricism. As foreign policy analysis increasingly seeks to understand the foreign policies of a broader array of states—including smaller states that face significant constraints on their ability to act in the international arena—role theory provides an attractive framework. Its focus on decision makers’ conceptions of their state’s role in international politics enhances the ability to make sense of the foreign policies of a wider array of states in the global arena. In essence, role theory allows foreign policy analysis to move beyond a U.S.-centric or global-north-centric field to become more broadly comparative.