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Role Theory in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: role theory, foreign policy analysis, psychological approaches to foreign policy, role contestation, role change, small-state foreign policy


Role theory is often associated with the study of foreign policy, and it offers substantial promise to facilitate deeper integration between the field of foreign policy analysis and the broader study of international relations. Role theory is centrally concerned with the interaction between agent and structure. In a seminal article, Holsti (1970, p. 239) suggested that the “perceptions, values, and attitudes” of decision makers matter in explaining foreign policy behavior. Holsti’s study was ahead of its time in its focus on decision makers’ interpretations of their state’s role on the global stage. Perhaps as a consequence, the early role theory research that followed Holsti’s study remained closely connected to the notion of the state as a unitary actor and the prevailing structural theories of international relations.

That has changed with the renewed interest in role theory in the early 21st century. The new generation of role theory scholarship builds on psychological approaches to foreign policy analysis. It also intersects with constructivism in international relations. In doing so, current role theory scholarship offers the promise of integrating foreign policy analysis and international relations (Thies & Breuning, 2012).

As foreign policy analysis increasingly seeks to understand the foreign policies of a broader range 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, then, role theory allows foreign policy analysis to move beyond a U.S.-centric and global-north-centric orientation to become more broadly globally comparative. In addition, role theory provides the conceptual tools to help bridge between agent and structure in international relations.

The Roots of Role Theory

Role theory was introduced to the study of foreign policy and international relations with the seminal work of Holsti (1970). Role theory had been developed in sociology, social psychology, and anthropology, and its central concept—role—is a metaphor taken from the theater (Harnisch, 2011a; Thies, 2010). There are two broad categories of role theory in social psychology: structural role theory and symbolic interactionism. The difference between the two relates to the extent and circumstances under which the social structure and the individual influence one another. Structural role theory tends to emphasize that human beings are socialized into roles, whereas symbolic interactionism focuses on the human capacity to reinvent roles and change social structure (Stryker & Statham, 1985). Both “emphasize the need to analyze social phenomena from the perspectives of participants in social processes” (Stryker & Statham, 1985, p. 312).

Holsti adopted a perspective consistent with the core contention of role theory, recognizing that foreign policy behavior derives “primarily from policymakers’ role conceptions, domestic needs and demands, and critical events or trends in the external environment” (1970, p. 243, emphasis in original). When Holsti published his seminal article, very few students of international relations considered decision makers’ cognitions or understood rationality as “bounded” (Simon, 1985). Holsti (1970, p. 239) proposed that the “perceptions, values, and attitudes” of decision makers matter. In other words, well before constructivism was part of the intellectual landscape of international relations, Holsti (1970) adopted a position rooted in political psychology and consistent with constructivism. At the same time, Holsti’s work sought to classify and count roles in ways that were similar to the efforts of other behavioralist social scientists of the time.

Perhaps as a result, the role theory–based research that followed largely maintained a close connection to structural theories of international relations (Singer, 1961; Waltz, 1959). Role theorists tended to investigate the influence of the international system on the role(s) a state adopted, rather than probe the various domestic sources of role conceptions (Hollis & Smith, 1986; Holsti, 1970; Jönsson & Westerlund, 1982; Shih, 1988; Walker, 1979, 1981, 1987a, 1987b; Wish, 1980, 1987). These structural approaches acknowledged, but also downplayed, the agent side of the agent-structure debate. As a consequence, this early work did not make fully obvious what, if any, contribution role theory could make to foreign policy analysis and international relations.

In addition, early empirical studies yielded mixed results. Walker (1979, p. 193) found a weak correlation between national role conceptions and foreign policy behavior. He suspected that the quality of his data and his methodology were partially responsible (1979, p. 204; see also Walker, 1987b, p. 92). In contrast, Wish (1980) used original data on national role conceptions and combined them with existing data on foreign policy behavior. She found a strong correlation between the “national role conceptions of political leaders and the foreign policy behavior of their nations” (1980, p. 549). Wish concluded that national role conceptions “provide long-standing guidelines or standards for behavior. Their longevity and stability are assets when attempting to explain long-term patterns of behavior rather than single decisions” (1980, p. 547). However, the role conceptions and behavior used in Wish’ study were quite general. Her role conceptions bore a strong resemblance to the state’s relative status in the international system. Wish’ research remained connected to the structural interpretation of the national role concept.

This emphasis on the structure of the international system connected role theory with research on the attributes of states. The attributes of states were was also the focus of research that investigated the connection between a state’s size and its foreign policy behavior (Adigbuo, 2007; East, 1973, 1978; Gigleux, 2016; Hey, 2003; Ingebritsen, 2006; Neack, 1995; Thies, 2001). Although such work rarely used the role concept, it implied that small states, middle powers, and large powers occupy different roles in the international system and that their foreign policy behaviors should be expected to differ. It is not surprising, then, that East concluded that “there are profound and significant differences in the behavior patterns of large and small states” (1973, p. 576). East’s explanation for such behavioral differences focused on the (presumed) lesser capacity of small states to collect and analyze intelligence (East, 1973). In other words, he perceived a state’s size as predictive of its “capacity to act” (East, 1978; see also Wish, 1987).

There is little doubt that size influences the role a state can play on the world stage, although size is not a straightforward concept. Size can be operationalized in a variety of ways. For instance, states can be ranked in terms of geographic size, population, economy, military, and so on, and each indicator may exert an influence on a state’s role. Unfortunately, it is not always clear how the indicators are best combined to arrive at a composite measure of size that is indicative of the role a state should be expected to play in international politics. One widely used measure is the Composite Index of National Capability (CINC), which is based on six indicators of states’ material capabilities (Singer, 1987; Singer, Bremer, & Stuckey, 1972).

While such a measure has value, it is more revealing of a state’s relative power position than of the role(s) that decision makers conceive as appropriate for their state. The latter is guided not only by an assessment of relative capability, but also by an understanding of specific advantages a state may have in a given international context. For instance, a small state could play a significant role in its region—or even globally—due to a material or ideational advantage. Regarding the former, consider the importance of strategic location or resources, which may give a small(er) state an advantage in its interactions with other states that it would not have absent that location or resource. Regarding the latter, consider the norm entrepreneurism of some small states, such as the role Sweden has played with regard to international development and climate change (Ingebritsen, 2006). Additionally, Gigleux’ (2016) role theoretic approach places norm entrepreneurism in a broader framework that grapples with the intersection between ideational and material incentives that structure the foreign policies of small states.

Structural role theory has difficulty incorporating norm entrepreneurs. Such states are not simply socialized into the role (or roles) that are deemed appropriate in a given international system structure. On the contrary, such states act as advocates to alter the international system to bring it closer to a norm they deem valuable. An early critic of structural role theory in foreign policy analysis pointed this out: Gaupp (1983, p. 90) charged that the work of Walker and Holsti was “unsociological.” His work predated the broad adoption of political psychological and constructivist approaches in political science, but Gaupp’s critique dovetails well with these approaches, and also with the increasing popularity of symbolic interactionist approaches to the use of role theory in foreign policy analysis (Harnisch, 2011a; Nabers, 2011; McCourt, 2011, 2012; Walker, 1992). Unfortunately, Gaupp’s critique—written in German—had little influence on North American scholars, who remained focused on structural concerns.

The focus changed with the end of the cold war and the attendant changes in the international system. A renewed interest in actor-specific theory in international relations resulted in a resurgence of interest in foreign policy analysis, and this also led to renewed interest in role theory (Hudson, 2005; Kaarbo, 2003). The interest coalesced around a 2008 conference in Trier, Germany, and a 2010 workshop sponsored by the International Studies Association (ISA) that brought together two overlapping groups of scholars and led to an edited volume (Harnisch, Frank, & Maull, 2011) and a special issue of Foreign Policy Analysis, introduced by Thies and Breuning (2012).

What is noteworthy about current role theory scholarship is, first, that it seeks to grapple seriously with the interaction between motivated agents and the constraints imposed by the domestic and international systems (or structure). As such, current role theory seeks to navigate between the extremes of the structural and symbolic interactionist versions of role theory, and empirically to evaluate the circumstances under which agents can affect—or even transform—structures. Second, it is methodologically eclectic. It ranges from the formalized binary role theory of Walker (2011) to the symbolic interactionist work of McCourt (2011, 2012). Each of these methodological approaches advances understanding of the interaction between agents and structures and contributes to role theory’s deepening ability to explain puzzles in foreign policy and international relations.

Basic Concepts

The role concept is intuitive. Whether role is presented as connected to the theater or to life, the notion that human behavior, individually and collectively, is guided by roles resonates, as does the notion that human beings have and enact multiple roles. Roles are readily assigned to individuals, groups, and states, and behavior that is appropriate for that role is expected. Role theory separates these intuitive understandings into a set of interrelated concepts, such as role conceptions, role expectations, and role enactment (or performance).

Holsti did not engage deeply with the sociological and social psychological literature, but his definition of the national role concept is an appropriate starting point. He defined national role conceptions as:

the policymakers’ own definitions of the general kind of decisions, commitments, rules and actions suitable to their state, and of the functions, if any, their state should perform on a continuing basis in the international system or in subordinate regional systems. It is their ‘image’ of the appropriate orientations or functions of their state toward, or in, the external environment.

(Holsti, 1970, pp. 245–246)

This definition suggests that national role conceptions have an implicit interactive component: a role is defined in terms of the state’s actions in the international environment and its interactions with other states. Harnisch (2011b, 2012), drawing on the symbolic interactionism of George Herbert Mead, underscored such a view. He described the interaction in terms of ego (self) and alter (other), which in the following discussion translates into the national role conceptions decision makers have of their state (ego or self) and the role expectations of the decision makers of other states (alter or other). Harnisch (2011b) added to this a discussion of the distinction between “I” and “me,” with the former denoting individual identity and the latter the “social self” who perceives her position in relation to others. Role theory places the emphasis on the social self, defined in terms of one or more roles that are enacted in social interactions.

Hence, although role conceptions cannot be equated with identity, the latter is a related concept. According to Thies (2012, 2013), identity is created (and re-created) through the interactions between states. This suggests that the international system has an important socializing function (Thies, 2012, 2013; see also Goodman & Jinks, 2013, who adopt a different approach to state socialization). The socializing function may predate the attainment of sovereignty. Indeed, it may play a role in shaping the quest for sovereignty, as pointed out by Beasley and Kaarbo’s (2017) study of Scotland as an aspirant state.

However, national role conceptions are not shaped by only the role expectations of other actors in the international system. If so, structural explanations regarding the behavior of smaller and larger states should provide greater explanatory power than they often do. The expectations other states have regarding a state’s behavior will be guided in part by assessments of that state’s capacity to act. However, measures of a state’s capacity to act are poorly equipped to explain the foreign policy behavior of states that act as norm entrepreneurs (Ingebritsen, 2006) or as rogue states (Hoyt, 2000; O’Reilly, 2007). Such explanations are also poorly positioned to explain the United States’ tendency toward a neutral role despite its power (Thies, 2013).

This is not to deny that the role expectations of other states (and international organizations) influence a state’s role enactment. On the contrary, Discussing the United States’ role in—and since—the two world wars, Thies (2013, p. 99) pointed out that “structure induces great power participation in wars that alter the composition of the great powers and the normative order of the system.” More generally, Holsti has suggested that “it seems reasonable to assume that those responsible for making decisions and taking actions for the state are aware of international status distinctions and that their policies reflect this awareness” (1970, p. 242). Beyond an awareness of status differences, decision makers generally have a grasp of their state’s capabilities relative to those of relevant other actors, and this knowledge factors into their calculations. In short, decision makers are aware of the expectations other actors have of their state’s role in international affairs, and such expectations are grounded in assessments of capabilities as well as prior interactions.

Hence, decision makers act not only on the basis of others’ expectations: assessments of capabilities are inherently comparisons between the state’s own capabilities and those of relevant others in the international (or regional) system. In addition, decision makers are also guided by domestically derived imperatives. Holsti argued that during “acute international conflict … self-defined national role conceptions … take precedence over externally derived role prescriptions” (1970, p. 243). Breuning argued that self-defined national role conceptions not only matter in situations of national survival, but also guide states in other ways that are shaped by ideational factors. In particular, national role conceptions may be shaped by a state’s founding history and other key historical experiences (Adigbuo, 2007; Breuning, 1997, 1998; Maull, 1990/1991), or by broadly shared national values (Hudson, 1999; Ingebritsen, 2006).

In other words, national role conceptions are partially domestically defined and partially shaped by the role expectations of others. The degree to which either of these affects a state’s national role conceptions and role enactment varies. Importantly, the national role conceptions that guide a state’s decision makers are reinforced through role enactment. They are also modified through interaction: as decision makers confront the role expectations of the decision makers of other states, they can choose either to modify their role enactment to meet the others’ role expectations or to defy those expectations and act according to their domestically derived national role conception. Ultimately, this is an iterative process that Thies (2013) theorized in terms of a socialization game.

Thies (2012, 2013) was primarily interested in the process by which new entrants in the international system become socialized into their roles. However, socialization games may not be limited to only those circumstances, but also influence role change across time. Furthermore, a state may have multiple roles, as Holsti (1970) recognized. However, recent research has begun to theorize more carefully about the implications of multiple roles (Cantir & Kaarbo, 2012, 2016).

Before turning to a discussion of recent work, it is useful to address the methodological approaches that have been used in role theory research. The next section addresses the diverse methodological approaches that characterize role theory in foreign policy analysis.


Role theory research in foreign policy analysis has been methodologically eclectic. It ranges from formal or game theory approaches to content analysis, case studies, and interpretive constructivism. This section describes examples of key approaches, discusses their relative merits, and shows how the different approaches each contribute to the further development of role theory approaches to the study of foreign policy and international relations.

Walker’s (2011) binary role theory is, as the name suggests, better described as a theory than a methodology. Walker formally theorized the relationship between the “mental world of beliefs” and the “social world of behavior” (Walker, 2011, p. 245). He identified national role conceptions as belonging to the mental world and role enactment as part of the social world. The objective of binary role theory is to reduce uncertainty. The theory incorporates both structural elements, such as power and interests, and cognitive variables, such as role conceptions and expectations, and shows how they interact. In doing so, Walker demonstrated a tendency toward convergence of the mental and social worlds, and provided a useful framework for understanding the interaction between ideas and behavior.

Thies’ (2012) work on state socialization also made use of a game structure. He presented it in the form of a decision tree, with binary choices at several successive choice points. The game takes place between a socializing state and an emerging state, and the latter is (by assumption) located in the former’s sphere of influence. The game takes place in the context of nature, which is conceived as the structure of the international system. Hence, the game begins with nature, which does not act, but influences state behavior indirectly. Thies (2012) theorized that inappropriate role choices will be corrected in the interaction between the emerging state and the socializing state, as the former seeks to reduce dissonance between its own role conception and the role expectations of the socializing state.

The contributions of Walker (2011) and Thies (2012) provided important theoretical advances. Both scholars used their formal approaches to construct logical theoretical frameworks that were presented in a transparent manner. Whether or not subsequent theory adopts the formal language used in their work, the logic and elegance of the theories represent an important contribution to role theory in foreign policy analysis and international relations.

In earlier work, Holsti (1970) coded statements from high-level decision makers to discover how they described their country’s role in regional and global affairs. He provided examples that showed how statements were interpreted as indicators of a specific role. This helps with understanding the coding scheme and lends transparency to the effort. Holsti identified seventeen different roles and demonstrated that many leaders described their state as playing multiple roles in international affairs. As might be expected, states that were more actively involved in international affairs tended to perceive themselves as playing a larger number of roles than those with a more limited presence on the world stage. Although Holsti (1970) did not connect the role conceptions with behavior in his study, he did claim that role conceptions are an independent variable that can explain policy behavior.

Breuning (1995) also used content analysis. Her analysis is more limited in scope than Holsti’s (1970). Breuning derived four role templates from the literature on foreign aid and development cooperation. She then coded parliamentary debates in three countries to evaluate to what degree each of the roles was in evidence in the annual debates about budget allocations for development aid. She found clearly identifiable patterns for each of the three states. Moreover, the policy behavior (i.e., the aid allocations) was consistent with the role conceptions that dominated the debates.

Holsti (1970) and Breuning (1995), as well as others who have employed systematic content analysis (e.g., Hansel & Moller, 2015), have endeavored to develop reliable and transparent techniques for generating data on national role conceptions. Both have sought to create coding schemes that yield data that represents decision maker perceptions of their state’s role(s) in international affairs. Although neither Holsti (1970) nor Breuning (1995) managed to create a national role conception variable that might be used in quantitative analyses, their efforts can be seen as precursors to such a development.

A dataset of national role conceptions that charts the number of roles expressed by decision makers, as well as which ones, would be a major undertaking. Such a dataset would ideally chart changes across time in the prominence, appearance, and disappearance of specific roles. Practical issues must be resolved before such an undertaking could bear fruit, as is evident from the work of Cantir and Kaarbo (2012, 2016) on contested roles, as well as earlier work by Hudson (1999) and Chafetz et al. (1996). This scholarship suggests that national role conceptions are fundamentally different from various attributes of the state—such as various measures of a state’s military strength or economic prowess—and that they frequently remain in contention. Breuning (1995) resolved this by limiting the source materials to parliamentary debates and identifying the most frequently mentioned role conception in one specific issue area. However, this strategy made it impossible to ascertain whether citizens broadly shared the national roles expressed by the members of parliament and may have underestimated the importance of the role contestation among decision makers.

National role conceptions as identified on the basis of statements by those who are in positions of leadership may influence foreign policy behavior, but these role conceptions may not generalize to other decision makers—such as those who are in the opposition in democracies—or to the broader citizenry of the country. If so, it will be important to measure the national role conceptions of those who are making the decisions, assuming that role conceptions are used to explain foreign policy decisions and behavior.

Whether or not there is broad consensus on national role conceptions is an empirical question. Cantir and Kaarbo’s (2016) volume illustrated that such broad consensus cannot be assumed to exist. The book also illustrated the value of case study research: the chapters presented careful process tracing to tease out the interaction between role conceptions, decision making, and foreign policy behavior. Other scholars have profitably used case studies as well. Maull (1990/1991) proposed that Germany and Japan had transformed themselves into “civilian powers” in the aftermath of World War II. Maull’s work questions the standard assumption that a state’s power is best understood in military terms—and thus broadens the understanding of how decision makers pursue their state’s interests. Beasley et al. (2016) exploited a unique historical moment in their discussion of role contestation in the debate over Scottish independence. In doing so, they demonstrated that role contestation is an aspect of the state formation process. Their study shares a kinship with Thies’ (2013) work on state socialization.

Relatedly, Wehner’s (2015) case study analysis shows that the role expectations of other states matter for national role conceptions as well. Wehner outlined the roles that decision makers in Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela attributed to Brazil, and how these role expectations came to shape Brazil’s conception of its own role. McCourt’s (2011, 2012) constructivist approach was related to the case study approach in terms of the manner in which it contributed to understanding of the intersection of agent and structure. That said, McCourt (2011, 2012) took a more interpretive and theoretical stance, as does Nabers’ (2011) analysis of the intersection between identity and role change. The last two authors represent an interpretive approach that uses narratives to represent the scholar’s assessment of the roles that guided decision makers. At this point, the interpretive and critical approach is still relatively new as a methodological approach to role theory in foreign policy analysis.

Taken together, the methodological pluralism of role theoretic approaches to the study of foreign policy has been beneficial: the various methodological strategies each present important advances and raise further questions. Frequently, the questions can be usefully addressed by studies employing different methodologies. The strength of role theory in foreign policy analysis and international relations has been the active engagement between scholars who employ very different methodologies but share a fundamental interest in role theory.

Role Theory Research in Foreign Policy

Role theory’s recent revitalization has led to greater engagement with the ideational aspects of foreign policy behavior. Harnisch (2011a), like Gaupp before him (1983), rightly criticized U.S.-based role theory scholars for their focus on structural versions of role theory. However, the renewed interest in actor-specific theory after the end of the cold war had already begun to generate different approaches to national role conceptions.

One example was Hudson’s (1999) attempt to establish whether citizens are able to identify their state’s role conceptions. Hudson found that their ability to do so varied across different types of issues. Interestingly, Hudson showed that “certain scenarios of long-standing national security concern elicited more homogeneous responses than did scenarios dealing with the new problems of the post-cold war world” (1999, p. 775). She concluded that citizens have greater difficulty identifying their state’s role in novel foreign policy situations than in more familiar foreign policy dilemmas.

Hudson’s (1999) findings suggested that national role conceptions may be rooted in identity and cultural heritage, but also that decision makers interpret cultural symbols. In doing so, decision makers choose to emphasize certain aspects of national heritage—and possibly reinterpret national symbols in new ways as times change. Citizens learn these templates as they observe their decision makers’ role enactment on the world stage (Breuning, 1997, 1998).

Maull (1990/1991) underscored the crucial role of decision makers. His study of Germany and Japan as civilian powers suggested that history is not destiny, but it also demonstrated that dramatic changes in national role conceptions occur only in response to key events in a state’s history. Germany and Japan shifted to their roles as civilian powers after World War II. For each country, the defeat in war and the influence of the allied powers made change possible. Both experienced the “selective screening and weeding out of old elites,” which may have made the dramatic shift in foreign policy orientation possible, as well as institutional reforms (Maull, 1990/1991, p. 94).

Maull (1990/1991) may have been the first to connect international orientation change (Hermann, 1990) with change in national role conceptions, which the literature had generally treated as enduring templates for action (Hudson, 1999). Role theory research in foreign policy analysis has most often investigated the way in which national role conceptions influence decision making. (This is evident in the discussion in the section “Role Continuity and Change.”) However, more recent work on role contestation—exemplified by Cantir and Kaarbo (2012, 2016)—investigates not only debates on national role conceptions between decision makers (horizontal role contestation), but also between decision makers and the public (vertical role contestation).

Role Continuity and Change

In both foreign policy analysis and role theory, the focus of inquiry has most often been either on “regularities and patterns of association” (Hermann, 1990, p. 20) or, conversely, on the wholesale restructuring of the state’s foreign policy (Auerbach, 1986; Gustavsson, 1999; Holsti, 1982). Several authors have criticized this emphasis on either continuity or fundamental change (Hagan, 1989a; Hagan & Rosati, 1994). Hermann’s (1990) fourfold classification of foreign policy change provided a nuanced approach. Hermann defined the most comprehensive foreign policy change as international orientation change, which involves a change in the state’s overall orientation toward international affairs. In addition to international orientation change, Hermann’s typology also included adjustment, program, and goal change. Adjustment change represents a modest change in a state’s foreign policy, in which the level of effort or the scope of a policy shifts. Program change is defined by the introduction of new instruments of statecraft. Whereas the first is merely a quantitative shift, program change involves a qualitative change. Goal change involves a change in the objectives of foreign policy. A state may abandon an objective it previously pursued, or substitute one goal for another. Last, international orientation change involves an all-encompassing redirection of a state’s foreign policy. However, Hermann (1990) did not address the relative frequency of the different types of foreign policy change. This has implications for the study of national role conceptions.

International orientation change is likely to be accompanied by a clear shift in a state’s national role conceptions, as shown by Maull (1990/1991). However, it is less clear whether adjustment, program, and goal change should be accompanied by changes in national role conceptions. Such smaller changes may accompany a more evolutionary shift in role conceptions, perhaps as the result of state socialization (Thies, 2013). Empirical evidence of international orientation change is likely easier to find. The smaller changes represented by adjustment, program, and goal change will be more difficult to identify empirically and require meticulous process tracing.

That said, change in national role conceptions is unlikely to occur randomly. Gustavsson (1999) drew on the public policy concept of policy windows in his effort to explain change in foreign policy behavior. He theorized that fundamental change is most likely when three factors are present: First, a change in the fundamental structural conditions, such as a change in the domestic or international system, creates an opening for change. Second, strategic political leadership that is willing and able to take advantage of that opening. Third, the existence of a national or international crisis heightens the perceived need to act (Gustavsson, 1999). It is an empirical question whether a confluence of these three factors is necessary for all types of foreign policy change, or only for international orientation change.

A number of authors have discussed foreign policy change (although not necessarily role change) as the result of international system change (Holsti, 1991; Holsti et al., 1980; Le Prestre, 1997). Others have focused on domestic factors, although they do not necessarily cast them only in terms of change in the domestic structure (Boyd & Hopple, 1987; Brunk & Minehart, 1984; Goldmann, 1988; Hagan, 1989a, 1989b, 1994; Moon, 1985; Rosenau, 1981; Skidmore, 1994; Smith, 1981). Yet another group of scholars emphasized the importance of decision makers and the decision-making process as the impetus for foreign policy change (Gustavsson, 1999; Hermann, 1990; Holsti et al., 1982).

Very few studies have investigated the connection between national role conceptions and foreign policy change. Exceptions are Chafetz et al. (1996) and Grossman (2005), who evaluated national role conceptions as the source of foreign policy change. Using empirical evidence from Belarus and the Ukraine, Chafetz et al. (1996) suggested that gradual change is normally most likely, stating that “States do not usually abandon role conceptions outright. Instead they slowly downgrade their centrality. Rapid shifts in role may, however, occur in states undergoing internal upheaval … or in new states” (1996, p. 736). Grossman’s (2005) work supported this contention. Grossman tracked changes in Russian role conceptions, as expressed by the country’s decision makers, through the 1990s and noted a shift away from cooperative to less cooperative (and more independent) role conceptions. He noted that these changes in role conceptions preceded changes in behavior. Grossman (2005) concluded that changes in the role conceptions expressed by the country’s decision makers are a useful tool in forecasting changes in behavior.

Collectively, these authors suggest that foreign policy change is contingent upon circumstances. However, few studies employ role theory in their inquiries. Hence, it is not yet clear whether changes in national role conceptions precede behavioral change, or whether behavioral change leads to changes in role conceptions. The few studies that do employ role theory in their investigations of foreign policy change derive their empirical evidence from time periods during which change should have been especially likely and particularly dramatic (Chafetz et al., 1996; Grossman, 2005; Maull, 1990/1991).

More empirical work is needed to tease out whether, and under what circumstances, role change precedes behavioral change. Are there cases in which behavioral change precedes role change? Or cases in which there is a more gradual adaptation through iterative interactions, perhaps along the lines suggested in Thies’ (2013) work on state socialization? Careful process tracing can deepen our understanding of the causes and effects of role conception change.

In addition, existing studies have done little to evaluate how changes in government intersect with changes in role conceptions. Nor has there been much attention paid to potential differences in role conception change in countries with elected versus authoritarian governments. Finally, are there cases in which changes in national role conceptions are resisted, either by others in the government or in the broader society? This last question is addressed in research on contested roles.

Multiple and Contested Roles

The adoption of a civilian power role by Germany and Japan, described by Maull (1990/1991) represents an unusual international orientation change. More frequently, role change results from a changing emphasis on various roles that were already part of the state’s repertoire, as was shown by Chafetz et al. (1996) and Grossman (2005). Yet, as Cantir and Kaarbo (2012, 2016) have pointed out, there has also been a tacit assumption in the literature that there is a national consensus on a state’s national role conception. They suggested that a profitable line of inquiry might be to ascertain empirically whether there is indeed broad consensus among foreign policy elites, and between elites and the broader domestic public. Cantir and Kaarbo (2012, 2016) defined the former as horizontal role contestation and the latter as vertical role contestation.

Any form of role contestation presumes that states have multiple roles, if not actively then at least potentially. Holsti recognized this, theorizing that the “policymakers of most states conceive of their state in terms of multiple sets of relationships and multiple roles and/or functions” (1970, p. 277). His empirical work supported this contention. He counted the number of roles expressed by the decision makers of various states. He used this measure to determine the average number of roles for different types of states. Holsti found differences between states in the number, specificity, and content of the roles expressed by the leaders of the various countries. States with more role conceptions also tended to have more specific role conceptions that suggest a more active role in international affairs, whereas states with fewer role conceptions tended toward a more vague expression of more passive roles (Holsti, 1970, p. 288).

Despite the initial recognition that most states will have multiple roles, there has been a tendency in the role conception literature to focus on a single prominent national role (Frank, 2011; Gottwald & Duggan, 2011; Krotz & Sperling, 2011; Maull, 1990/1991; Nabers, 2011; Thies, 2013; Walker, 1979, 1981; Wish, 1980, 1987). However, Walker observed that a more profitable strategy might be to investigate the “correlation of role conceptions and role enactment behaviors in a disaggregated form, by issue area, and longitudinally by nation and dyad” (Walker, 1979, p. 204).

Breuning (1995) heeded this call and theorized a set of role conceptions for one issue area, foreign aid and development cooperation, and evaluated empirically the relative presence in parliamentary debates of role conceptions specific to this issue area. This strategy helped to explain similarities and differences in the foreign aid policy behavior of the three states used in the study. More recently, Ingebritsen’s (2006) work on Sweden as a “norm entrepreneur” has focused specifically on Sweden’s role in development cooperation and global environmental issues. And Below (2015) used role theory to study the decision to ratify the Kyoto Protocol by several Latin American countries. Further, Hansel and Moller (2015) investigated the conflicting role conceptions of Indian decision makers regarding international humanitarian norms. Each of these studies focused on a single role and a single issue.

These studies usefully contribute to our understanding of how one of a state’s multiple roles contributes to foreign policy making in a specific issue area. However, such work cannot ascertain how a state’s role enactment in one issue area may impact on its role conception in another issue area. Nor can it explain more broadly how multiple roles intersect. Do a state’s multiple roles coexist comfortably? Or are they a source of role contestation, with decision makers vying to have a role associated with their portfolio occupy a major place in the state’s role set?

Cantir and Kaarbo’s (2012, 2016) work on role contestation began to address some of these questions. Their work built on studies that have sought to ascertain role conceptions by measuring the relative frequency of references by decision makers to various roles (Breuning, 1995; Chafetz et al., 1996; Grossman, 2005). These studies tend to assume that a higher frequency of mentions implies greater centrality of that role. However, such an assumption may not be warranted.

As Cantir and Kaarbo (2012, 2016) suggested, the fact that multiple roles are referenced in political debate indicates that there may not be a consensus among the decision makers regarding the state’s role. They defined debate among decision makers as horizontal role contestation. Building on Hudson’s (1999) work on citizens’ ability to perceive the state’s national role conceptions, they theorized that role contestation may also be vertical. That is, decision makers and the broader domestic public may have different conceptions of the state’s role in foreign policy. As such, Cantir and Kaarbo’s (2012, 2016) theoretical propositions took seriously the domestic sources of national role conceptions, although their framework recognized that international system structure influences domestic contestation. Özdamar (2016) showed that horizontal and vertical role contestation often occur simultaneously. However, this is not invariably the case, as was shown by Breuning (2016).

In sum, the notion of multiple and contested roles provides a fertile ground for further study. The same can be said of role theory more generally. Its core concepts sit at the intersection of agent and structure, and provide tools to grapple seriously with the impact of structure on agents’ beliefs and behavior, as well as the impact of agents’ actions on structural change.


The renewed interest in role theory research in foreign policy analysis is not surprising, given that role theory is uniquely positioned to grapple with the interaction between motivated agents—foreign policy decision makers—and the constraints imposed by domestic political institutions and the international system. Role theory will be especially helpful to scholars who seek to test their theories about foreign policy behavior using a broader array of state actors from across the globe, including small and global south states. The distinction between the material capacity to act and the normative (or ideational) desire to effect change in the international environment is likely to be especially relevant for such states.

Foreign policy analysis, especially among U.S. scholars, has long maintained a predominant focus on the United States and other powerful actors on the global stage. However, foreign policy analysts increasingly recognize that such a narrow focus on a skewed set of cases inhibits the broader theoretical development of the field (Breuning, 2007; Brummer & Hudson, 2015). Role theory offers tools for conceptualizing the scope of foreign policies that decision makers perceive as possible for their state to undertake. It is grounded in an understanding of decision makers’ perceptions, cognitions, and ideas about their state’s position in the world, and seeks to understand how these assessments guide foreign policy behavior. Most conventional theories of foreign policy analysis and international relations are rooted in either a material understanding of power or in ideational conceptions of international politics. Role theory offers a vehicle that not only permits scholars to differentiate the ideational and the material, but also allows them to theorize about the interaction between the two. It is the latter element, in particular, that sets role theory apart from conventional theories of international relations.

This ability of role theory to address the interaction between ideational and material aspects of international politics makes it uniquely suited to study a wide range of state actors. The leaders of smaller states, newer states, emerging powers, and states in the global south sometimes pursue foreign policies that are puzzling when considered only from the perspective of those states’ material capabilities. On other words, approaches that rely on theories that stress the importance of power (or the structure of the international system more broadly) cannot explain the norm entrepreneurship that drives some small states, nor can it account for historical experiences—such as colonialism—or the recent emergence of a state. Role theory offers conceptual tools to address such puzzles. Those same conceptual tools can also be used to theorize about foreign policy change.

Thies (2012, 2013) demonstrated this with his socialization game. He limited his framework to the socialization of new states into the international system, but the framework lends itself to further development to theorize about role change across time. Specifically, the socialization game might be adapted to study the interactive adjustments emerging powers—such as Brazil, China, and India—make to their roles on the global stage. Indeed, Wehner (2015, 2016) has used role theory to shed light on foreign policy relations between Latin American states, and Hansel and Moller (2015) have used role theory to understand India’s position regarding international humanitarian norms.

Cantir and Kaarbo’s (2012, 2016) focus on contested roles provides a complementary strand of research. Whereas Thies focused on the socialization of the state by external actors, Cantir and Kaarbo addressed the domestic debate about the state’s foreign policy role. In doing so, these scholars together posit that the trajectory of a state’s role on the world stage is not a foregone conclusion but instead the product of a multifaceted negotiation that includes both domestic contestation and international socialization.

Tracing socialization (internationally) and contestation (domestically) requires meticulously crafted case study analysis. Much more research is needed to further establish commonalities and differences across various cases of state socialization, as well as the numerous cases of role contestation. That said, it may also be useful to return to the objectives Holsti (1970) set out in his initial application of role theory to foreign policy analysis.

Holsti’s (1970) original effort to code roles for states was clear in its focus on the role conceptions of high-level decision makers. Holsti (1970) theorized that the national role conceptions of these decision makers were most likely to influence foreign policy behavior. While he sidestepped the possibility of domestic role contestation and did not use a sufficiently long timeframe to be able to observe role change, his study sought to identify national role conceptions in order to explain foreign policy behavior.

That is a project that may be worth revisiting. It would represent a substantial undertaking and could not succeed in the absence of the rich knowledge generated by case study analysis, but a dataset showing the number and kinds of role conceptions that guide decision makers, and that shows the changing emphasis on various roles across time, would permit a return to comparative analyses of larger numbers of countries. Although case studies of a single case or a small number of cases are valuable, studies that incorporate a broader sample of cases provide a broader comparative perspective regarding the relationship between role conceptions and foreign policy behavior. National role conceptions may not influence foreign policy behavior in all instances, but a better understanding of whether, when, and how role conceptions impact state foreign policy behavior would advance understanding of the dynamic relations between states, and the role contestation within states between decision makers, and between decision makers and the broader domestic audience.

Recent scholarship in international relations has begun to recognize that leaders matter (Chiozza & Goemans, 2011; Horowitz et al., 2015). However, this work is oddly divorced from advances made in foreign policy analysis. Dialogue between the international relations scholarship and foreign policy analysis would allow the former to make better progress in theorizing how and why leaders matter. The conceptual framework of role theory is especially promising as a tool to bridge between agent and structure, and foreign policy analysis and international relations.


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